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"Tom Dooley" is an old North Carolina folk song based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County, North Carolina. It is best known today because of a hit version recorded in 1958 by The Kingston Trio. This version was a multi-format hit, reaching #1 in Billboard, the Billboard R&B listing, and appearing in the Cashbox country music top 20. It fits within the wider genre of Appalachian "sweetheart murder ballads".
In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), folklorist Alan Lomax describes Frank Proffitt as the "original source" for the song. Although there are several earlier known recordings, notably the one by Grayson and Whitter made in 1929, approximately 10 years before Proffitt cut his own recording, the Kingston Trio took their version from Frank Warner's singing. Warner had learned the song from Proffitt, who learned it from his Aunt Nancy Prather, whose parents had known both Laura Foster and Tom Dula.
In 1866, Laura Foster was murdered. Impoverished Confederate veteran Tom Dula (Dooley), Foster's lover and probable fiancé, was convicted of her murder and hanged May 1, 1868. Foster was stabbed to death with a large knife; the brutality of the attack partly accounted for the widespread publicity the murder and subsequent trial received.
Dula had a lover, prior to his leaving for the war, named Anne Melton, a cousin of Foster. Her comments led to the discovery of Foster's body, but Melton was acquitted in a separate trial based on Dula's word. Dula's enigmatic statement on the gallows that he had not harmed Foster but still deserved his punishment led to press speculation that Melton was the actual killer and that Dula simply covered for her. Melton, who had once expressed jealousy of Dula's purported plans to marry Foster, died insane a few years after the homicide. Thanks to the efforts of newspapers such as The New York Times, and to the fact that former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance represented Dula pro bono, Dula's murder trial and hanging were given widespread national publicity. A local poet, Thomas C. Land, wrote a popular song about Dula's tragedy after the hanging.
A man named "Grayson," mentioned in the song as pivotal in Dula's downfall, has sometimes been characterized as a romantic rival of Dula's or a vengeful sheriff who captured him and presided over his hanging. Some variant lyrics of the song portray Grayson in that light, and the spoken introduction to the Kingston Trio version did the same. Col. James Grayson was actually a Tennessee politician who had hired Dula on his farm when the young man fled North Carolina under suspicion and was using a false name. Grayson did help North Carolinians capture Dula and was involved in returning him to North Carolina, but otherwise played no role in the case.
Dula was tried in Statesville, because it was believed he could not get a fair trial in Wilkes County. He was given a new trial on appeal but he was again convicted, and hanged on May 1, 1868. His alleged accomplice, Jack Keaton, was set free. On the gallows, Dula reportedly stated, "Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head."
Dula's last name was pronounced "Dooley," leading to some confusion in spelling over the years. The pronunciation of a final "a" like "y" is an old feature in Appalachian speech, as in the term "Grand Ole Opry". The confusion was compounded by the fact that Dr. Tom Dooley, an American physician known for international humanitarian work, was at the height of his fame in 1958, when the Kingston Trio version became a major hit.
The doleful ballad was first sung shortly after the execution and is still commonly sung in North Carolina.
Several notable recordings have been made:
Tom Dooley prompted a number of parodies, either as part of other songs (for example, Ella Fitzgerald drops an altered line from the song into a recording of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) or as entire songs, including one called Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Your Tie's Caught In Your Zipper by the Incredible Bongo Band in 1972.
The song and legend were parodied by a one-record novelty act called Waldo, Dudley and Dora on a 45 rpm Grayson Goofed, issued as Awful Records release #PU-1. Verses sung to the Tom Dooley melody alternate with mini-skits, as "John" Grayson's public reputation erodes from "a fine man" to "a stoolie" (i.e., stool pigeon) to "a gink".
The song was often parodied by the Smothers Brothers as Tom Crudely.
It has been parodied or used in many television shows, including:
For Capitol Records 45 rpm Release #F4049 By The Kingston Trio
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"It's Only Make Believe"
by Conway Twitty
|Billboard Hot 100 number-one single|
November 17, 1958 - November 23, 1958 (1 week)
"To Know Him Is to Love Him"
by The Teddy Bears
The Kingston Trio hit inspired the film, The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959), starring Michael Landon, co-starring Richard Rust. A Western set after the Civil War, it was not about traditional Tom Dula legends or the facts of the case, but a fictional treatment tailored to fit the lyrics of the song.