Hang down your head Tom Dula

Posted by | May 3, 2012

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.

It’s the most famous murder ballad in American folk music history. And chances are, if you know it, you know the version popularized by the Kingston Trio. Their recording of the song became a major commercial hit in 1958, selling over 6,000,000 copies. That hit single spawned a movie and helped spark the folk music revival of the 1960s. How did the song make its way to the Kingston Trio? Therein hangs a tale.

May 1st marked the 144th anniversary of the criminal execution of North Carolinian ex-Confederate soldier Tom Dula. Not Tom Dooley? Think of the written word opera pronounced opry, as in Grand Ole Opry. Standard regional southern Appalachian pronunciation at work. So the Kingston Trio simply transcribed the name as it sounded to them.

Dula was hanged for the murder of his lover Laura Foster. The two lived in the North Wilkesboro, NC area. Tom Dula was a wild young buck, running around with two or three women at the same time. Foster, according to the ballad, gave him syphilis. He inadvertently passed it on to Foster’s first cousin, Mrs. Ann Melton. A third woman, a Pauline Foster, was in the background as well at the time.

Tom Dula gravestoneBoth Laura and Ann were pregnant by Dula. When Mrs. Melton realized that her longtime affair would be exposed by the pregnancy, that the baby’s health was seriously endangered, and that her own health had been compromised, all to her way of thinking because of Foster, she insisted that they—Dula and she—murder Laura Foster in vengeance.

As revealed in the case’s court records, early one morning in 1866, Laura Foster took her best clothes and her father’s horse and left for her rendezvous with Dula, who had supposedly gone to meet the justice of the peace so they could be married. Laura disappeared and Tom Dula fled Wilkes County.

The earliest known recorded version of the song was laid down on October 1, 1929 by GB Grayson & Henry Whitter. Whitter and Grayson met at a fiddlers’ convention in Mountain City, TN in 1927. They teamed up, and by autumn of that year, Whitter had gotten them two record deals. They recorded eight songs for the Gennet label and six for Victor, among them ‘Tom Dula.’ Grayson & Whitter’s recording of ‘Tom Dula’ is especially significant, since it was Grayson’s uncle that tracked Dula in 1866.

The ballad of Tom Dooley tells us that Dula, fleeing the murder scene, was captured before he got to Tennessee by a sheriff named Grayson. Actually, Dula made it over the state line and worked for a week in Trade, TN, at the farm of Col. James Grayson, a member of the Tennessee legislature, in order to make enough money to buy a new pair of boots and continue his journey.

Dula was captured in Tennessee around July 11 by two North Carolina deputies, with the help of Colonel Grayson, and brought back to the Wilkesboro, NC, jail.

Sign along Blue Ridge Parkway, NCFolk music historians Anne & Frank Warner collected the song in 1938 in Beech Mountain, NC from a local banjo player and singer named Frank Profitt Sr. Frank’s grandmother, Adeline Perdue, lived in Wilkes County and knew both Tom Dula and Laura Foster. Alan Lomax, of Library of Congress collecting fame, learned it from the Warners and sang it all over the country and on his radio shows. He went on to publish it in his book “Folk Song USA,” and it’s THAT version that came to the attention of the Kingston Trio.

In 1962, a settlement was reached with the Kingston Trio that divided any subsequent royalties between Frank Profitt, Frank Warner and Alan Lomax.

The song lives on even today. Bobby McMillon, whose ballad singing was featured in the film ‘Songcatcher’ and who is the youngest recipient of the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, performs it regularly. He went to school with relatives of Tom Dula.

Jeff and Gerret Warner, sons of Anne and Frank Warner, are continuing their parents’ legacy. Jeff researched and edited for his mother’s book “Traditional American Folk Songs.” Gerret assembled and prepared its photographs, taken by their parents. The sons organized their parents’ notes, manuscripts and photographs, which now form the Frank and Anne Warner Collection at Duke University.

sources: www.cmt.com/artists/az/grayson_whitter/bio.jhtml
www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org/node/207
www.wilkesnc.org/history/tomdula/
www.folkstreams.net/context,254
www.dailyyonder.com/tom-dula-murder-sold-10-000-guitars

Special thanks to Rosalie Friend for setting me on the right path with this story!

4 Responses

  • John E. Fletcher, PhD says:

    Almost all the “facts” in this story are untrue. Neither Laura Foster or Ann Melton were pregnant by Tom Dula. The source of the disease was the promiscious woman Laura Foster. The Ballad was sung as early as 1868 in Wilkes and nearby counties. The first poem was written by Col Thomas C.Land in 1868 entitled “The Murder of Laura Foster. The ballads were widespread in the tri-county area after 1870.

  • Laurie Allen says:

    Ann Melton is my great grandmother- my father was George Clyde Allen Jr.died in1976 at 56. I have postcards of Ann and Laura that I just found and posted on my facebook. Dad’s mom was Lena Page. I’d appreciate any information on my family history. I was born in 1960, both parents have died, never knew any grandparents- met one great grandmother in Fl. around 1965? she was 102 I think. There were a bunch of old people that were my Dad’s relatives. I remember the names Winne, Annabelle, I was a bit scared. We drove down from NJ to see my step grandad- Capt. Jessie O’Hyden. Lena Page Allen O’Hyden had died some time before. Not sure how- rumors that she was garden society and a bee sting to the foot killed her. Then, I hear my Dad’s family in NC owned Allen’s mountain at one time and it was like the Hatfields and McCoys, stills and all.
    Seems there is much more to my family history and I’d like to hear about it. I can be reached at laurieallen55@msn.com

  • John E. Fletcher, PhD says:

    The true facts about this case and the story of the Ballads can be found in my new book, “The True Story of Tom Dooley: From Western North Carolina Mystery to Folk Legend”, published by History Press, April 2013. It is available on Amazon and most book stores.

  • Heather Miller says:

    I cannot find any source directly linking Carlotta Foster to a man named Francis Triplett. I have found, however, where a woman, Frances Triplett, married Luke Hendricks, and another female of that name who married Thomas Bell Foster. The name Hendricks/Hendrix is interesting indeed–a contemporary newspaper cited Ann Melton as being the natural daughter of a Hendricks, a prominent Wilkes citizen. Couldn’t a possible Hendricks connection help explain that family’s motive to single Dula out for the murder of Laura Foster as a manner of shifting the blame? One thinks the family’s prominence would have been an additional factor in covering up any perceived stain on their reputation….

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