Thursday, April 19, 2007


LOTS of Tom Dooley songs in this download, including a corny dixieland take and a modern Flintstones rockabilly number. One guy sounds like Tim Conway's Mr. Tudball with narration in a Swedish-German accent. Two others, Gus Backus and The Nilsen Brothers take it up a notch and sing in German. The more traditional (annoying) Appalachian moans with banjos and harmonicas, are well represented and there's the Lonnie Donegan skiffle take and even a macabre version from Macabre. For comic relief you also get a ribald Tom Crudely riff from the Smothers Brothers, who are greatly amused by the doings in "the internal triangle." That's a lot of Tom Dooley but...
Hang down your head and cry: there really was no such person as Tom Dooley.
The guy hanged in Wilkes County, North Carolina in the late 1860's was named Tom Dula. Next question, did he really deserve to die?
Some say yes. Some say no. Some say it doesn't matter and he's as dead as the folk music craze of 1958 that saw the Kingston Trio ride the murder ballad to the top of the charts.
The main fact of the case. Laura Foster was found dead.
The suspects were narrowed to ex-Rebel soldier Tom Dula and Laura's cousin, Anne Foster Melton. It was whispered that Laura and Tom Dula had been an item, and then he started in with Laura's married cousin! The "eternal triangle" was a man and two women. OK, now make that ONE woman.
Weeks after Laura Foster was found in a shallow grave, the trail led to the home of Col. James Grayson, a politician who had hired Tom for some menial jobs around his farm. Tom was nowhere to be found, but with Grayson joining the posse and knowing the likely route Tom would have taken, it wasn't long before the fugitive was tracked down. Grayson arrested Tom (even though he wasn't technically a sheriff) and kept the posse from inflicting vigilante justice. Anne Melton was implicated but not tried, and Tom insisted neither of them were to blame for Laura's death. So who then? Some feverish day worker or "citizen above suspicion" who killed Laura when his advances were spurned? Tom's defense team didn't seem to have a clue.

Tom was tried and convicted. He won an appeal and was convicted again. Supposedly his last words on the gallows were: "Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head."
The tale of "Tom Dooley" was quickly spun into a folk song. One thing about the great "folk tradition" is that it encourages lies. The song just gets better and better the more you embellish it. The truth gets lost in the shuffle. One version of the Dooley legend has it that Tom got a venereal disease from Laura Foster, and then infected Ann Melton. So...she kills Laura? Not Tom? In this story, Sheriff Grayson (demoted from Colonel) ends up marrying Ann, who later confesses to the crime on her deathbed. Oh yes, and Grayson would marry a woman who has a venereal disease incurable at the time.
Another lovely version has school teacher "Bob Grayson" falling in love with Laura, and being the detective who not only finds Laura's body but Ann's handkerchief clumsily left in the shallow grave. Why she wouldn't be arrested and tried is not addressed. And on it goes. Fortunately there were some professionals involved, like the doctor who said Laura was not pregnant nor abused (even when squashed into that hastily dug four foot long grave) and trial reports survive to remove some of the wilder suppositions.
As you see, the only surviving photo of a participant is Col. Grayson. The grave of Tom Dula still exists, but people have taken some chips off that old block.
Tom himself has been portrayed as everything from a dashing, handsome soldier, to a grinning hillbilly idiot who rode to the gallows sitting on what was to be his coffin and playing the banjo, and declaring to his executioner, "I would have washed my neck if I had known you were using such a nice clean rope!"
Considering this is an 1860's story that wasn't covered that much or that well in the local papers, and nobody's sure how Dula pronounced his name, and that even the date of Dula's hanging has been variously printed as 1868 and 1869, it's not surprising that there's been so much embellishment and confusion.
The first duo to record the tune, in 1929 for Victor, was Grayson and Whitter. And yes, Gillam Grayson was a nephew of Colonel Grayson. The song kicked around for a decade, and was a favorite of Frank Proffitt, who shared it with singer and Appalachian folk-scholar Frank Warner, who helped place "Tom Dula" in the Alan Lomax anthology "Folk Song USA" in 1947. In 1958 the The Kingston Trio plucked it from the Lomax book and had a surprise hit single with "The Ballad of Tom Dooley." The song ignited the "folk boom" (1958-1963) most likely because it also melded folk with doo-wop (as you can hear on the goofy well-ah well-ah refrain). The message fit in with the spirit of Disney justice in balladeering: "Poor boy you're bound to...DIE!"
Once the song the Trio got from the Lomax book was a hit, they were taken to court where Mr. Proffitt (pardon the pun) who had given the song to Alan Lomax successfully proved it wasn't a public domain old folk piece but a family-owned gem. Or as the judge could've told the Trio's leader Dave Guard, "Hang down your head and pay."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a song that we recorded in the Jim Thorpe PA jail in the solitary confinement area. I do not recognize the language or the lyrics. I thought it was Gaelic, but experts can't identify it as such. Is there anyone out there who is willing to give the song a listen? My email address is DENISE_BDJ@YAHOO.COM.