Back Story to the folk song "Tom Dooley"
June 4, 2008 5:17 PM   Subscribe

Tom Dula was a real person. Who knew? The Kingston Trio's version of Tom Dooley is the most famous. It says here that Doc Watson's great-grandparents were the Dooley's neighbors. They say Ann Melton confessed before she died... "Folk music is serious business."
posted by RussHy (14 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Who knew?

Well, actually, lots of folk songs are based on real people and real events, so I reckon a lot of people knew! The famous Omie Wise ballad, for example, has its origins in an actual murder, and there's plenty of others.

See also: this page, but you might wanna mute sound, as it opens with a typically horrible sounding midi file of the song...

Here's a version by a Japanese fellow, doing it in the Doc Watson style.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:33 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, here are some photos of Dula's and Laura Foster's grave markers.
posted by RussHy at 5:34 PM on June 4, 2008

I was going to sassily link the words "I knew" to the Straight Dope entry that talked about this, but it isn't online. Or maybe doesn't even exist. In which case I didn't know.
posted by DU at 5:43 PM on June 4, 2008

I found a paper source that says Ann Melton killed Laura Forster for giving Dula a venereal disease that Dula passed on to Melton, but I can't find a link to that story.
posted by RussHy at 5:48 PM on June 4, 2008

This stuff is fascinating to me, but I haven't spent nearly as much time researching and reading about it as I would like to. Thanks for the post. People Take Warning! is a recent CD release that has a whole disc of murder ballads, along with reproductions of newspaper clippings, photos, and a little narrative about the events behind each song. Not to mention a written introduction by Tom Waits.

I posted on my Flickr page some time ago a scan of the original map used at Tom Dula's trial before the NC Supreme Court.
posted by marxchivist at 7:04 PM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you use folk songs and murder ballads as a starting point, you can unearth quite a bit of dark shit. Sometimes the songs are a literal tale while other times it just hints at a true story. I love hearing the stories behind some of these.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:22 PM on June 4, 2008

Thanks for the heads up on the People Take Warning comp, marxchivist, that'll be a good 'un.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:56 PM on June 4, 2008

Who knew?

Strangely, a week ago I was flipping through a book that told this story. My memory might be incorrect, and I don't have the book to refer to, but I remember that Lomax claimed that Dula wrote the some himself while in prison and sung it at the gallows. Somebody at the scene was able to remember the tune and spread Dula's song. As it was never written down and passed as an oral tradition, Dula was eventually changed to Dooley because it sounded better in song. That's a little more dramatic than this version of the story, whether or not it is historically accurate.
posted by peeedro at 9:00 PM on June 4, 2008

Yeah, this was definitely known, there's a fair amount of scholarship on it. Cool post, though!
posted by Miko at 9:44 PM on June 4, 2008

man, two days ago i was listening to the new grand archives record, and after the last song the next up was grayson & whittier performing "tom dooley" on that 'people take warning!' comp and i had this whole flight of fancy on ol' tom dooley, for like 15 minutes, wondering what it was like when he was on the lam.

and now this post. is that more synchronicity or baader-meinhof?
posted by Hat Maui at 11:17 PM on June 4, 2008

or baader-nicity synchmeinhof?
posted by Hat Maui at 11:18 PM on June 4, 2008

My dad always hated that song. His name was Tom Pooley.
posted by JanetLand at 7:35 AM on June 5, 2008

Great post, RussHy - thanks!
posted by madamjujujive at 8:36 AM on June 5, 2008

Dula was eventually changed to Dooley because it sounded better in song.

Actually, as I understand it, the spelling was changed to reflect the actual pronunciation. In the dialect of that part of Appalachia words and names ending in "a" were pronounced as if they ended with a hard "e" -- traditional singer Buna Vista Hicks' name was pronounced "Buney," for instance.
posted by chuq at 2:42 PM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

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