Sixty-four years ago, the number one song in the nation was a simple thing sung by the Kingston Trio. It was called “Tom Dooley.” The performance, coming at the height of the great folk scare of the 1950s and early 60s, began with Bob Shane’s banjo riff, played on a plectrum banjo like — maybe the same as — the one I have upstairs in the banjo locker.
Having always known that there was some truth to the song, I recently began to research it and discovered that the story is far richer and deeper than the pared-and-polished version that was a hit in 1958. That distillation tells us that the singer/subject met a girl on a mountain, stabbed her, and now is unhappy because tomorrow he’ll hang in a valley from a white oak tree. The spoken introduction is wrong in just about every detail, and the song itself has a mysterious past.
Let’s deal with the actual incident first. Tom Dula and the others in the tale lived a hardscrabble, almost feral life in Wilkes County, North Carolina in the early and middle 1800s. A precocious lad, at age 13 he would sometimes be found in the bed of one Ann Foster, two years older. No one was sure who Ann’s father was, which was common at the time and scarcely even remarked upon. Ann went on to marry the much older James Melton, which apparently had no effect on her welcoming Tom into her bed.
In due course the Civil War began, and Tom became a Confederate soldier. A skilled fiddle and banjo player, Tom was popular among his fellow soldiers. He got captured and spent the rest of the war in a Union prison camp. Upon his release he returned to Wilkes County, where he resumed his dalliances with Ann but broadened his scope to include among others Ann’s cousin Pauline Foster, visiting from Elkville, North Carolina, apparently to receive treatment for syphilis. Which she passed to Tom, who passed it along to Ann. Tom was reportedly angry about it, but this didn’t prevent his conjugal relations with another of Ann’s relatives, Laura Foster, with whom he spent time when neither of the other two was available.
There and then, names ending in -a were pronounced as if the ended in -ie, a regional practice that persists in some parts of the country today. I know a family local to me to whom that pronunciation applies. I mention this because that’s how Tom Dula became “Tom Dooley,” and Laura Foster, “Laurie Foster” in song and story.
The discussion and debate about Tom, Laura, Ann, Pauline, and the other characters involved remain alive today in that part of western North Carolina. Details and opinions have been passed down in families through generations, and there’s practically no one who hasn’t “heared tell” of one version or another. In Alan Lomax’s 1991 documentary “Appalachian Journey,” Frank Proffitt Jr. described the one point of agreement on the relationships among the characters in the story: “I don’t think none of them had the morals of an alley cat.” Said another fellow from a long-time-local family, “He tooken it on himself . . . the other woman is what done it. Tom Dula really didn’t kill her, but he took the raft on himself.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For some reason, one night Laura Foster left her home and disappeared. There was a bit of a search for her, though her father seemed interested primarily in recovering his horse, which had disappeared with her. After several months, either Pauline or Ann led the authorities, such as they were, to the place where the body of Laura Foster, much the worse for having spent a few months in a shallow grave in the North Carolina hills, was found.
I have to leave out many, many details, but ultimately Ann and Tom got arrested for the murder of Laura. Tom insisted that he didn’t do it but most especially Ann didn’t do it and ultimately Ann was set free.
There were multiple trials, all of them pieces on the political chessboard of reconstruction-era North Carolina. New York newspapers sent reporters, which is odd when you consider that the case would have been seen as intramural murder among white trash hillbillies, as expected and probably deserved.
Anyway, the afternoon — not sunrise! — of May 1, 1868 Tom Dula was hanged, not from a white oak tree in some lonesome valley but from a makeshift gallows in the city of Statesville, Iredell County, North Carolina. According to news reports from the time (then, as now, suspect, but they’re all we have), when offered the opportunity to state his last words, Tom spoke for many minutes, largely about politics. He never confessed to killing Laura, but he did say that Ann had nothing to do with it. (On her deathbed a few years later Ann, who didn’t realize it was her deathbed, said that at the end she would tell a terrible truth, but death intervened so she apparently never did.) Tom was launched into eternity not from a proper gallows with a drop designed to break the neck, but from the back of a wagon two feet off the ground, so he just hung there strangling for a while, until he was dead. Witnesses said he didn’t squirm or struggle, which I suppose says something about him. His sister and her husband took his body away in the back of a wagon. He got buried in a field back in the hills.
