Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley

stove pipe in tree

A few weeks ago I asked for requests for the Pickin’ & Grinnin’ In The Kitchen Spot. Today I’m going to share our first request- Carolyn A requested Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.

Tom Dooley is a song I’ve heard all my life, I can even 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. The sheer number of those songs and the popularity of them show I’m not alone in my strange attraction.

I’m not sure if the draw comes from a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I”, morbid fascination about death, or the satisfaction of knowing someone’s life is worse than mine. Maybe it’s because while I’m listening-I can vicariously live out a range of emotions-fear, outrage, despair, -then when the song is over, I get to go back to the sunshine.

As I began to research the story behind Tom Dooley I found some interesting info.

  • His real name was Tom Dula. The y sound being added in the way other Appalachian words have y’s added (extry for extra, opery for opera, sorty for sorta.)
  • 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 their 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 many different versions of the song which is typical of any song dating back to the 1800s.
  • 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. Leaving Dooley to live a long life.

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’ Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.

Hope you enjoyed the song. Have you heard Tom Dooley before? Or do you have another sad lonesome song from Appalachia that you like? Leave me a comment I’d love to hear about it.


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  • Reply
    Paul Certo
    November 30, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    I’ve been looking for an archived article from The New York Times, but haven’t been able to find it. Here’s something else that popped up.

  • Reply
    Paul Certo
    November 28, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    According to Alan Lomax’ “The Folk Songs Of North America”, Tom was engaged to marry Laura Foster when Ann Melton convinced him to drop Laura, but Tom later realized he had “caught a disease” from Laura, and he and possible Ann, decided to kill Laura. Ann was acquitted of any part in the murder, but there will always be differences of opinion on any court procedure. There are newspaper accounts on file about the crime and the trial. Much of the Lomax account is taken from what passed down in oral tradition, and may or may not match the newspaper accounts of the time. I haven’t yet located archived news stories, but here’s a Wikipedia article.

  • Reply
    August 15, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    i play old time and irish music and was told by a fellow player that tom dooley, as well as many other american folk songs were celtic. the ancient melodies were brought by immigrants and words put tothem in this you know anything about the history of the melody?

  • Reply
    Farm Chick Paula
    August 8, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    I think the first time I heard the song was on a Doc Watson record my Daddy had when I was little.
    I too, love death and destruction songs…. I remember as a child being fascinated by stories my Mammaw would tell of people in the community and how they died, and how they used to have a “watch” (or “sitting up with the dead”)in the persons’ home, sometimes all night. So I guess the morbid tendency is bred into us!! LOL
    By the way, have you ever heard the “Lighthouse’s Tale” from Nickel Creek’s first CD? You MUST hear it. Very depressing. (I love it. LOL)

  • Reply
    Razor Family Farms
    August 6, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    My mother used to sing that song to me as a child on road trips. My gosh, I haven’t thought of it in years. I started singing it to myself while I read your post and was so surprised that I remembered every word. And then I thought — I would never sing that to a five year old.

  • Reply
    August 6, 2008 at 10:28 am

    Tom Dooley was one of my Mom’s favorite songs. She sang it all the time and had the Kingston Trio’s album. Thanks so much for the history of the song. Really intresting!

  • Reply
    August 5, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    I love interesting, educational posts. This certainly fits the bill. I never knew any of that stuff!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 5, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Your the best!!
    Great old song, don’t believe I’ve heard it this way before. The guys did a great job.
    Your research on the song is remarkable and yes you are correct we have lots of tragic old ballads here in the mountains. I believe Sharon McCrumb has written a couple of novels from old ballads.
    Hope your birthday is a special day! Lots of love to you!

  • Reply
    Mark Salinas
    August 5, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Song is familiar, didn’t know the story. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    August 5, 2008 at 11:09 am

    love the song and the post . this was really a learning experience. i never knew all of that before. i too have the same odd fascinations. perhaps it’s the unknown that is so intriguing?

  • Reply
    August 5, 2008 at 9:52 am

    i remember when that song came out…ouch…me and mark do “ellen smith” and “long black veil” althou they are not among his favorites.

  • Reply
    August 4, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Tom Dooley is one of the farthest back in my memory songs that I have. I can remember as a very young tot in Oklahoma hearing my dad sing that song.

  • Reply
    Jennifer in OR
    August 4, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Great job, guys, on the song! I didn’t know the morose story behind the song. Tom Dula sounds like a real piece of work–I hate to say, but he had it coming. Too bad Ann didn’t get her due. I know, I know, that sounds awful, but guaranteed Ann played a part in the murder.

  • Reply
    August 4, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks for the music! I once heard Doc Watson sing a version that I loved! Tom Dooley is a pretty famous story, and I think there were quite a few songs written about it over the years, not just the Kingston Trio version.
    By the way, I nominated you for an award, if you do that sort of thing. And I just received my copy of Now&Then, a wonderful Appalachian heritage magazine put out by the Center for Appalachian Studies at ETSU. Didn’t know if you had heard of it before, but I thought you might be interested.

  • Reply
    August 4, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Thanks for the music! I once heard Doc Watson sing a version that I loved! Tom Dooley is a pretty famous story, and I think there were quite a few songs written about it over the years, not just the Kingston Trio version.
    By the way, I nominated you for an award, if you do that sort of thing. And I just received my copy of Now&Then, a wonderful Appalachian heritage magazine put out by the Center for Appalachian Studies at ETSU. Didn’t know if you had heard of it before, but I thought you might be interested.

