"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," and "Tom Dooley" is based on a real event.
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.
A local poet named Thomas Land wrote a song about the tragedy, titled "Tom Dooley" (which was how Dula's name was pronounced), shortly after Dula was hanged. This, combined with the widespread publicity the trial received, further cemented Dula’s place in North Carolina legend. Land's song is still sung today throughout North Carolina.
Here's a text from the Frank C. Brown Collection (Song # 303 version B, from a book released in 1952 and which collected the Folklore of North Carolina by Frank C. Brown during the years 1912 to 1943)
"Tom Dooley" With music. From Thomas Smith, Zionville, Watauga
county. Note by Dr. Brown : "Sung by Mrs. R. A. Robinson, Silver-
stone, N. C, 6/22/21." Mr. Smith says that the "verses are from a
song which has been sung and played for many years (probably for
over forty) in Watauga. . . . There is hardly a fiddler or banjo picker
in our county who cannot play 'Tom Dooley.' "
1 Oh hang your head, Tom Dooley,
Oh hang your head [and?] cry.
You killed poor Laura Foster
And now you are bound to die.
2 You met her on the hillside
And there you may suppose
You met her on the hillside
And there you hid her clothes.
3 You met her on the hillside
Supposed to be your wife,
You met her on the hillside
And there you took her life.
Complete text and history on the song is in this online PDF-file
Turn a page by clicking on it:
And in 1938 Mellinger Edward Henry's book "Folk Songs from the Southern Highlands" was published, with yet another version of "Tom Dooley"
114 TOM DOOLEY See Brown, p. 11.
This is another song, based on a real tragedy in North Carolina, in which the young man sings that he was warned, "That drinking and the women Would be my ruin at last"
Obtained form Mrs. William Franklin, Crossnore, Avery County, North Carolina, July, 1930, who learned it from her brother, Edmund Malone Johnson.
1. Oh, bow your head, Tom Dooley;
Oh, bow your head and cry;
You have killed poor Laury Foster
And you know you're bound to die.
2. You have killed poor Laury Foster;
You know you have done wrong;
You have killed poor Laury Foster,
Your true love in your arms.
3. I take my banjo this evening;
I pick it on my knee;
This time tomorrow evening
It will be of no use to me.
4. This day and one more;
Oh, where do you reckon I be ?
This day and one more,
And I'll be in eternity.
5.1 had my trial at Wilkesboro;
Oh, what do you reckon they done ?
They bound me over to Statesville
And there where I'll be hung.
6. The limb being oak
And the rope being strong —
Oh, bow your head, Tom Dooley,
For you know you are bound to hang.
Although there are several earlier known recordings, notably the one by Grayson and Whitter made in 1929, approximately 10 years before Frank 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.
(o) Grayson and Whitter 1929
Recorded in Memphis, TN Monday, September 30, 1929 by Ralph Peer.
G.B. Grayson,f/v; Henry Whitter,g.
G.B. Grayson learned "Tom Dooley" from the singing of his family and had a personal connection with it: he was the nephew of Colonel James W.M. Grayson who captured Dula in Tennessee.
Two years earlier Grayson and Whitter recorded "Handsome Molly", which uses almost the same tune:
(c) Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1935) (as "Tom Dooley")
In March 1935 Bascom Lamar Lunsford, from Asheville, N.C., recorded "Tom Dooley" in New York under the supervision of George W. Hibbitt and William Cabell Greet.
(c) Myra Barnett Miller (1936) (as "Tom Dula")
In July 1936 Mrs Myra Barnett Miller recorded "Tom Dula" in Tuckaseigee, North Carolina, under the supervision of John A. Lomax.
In 1938, folklorists Anne and Frank Warner were song-hunting in the mountains of Watauga County, North Carolina. While there they met singer, guitar and banjo player Frank Proffitt who lived in Pick Britches Valley and was born in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee on June 1, 1913.
"Tom Dooley" was one of the first songs Proffitt sang for the Warners. He told them it was the first song he remembered hearing his father pick on the banjo. Like G.B. Grayson, Proffitt had a personal connection to the song. He told the Warners that his grandmother, Adeline Perdue, had lived in Wilkes County and had known both Tom Dula and Laura Foster.
Two years later, with a newly acquired Wilcox Gay Recordio disk-cutting machine in tow, they returned to Watauga County, North Carolina and recorded a number of Frank Proffitt's songs, including a three-stanza version of "Tom Dooley."
(c) Frank Profitt (1940) (as "Tom Dooley")
In 1940 in Beech Mountain, North Carolina, Frank and Anne Warner recorded a 50 seconds version of Frank Proffitt singing "Tom Dooley".
Finally released on this magnificent CD:
(c) Frank Warner (1947)
In 1947 Frank Warner recorded a version for the Library of Congress in Washington
Frank Warner taught his version of Frank Proffitt's "Tom Dooley" to his friend Alan Lomax who included, it minus the second stanza, in his 1947 book, "Folk Song: U.S.A.," crediting the song to Warner.
These are the lyrics for “Tom Dula” as they appear in Alan Lomax’s Folk Song: U.S.A. (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947) and reprinted in Folk Songs of North America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960).
Hand me down my banjo,
I’ll pick hit on my knee
This time tomorrow night
It’ll be no use to me
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy you're bound to die.
Met her on the mountain
I swore she’d be my wife
I met her on the mountain
And I stabbed her with my knife
This time tomorrow
Reckon where I’ll be
Down in some lonesome valley
A’hangin’ on a white-oak tree.
I had my trial at Wilksboro’
And what d’you reckon they done?
They bound me over to Statesville
And that’s where I’ll be hung
The limb a’bein’ oak, boys
The rope a’bein’ strong
Bow down your head, Tom Dooley,
You know you’re gonna be hung.
