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.