In my estimation, despite the several books and terrible movie (starring Michael Landon as Tom!), the best account of the case was done by Jan Kronsell (whom I believe lives in Denmark but got fascinated with the case), who arrives at a conclusion (Laura was killed by her father because she took his horse) that I don’t think is likely. But the research seems impeccable.
Folk music has for a thousand years been how people of limited means and technology passed history from generation to generation. That was true in medieval Europe and England and it continues in the hills of the southeastern U.S., whose ancestors migrated from Scotland, Ireland, and England, mostly. A hotly debated story, the murder of Laura Foster and the hanging of Tom Dula for it, was bound to be saved in song, and it was. But it was nothing like the polished, citified Kingston Trio version, cool banjo opening notwithstanding.
But even the genesis of the song is mysterious. The Official Story, as told by the Official Folk Song Documentarians, is that some of the several New York music archivists who visited the area, met Frank Proffitt, a singer and banjo player whose son is quoted above, in 1938, and he played a Tom Dooley song on two-finger banjo for them, which they recorded. Its lyrics run like this: “Hang your head, Tom Dula, hang your head and cry, killed poor Laura Foster, now you’re bound to die.”
It also has “Hadn’ta been for Grayson, I’da been in Tennessee.” Here’s where it starts to get weird. In the researched story, the only Grayson involved was a farmer in Tennessee for whom Tom worked for a while between Laura’s death and his arrest, a man who played no significant role in the case. Ah, but then there’s this: while Proffitt is credited with introducing the song, there’s a 1929 recording of it, Victor V-40235-B, sung by “Grayson and Whittier,” with songwriting credit going to “G.B. Grayson.” (Gilliam Banmon Grayson, who died a year after the record’s release, was a fairly influential songwriter at the time, and his music has been adapted by some famous performers.) It’s claimed that the Grayson in the song is the uncle of the songwriter, which might explain his elevation in the pecking order of the significant characters in the case. In any case, if the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey had a record of the song out in 1929, it can’t very well have been introduced to the world by Frank Proffitt in 1938, can it?
There are multiple versions of the lyrics, perhaps attesting to the age of the original song but also demonstrating the tendency of folk singers to depart from the one firm rule of the ancient balladeers by changing the lyrics to fit their tastes. From the Grayson & Whittier version:
You took her on the hillside, as God Almighty knows
You took her on the hillside and there you hid her clothes
You took her by the roadside where you begged to be excused
You took her by the roadside where there you hid her shoes
You took her on the hillside to make her your wife
You took her on the hillside where there you took her life
Take down my old violin and play it as you please
This time tomorrow it’ll be no use to me
I dug a grave four feet long, I dug it three feet deep
Poured the cold clay o’er her and stomped it with my feet
This world and one more, where you reckon I’ll be?
Hadn’ta been for Grayson, I’da been in Tennessee
Hang your head, Tom Dooley, hang your head and cry
You killed poor Laura Foster, you know you’re bound to die
This version came within living memory, or at least close to it, of the case itself. It is one-sided, but nobody said that folk songs ought to be fair. The physical description of the grave is fairly accurate, though the details about clothing and shoes seem to be innovations. The official record had her clothing in the grave with her. I got the impression that the songwriter didn’t know a lot of words, so he tailored the story to the ones he knew that rhymed. (This is a guess, though, it does tend to explain the idea that one could get married on a hillside in the dark of night with no one else present and, surprised that one couldn’t, decide to commit murder instead, before or after setting the course for a clothing scavenger hunt. Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but still.)
I’ve come to think that the Grayson version is the one from which all the others are derived. While Proffitt had the white oak tree. He also got into the garment issue:
You met her on the mountain, it was there I suppose
There you went and killed her and then you hid her clothes
And later he changed the instrument (Grayson was a fiddler; Proffitt played banjo).
I’ll take down my banjer, I’ll pick it on my knee
By this time tomorrow, it’ll be no use to me
There are other versions, none of which much departs from Proffitt’s. The Kingston Trio version while musically very nice is by far the worst at telling the story, and storytelling is the whole idea of folk music.
I think it’s all very interesting. I may be alone in this. Even so, now I’m at work updating the song with the actual known details. I have every reason to believe it will become definitive and bring me the riches and fame I don’t especially deserve.
If I can just pare it down to under six hours.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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