Appalachian Murder Ballads

Murder ballads in appalachia

Tom Dooley is a song I’ve heard all my life, I even used to be able to play it on the piano. It’s one of those sad down right mean songs about a horrible act-that still seems to draw me in for some reason.

Appalachia abounds with lonesome sadistic songs about killing-almost always a girl. Some of the songs insinuate the girl broke a sacred trust. Most of the songs end with the killer getting what he deserves. I’ve often wondered why I like such songs. This genre of music is called murder ballads.

Many murder ballads came across the big pond with folks who were coming to the new world to make a better life. The sheer number of the songs and the longevity of them show I’m not alone in my strange attraction.

I’m not sure if I like the songs because of a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I”, morbid fascination with death, or the satisfaction of knowing the troubles I have in my life seem minor compared to the story told in the song. Maybe it’s because while I’m listening I can vicariously live out a range of emotions-fear, outrage, despair, and then when the song is over I get to go back to the sunshine.

While researching the story behind Tom Dooley  I found some interesting information.

  • His real name was Tom Dula. The y sound was added in the way other Appalachian words have y’s added like extry for extra.
  • Dooley was a confederate solider who survived the war-although 2 of his brothers did not.
  • Dooley was a fiddle player.
  • The motive for the killing of little Laurie Foster resulted from a bizarre love triangle which included 2 of Laurie Foster’s cousins.
  • Both Dooley and Ann Foster Melton (one of the cousins) were charged with the murder of Laurie Foster.
  • Right before Dooley was hung he gave his lawyer a written statement, which stated he was the only person responsible for the death of Laurie Foster.
  • The Kingston Trio released a version of Tom Dooley in 1958.
  • The trio won the first Grammy ever awarded to a country/western act.
  • Popularity of the song led to guitars outselling pianos in 1963-for the first time ever.
  • There are some folks who believe Dooley was never hung-that at the last minute a vagrant, whose face was hid beneath a hood, was hung instead.

As with most murder ballads there are several versions of the song Tom Dooley . The version that was made popular by the Kingston Trio was credited to Frank Proffitt who was a NC farmer as well as a musician. A couple of song collectors visited Proffitt in 1938 ensuring the song would be spread to a greater audience than the one in the mountains of NC.

For more information on the history of Tom Dooley check out The Daily Yonder-The Murder that sold 10,000 guitars.

For this weeks Pickin’ and Grinnin’ Tom Dooley.

I hope you enjoyed Pap and Paul’s version of the song. As you can see from the age of my nephews, the video was filmed way back in 2008 when I first started the Blind Pig and The Acorn.

I’ll share a few other murder ballads with you in the next few picking and grinning sessions. As I said at the beginning of this post, the songs are not for the faint of heart and I’m unable to articulate why I like them so much, but I do.

Tipper

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Dale Drawbond
    November 3, 2018 at 9:43 am

    For some reason murder ballads are attractive. Having grown up on the Great Plains I’d never heard them until fall of ’78 while in Ohio I heard the song “On the banks of the Ohio”. Never forgot it.

  • Reply
    Melissa P (misplaced Southerner)
    October 10, 2016 at 11:28 am

    The story of Mary Phagan is, indeed, true. She was buried in a cemetery not far from where I used to live. Terrible story of a 14-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered in the basement of the pencil factory where she worked. Her supervisor was thought to be the guilty party and was lynched. There are still conflicting stories as to whether or not he was guilty (and whether or not religion played any part).

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    October 9, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    I attended a seminar with Sharyn McCrumb when the book was released. While I don’t buy into her version of the story (and hers is fiction, after all) the afternoon was fascinating as we visited the sites in the story. I heard Frank Proffit’s version for the first time about 20 years ago, and love it. Pap and Paul do the song beautifully!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 9, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    As printed in the Lenoir Topic, March 24, 1886. In 1884, a Morganton newspaper printed this version of Frankie Silver’s last words.
    Frankie was hanged in Morganton, NC on July 12th of 1833 and is buried in Giles-Devault Farm Burial Ground in Western Burke County about 2 miles from where my daughter and grandsons live. She was supposed to have sung this from the gallows just before the trap door opened.
    The Ballad of Frankie Silver
    This dreadful, dark and dismal day
    Has swept my glories all away,
    My sun goes down, my days are past,
    And I must leave this world at last.
    Oh! Lord, what will become of me?
    I am condemned you all now see,
    To heaven or hell my soul must fly
    All in a moment when I die.
    Judge Daniel has my sentence pass’d,
    Those prison walls I leave at last,
    Nothing to cheer my drooping head
    Until I’m numbered with the dead.
    But oh! that Dreadful Judge I fear;
    Shall I that awful sentence hear:
    “Depart ye cursed down to hell
    And forever there to dwell”?
    I know that frightful ghosts I’ll see
    Gnawing their flesh in misery,
    And then and there attended be
    For murder in the first degree.
    There shall I meet that mournful face
    Whose blood I spilled upon this place;
    With flaming eyes to me he’ll say,
    “Why did you take my life away?”
    His feeble hands fell gently down,
    His chattering tongue soon lost its sound,
    To see his soul and body part
    It strikes with terror to my heart.
    I took his blooming days away,
    Left him no time to God to pray,
    And if his sins fall on his head
    Must I not bear them in his stead?
    The jealous thought that first gave strife
    To make me take my husband’s life,
    For months and days I spent my time
    Thinking how to commit the crime.
    And on a dark and doleful night
    I put his body out of sight,
    With flames I tried him to consume,
    But time would not admit it done.
    You all see me and on me gaze,
    Be careful how you spend your days,
    And never commit this awful crime,
    But try to serve your God in time.
    My mind on solemn subjects roll;
    My little child, God bless its soul!
    All you that are of Adam’s race,
    Let not my faults this child disgrace.
    Farewell good people you all now see
    What my bad conduct’s brought on me—
    To die of shame and disgrace
    Before this world of human race.
    Awful indeed to think on my death,
    In perfect health to lose my breath.
    Farewell, my friend, I bid adieu.
    Vengeance on me must now pursue.
    Great God, how shall I be forgiven?
    Not fit for earth, not fit for heaven;
    But little time to pray to God,
    For now I try that awful road.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 9, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    Two adjustable elbows – one male union to connect female to female joints – one rusted out, what looks like maybe an adapter to a clay or terra cotta flue liner. All hanging on a limb of a poor hunched over dogwood tree.
    The picture kinda reminds me of me. Old and almost rusted away but still hanging together.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    October 9, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    I enjoyed Pap & Paul’s rendition of one of my favorite ballads while in college. I think one thing that helped make the Ballad of Tom Dooley so popular was the fact that the former NC Governor Zeb Vance, a very popular politician, served as Tom Dula’s defense counsel and though the jury convicted Tom and he was convicted again after he won a re-trial on appeal it is alleged that Gov. Vance professed Tom’s innocence the rest of his life.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 9, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Problee the reason you are so fascinated by these morbid ballads is because you were either a culprit or a victim in a former life.
    There seems to be a bit of controversy over who actually wrote the ballad “Tom Dooley.” Frank Proffitt claimed he learnt it from his grandmother who told him she witnessed Tom singing it as he rode atop his coffin on the way to the gallows. So if the truth be known, Tom Dooley might have composed his own requiem.

  • Reply
    Jackie
    October 9, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    In the early years of our nation few people could read. The songs/ballads were a way of getting the word out about happenings. Many of them were adapted from other songs that came form the other side of the big pond. (The Knoxville Girl is one example.)

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    October 9, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Thanks, Candy! I had Sharyn McCrumb running through my head while reading the Pig but couldn’t come up with her name and the book titles. All her books are good and I have several of them. I’ve just about run out of new books to read so I think I’ll reread hers.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    October 9, 2016 at 10:02 am

    I remember the ballad of Tom Dooley well. It had such a catchy tune. I learned to play it on my band clarinet, and proceeded to get in trouble for playing it on the school bus. Apparently the bus driver didn’t like my version. 🙂 Love hearing it by Pap and Steve.
    Tipper, there is just nothing so heart wrenching as the murder of a young person. We, as humans, feel we need to immortalize them in some way. What better way to tell the story than in poem or song. Our family has always been aware of a great uncle who was murdered in 1927. He was such a handsome man with a wife and small child. I was obsessed by the tragedy, and to this day still hang on to any new information found on Ancestry. McKinley is always remembered by his family!
    Oddly enough I just printed off his death certificate last night from a WV site of records. I, of course, don’t think about him constantly, but any time the subject comes up it is as if there is renewed interest. I somehow felt he wanted me to get the facts out. There was an overwhelming mission to let everybody know how tragic this was even after all these years. The only way I could actually come to terms with such a needless death was to write a poem about the loss to his family. My uncle added it to his huge book of family history, and I added it to his lookup on Ancestry. Another uncle recently bought a marker for his grave which had only been marked by a fieldstone.

