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