  • Reply
    petra michelle
    August 4, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Hello Tipper! A song everyone in the world probably has heard, but knows so little about. Most interesting information about it. Bravo to your family in their performance! A song I’ve always enjoyed is Liza Jane. Hope they can handle all the requests! :)) Petra

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    August 4, 2008 at 9:45 am

    Tipper: This is a song from my youth. I enjoyed country music and rock & roll back when I was starting high school and this was a true crossover song back in its day. I guess I never thought of it as a true song, just a story song. Thanks for sharing its derivation.
    The men did a great job on the song but the tennis match on the HDTV was a little much in the background. It was funny how the young ones played and watched the TV at the same time. LOL
    The men need to stay in the kitchen for their ‘pickin and grinin’. I ‘hang down my head and cry’ if you feel insulted, not meant that way.

  • Reply
    Terry Thornton
    August 4, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Tipper, Good post — and I’ve got a request. Little Omie Wise — best story song around in my opinion. The story is horrible — but the song is my favorite. And I can’t find an online version of it at all. Could you?

  • Reply
    August 4, 2008 at 6:15 am

    LOVE IT and from the moment I read the words TOM DOOLEY knew Id be singing the song all day!

  • Reply
    August 4, 2008 at 1:23 am

    Oh I grew up hearing my father sing this song to us while on Sunday drives. I never knew the history of this but I find it very interesting. There is a mountain road near where I grew up called Dooley Mountain road, a very winding and steep highway. In fact my cousin was killed in a firey truck wreck on that mountain when his brakes failed. So the name even though not the same story carries gloom and doom.

  • Reply
    Amy @ parkcitygirl
    August 4, 2008 at 12:21 am

    Hey Tipper! I think I had heard the name Tom Dooley, but never the song. It was great! Love your history lesson – your blog is always a learning experience! Thank you 🙂

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    I have heard the song before but never knew the story…interesting!

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    Great music, Tipper, as usual! Love the guys! I’ve also heard that song all my life. Thanks for the history lesson. I didn’t know all that, either.

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    That’s a great story. I find this stuff fascinating, too. I guess I am intrigued by the depth of passion, the loss of reason, the overwhelming grief that drives such behavior. It is a great folk tale unto itself. Thanks for doing the work on this. I sure do enjoy your blog.

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    I first heard Tom Dooley when the Kingston Trio recorded the song. It was years later that I learned the true name and more about the story when I heard Sheila Adams and Kay Byer tell about the ballads in a workshop. Some of Kay’s poetry is based, it seems, on the ballads. And she uses some of the lyrics of the songs in her poetry.
    It was fun to watch the fellows play and sing the old song.

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    I have always enjoyed Tom Dooley but had no idea of the history behind the song. Thank you Tipper! I had to chuckle at the nephews playing AND watching the ball game.

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    Good job researching the song. As you say, there are many murder ballads in Appalachian music: Willow Garden, Knoxville Girl, Pretty Polly, Banks of the Ohio, Tom Dooley, Katie Dear, Gathering Flowers from the Hillside, Poor Ellen Smith, Little Glass of Wine, River Bottom, and more. Sometimes the implied motive is that the girl was with child but was somehow “beneath her suitor’s station” and “not fit” for a wife. Oddly, in “Pretty Polly,” the murder occurs after the marriage has already taken place, and the murderer cites Polly’s “past reputation” as his motive. One thing that has always intrigued me is that in the songs which name the murderer, the name is almost invariably “Willie.” Maybe many of them are different versions of the same events…

  • Reply
    Carolyn A.
    August 3, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Tipper, you’ve outdone yourself on the history of the song. Even I didn’t know that! Just know I’ve always liked the song.
    Please tell the guys this was an excellent rendition. I throughly enjoyed it and thank them for taking my request. I must have played it 10 times before leaving my comment. 🙂
    Nice finger work on those strings, Paul. I was paying close attention. And Pap and Paul’s voices … what an awesome blend. All I can say is wow! xxoo

  • Reply
    Julie at Elisharose
    August 3, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Wow. Thanks for the history lesson. I have heard the song before, not in ages, but I guess I never even paid attention to what it was about. Cool. Well, not if you think of how tragic it was, but I always love learning about people and events that really happened.

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    I love Wildwood Flower and I don’t know if it is Appalachian or not but I love Scarborough Fair too!
    Your blog is so enjoyable! I have it listed in my Google Reader and look forward to every update!♥

  • Reply
    The Texican
    August 3, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    I learned Knoxville Gal which is much more violent than Tom Dooley. I sing it on occasion when I want to cause a stir. I had a jamb session a few months ago with a Bluegrass guitarist from Austin, TX (professional) and we sang that one and Make me a pallet on the floor. Thank Paul, Pap, and the nephews from the entertainment. Pappy

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Wow ~ that’s a real memory blast from my kindergarden-teaching days! I used to sing Tom Dooley with my little ones, although neither they nor I ever realized what the song was about! :O]

  • Reply
    August 3, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    Another great pickin and grinnin’ But it seems they moved to the living room. How great, they can multi task by pickin’ and grinnin’, while the ball game is going.
    I guess I’d have to say my all time favorite pickin song is Orange Blossom Special. 2nd would be Rocky top.

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