  • Reply
    Brian P. Blake
    October 9, 2016 at 9:36 am

    “Tom Dooley” is a classic; I played and replayed it into the wee hours while studying at college in the 1960s. These mournful tales go back to late medieval times. One of my favorites is the “Ballad of Lord Randall,” a lament in the romantic mode of “Barbara Allan,” dating from the unsettled decades of the Hundred-Year War enlivened by the Great Plague and the Peasants’ Revolt. Sir John Randall, 1374-1405, Lord of the Manor of Spennithorne, North Riding, Yorkshire, England was beheaded at age twenty-nine on 20 July 1405 for participating in Percy’s Rebellion against King Henry IV.
    “O where ha’ you been, Lord Randall, my son?
    And where ha’ you been, my handsome young man?”
    “I ha’ been at the greenwood, mother, mak’ my bed soon,
    For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wad’ lie doon.”
    Cast as a love story in which Sir John has been poisoned by his lady-love, this haunting, anonymous folk song of the Scots-English borderlands is a discreet allegory for young Lord Randall’s treason and execution. Sir John of the North Country has not been hunting in the greenwood. He has been wounded fighting in the rebellion, betrayed by the lost cause of the Percys, and the King’s Men are coming to take him away.
    A wonderful version of “Lord Randall” is on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2I6aRh9LOQ.

  • Reply
    Bob Dalsemer
    October 9, 2016 at 9:07 am

    As with all the songs they sung together, Paul and Pap make this their own. I love their arrangement! (Your nephew is more interested in watching the tennis match on TV.)

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    October 9, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Perhaps part of the love-hate is that life has tragedy for us all and to live well requires facing that fact. Proverbs has the idea that it is better to go to a wake than a party because we need to be reminded of our own mortality.
    Would that we each understood ourselves better, not as an obsession but as a way to regulate ourselves and treat others well. Seems totake a lifetime to learn how to live one.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    October 9, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Tom Dooley is a staple. I think every Appalachian boy I knew growing up could play a version. It was the first song I learned to play on the guitar. I’ve been listening to the Doc Watson version lately.
    You had a post a while back about the all seeing eye and that has had me thinking about all the murder ballads and haint stories we have. It has got me thinking about these narratives as cautionary tales.
    I always like to start my day with a mind opening excercise from the Blind Pig!
    PS: I knew a Navajo guy named Tom Dooley!

  • Reply
    e
    October 9, 2016 at 8:29 am

    I am so, so glad you have this recording of Pap, Paul and your nephews playing this old ballad, “Tom Dooley.” It had been a long time since I had heard it, or thought about it. I, too, like ballads. My favorite poet, my neighbor in Choestoe, the late Byron Herbert Reece, had a wonderful way with words. His first published book of poems (with him as the sole poet) was “Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems” which Dutton of New York published in 1945. The title piece and major poem in that book of course is “Ballad of the Bones.” Some have set it to music, and sometimes when venues of mountain musicians or folk musicians are on schedule to appear at The Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center about 9 miles south of Blairsville at the old Reece farm that is now on the “Southern Literary Trails” places to see, some of Reece’s ballads may be performed. My son, Keith Jones, now serves as president of the Byron Herbert Reece Society, is partly responsible for planning and scheduling programs at the venue. The Reece Center is open Thursdays-Sundays from the first of May through the end of November. I suggest, Tipper, that you contact Keith to see if the Pressley Girls might be scheduled to appear there. And I think they would like Reece’s ballads (and so would you!). Do you have any of the four books of Reece’s poetry? And do you have a copy of his biography by Dr. Raymond Cook entitled “Mountain Singer”? I think you would enjoy reading them. I know you would like Reece’s ballads! So enjoyed hearing “Tom Dooley” today!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    October 9, 2016 at 8:16 am

    I have read and own both books by Sharon McCrumb. She is one of my favorites. Love this song by Pap and Paul. Hauntly beautiful.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    October 9, 2016 at 8:06 am

    Tipper: Your post was very informative. Every time this KILLING subject comes up, I recall my mother singing “Little Mary Faghan” which scared us big time! It was a true story – I think. But I have forgotten the details. But I’ll be you know the details!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Candy Davis
    October 9, 2016 at 6:50 am

    I enjoyed listening to Pap and Paul singing this ballad. I remember listening to the Kingston Trio singing Tom Dooley when I was a young girl, but I had no idea at the time the song was based on a true story, nor that it sparked such an interest in guitars. I guess that folk ballad changed the course of popular music!
    There is a wonderful novel written by Sharyn McCrumb, The Ballad of Tom Dooley, that gives a very historical account of the event, even though the story is fictional. She researched the murder thoroughly and came up with a different conclusion of guilt based on her findings. Another book she wrote about a real murder in North Carolina is The Ballad of Frankie Silver. I don’t know if a song was written about that murder, but it would make a good one!

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