Mammy, oh Mammy,
Don’t you weep or cry
I’ve killed poor Laurie Foster
And you know I’m bound to die
Pappy, oh Pappy,
What shall I do?
I lost all my money
And killed poor Laurie too.
Oh what my Mammy told me
Is about to come to pass
Red whiskey and pretty women
Would be my ruin at last
(c) Frank Warner (1952)
Then, in 1952, Warner recorded "Tom Dooley" for an LP on Elektra Records, accompanying himself on four-string banjo and crediting Frank Proffitt in the liner notes.
Listen here: http://www.kingstontrioplace.com/tdfrankw.ram
Following Frank Warner's 1952 recording of "Tom Dooley," which was the first commercial recording of the song since Grayson & Whitter's release on Victor in 1929, the song was "covered" by several folk revival artists.
(c) Folksay Trio (Erik Darling, Bob Carey and Roger Sprung) 1953
Just before Carey entered the army, he and Darling made their first recordings together. Stinson Records was repackaging old Asch folk and jazz 78s onto 10" LPs, and the owners approached banjo player Roger Sprung about cutting new sides to flesh out an anthology of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly masters. Sprung recruited Carey and Darling, and the ad hoc trio worked out four songs, including the Washington Square favorite "Tom Dooley." Cut directly to acetate in the basement studio of a New Jersey home, Darling, Carey and Sprung's efforts were an unheralded benchmark in the evolving urban folk music revival. Released on Folksay, Vol. 2 in the summer of 1953, they were the first significant recordings by a contemporary folk group.
American Folksay Ballads And Dances Volume 2 (Vinyl, 10", Compilation, Mono) | Discogs
Listen to a sample of the Folksay Trio's 1953 version here (song#11)
Two of the group's songs, "Tom Dooley" and "Bay of Mexico," appeared five years later on the Kingston Trio's debut album for Capitol Records (Released June 1958)
(c) Kingston Trio 1958 (# 1 HIT USA)
Listen here to the Kingston Trio:
Kingston Trio leader Dave Guard candidly admitted to New Lost City Ramblers' John Cohen that his source for their version of "Tom Dooley" was the Folksay album. "It had that little stop in it, 'Hang down your head, Tom - stop - Dooley,' which had never been a part of the song before the Stinson recording," Sprung later told Darling.
The Kingston Trio hit inspired a feature B-movie, The Legend of Tom Dooley (1958), starring actor 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.
You can watch the complete movie here:
(c) Paul Clayton (1956) (as "Tom Dula")
Paul Clayton's version was contained on his album "Bloody Ballads" (Riverside RLP 12-615), and has a rather different melody.
Paul Clayton - Bloody Ballads (Vinyl, LP, Mono) | Discogs
(c) Tarriers 1957
Two members of the Folksay Trio--Erik Darling and Bob Carey--teamed up with Alan Arkin in 1956 to form the Tarriers who included an up-tempo version of "Tom Dooley" on their 1957 debut LP on Glory Records, that was also released before the Kingston Trio.
The Tarriers - The Tarriers (Vinyl, LP, Album) | Discogs
(c) Lonnie Donegan (1958)
(c) Pinky & Perky (1958)
(c) Serge Deyglun (1958) (as "Check tes claques Tom Dooley")
Parody by this Canadian artist.
(c) Les Compagnons de la Chanson 1959 (as "Fais Ta Priere") (French version)
(c) Chico's 1959 (Tom Dooley) (Dutch version)
Dutch lyrics by Simon Sint (member of the Chico's)
45cat - The Chico's - Tom Dooley / Mijn Groot Geluk (My Happiness) - Philips - Netherlands - 318 205 PF
Listen to a sample here:
(c) Bob Davidse (1959) (as "Jan Breydel") (Flemish version)
Flemish lyrics by Robert Swing and Eric Franssen
Released on Victory 11262
Bob Davidse - Jan Breydel / 26 Mijl (Vinyl, 7", 45 RPM) | Discogs
(c) Bobbejaan Schoepen (1959) (as "Tom Doely") (Flemish version)
Flemish lyrics Bobbejaan Schoepen and Jan Remo)
ultratop.be - Bobbejaan Schoepen - Tom Doely
(c) Pallieters (1959) (as "Tom Doely")
(c) De Troebadoer van het Heilig Hart (=Pater Mestdagh) (as "Tom Dooley") (Flemish version)
45cat - De Troebadoer Van Het Heilig Hart - Molokaï (Eiland In De Zon) / Rupske Lauwers - Decca - Belgium - 450.121
Listen here (at 7 min and 21 sec)
(c) Four Jacks (1959) (as " Tom Dooley") (Danish version)
Danish Lyrics by Torsten Tanning
(c) Nilsen Brothers 1959 (as "Tom Dooley") # 1 German hit version
German lyrics by Arno Gillo (=Josef Ollig)
(c) New Lost City Ramblers (1960)
(c) Doc Watson (1964)
Watson performed the older version of the song, similar to Grayson and Whitter, that he had learned from his grandmother.
Doc Watson - Doc Watson (Vinyl, LP, Album, Mono) | Discogs
(c) Hiltonaires (1966)
Hiltonaires recorded a Mento (Jamaican folk) version of the song in 1965 for legendary Jamaican record label 'Studio One', released on their album Ska-Motion In Ska-lip-so in 1966.
(c) Frank Profitt Jr. (1992)
In 1992 Frank Profitt Jr. (son of Frank Sr.) recorded the song on his "Kickin' Up Dust"album.
Listen here: www.thetomdooleyfiles.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Dooley-Proffitt-Jr-2.mp3
(c) Neil Young together with Crazy Horse recorded an eight minutes long version on their 2012 album Americana.
MUCH more cover versions here: