Tom Dooley (song)

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"Tom Dooley"
Songwriter(s)Thomas Land
Audio sample

"Tom Dooley" is a North Carolina folk song based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County, North Carolina, allegedly by Tom Dula. The song is best known today because of a hit version recorded in 1958 by The Kingston Trio. This version was a multi-format hit, which reached #1 in Billboard and the Billboard R&B listing, and appeared in the Cashbox Country Music Top 20.

The song was selected as one of the American Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic Inc. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.[1]

"Tom Dooley" fits within the wider genre of Appalachian "sweetheart murder ballads". 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.[2][3] In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), folklorist Alan Lomax inaccurately describes Frank Proffitt as the "original source" for the song.[4] There are several earlier known recordings, notably one that Grayson and Whitter made in 1929, approximately 10 years before 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.[5] In a 1967 interview, Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio recounts first hearing the song from another performer, and then being criticized and sued for taking credit for the song.[6]


In 1866, Laura Foster was murdered. Confederate veteran Tom Dula, Foster's lover and the father of her unborn child, was convicted of her murder and hanged May 1, 1868. Foster had been stabbed to death with a large knife, and the brutality of the attack partly accounted for the widespread publicity the murder and subsequent trial received.

Anne Foster Melton, Laura's cousin, had been Dula's lover from the time he was twelve and until he left for the Civil War – even after Anne married an older man named James Melton. When Dula returned, he became a lover again to both Anne, then Laura, then their cousin Pauline Foster. It was Pauline's comments that led to the discovery of Foster's body and accusations against both Tom and Anne. Anne was subsequently acquitted in a separate trial, based on Dula's word that she had nothing to do with the killing.[7] Dula's enigmatic statement on the gallows that he had not harmed Foster but still deserved his punishment led to press speculation that Melton was the actual killer and that Dula simply covered for her. (Melton, who had once expressed jealousy of Dula's purported plans to marry Foster, died either in a carting accident or by going insane a few years after the homicide, depending on the version.[citation needed])

Thanks to the efforts of newspapers such as The New York Times, and to the fact that former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance represented Dula pro bono, Dula's murder trial and hanging were given widespread national publicity. A local poet, Thomas C. Land, wrote a popular song about Dula's tragedy soon after Dula was hanged, titled "Tom Dooley". This, combined with the widespread publicity the trial received, further cemented Dula’s place in North Carolina legend.[2][3] Land's song is still sung today throughout North Carolina.[citation needed]

A man named "Grayson", mentioned in the song as pivotal in Dula's downfall, has sometimes been characterized as a romantic rival of Dula's or a vengeful sheriff who captured him and presided over his hanging. Some variant lyrics of the song portray Grayson in that light, and the spoken introduction to the Kingston Trio version[6] did the same. Col. James Grayson was actually a Tennessee politician who had hired Dula on his farm when the young man fled North Carolina under suspicion and was using a false name. Grayson did help North Carolinians capture Dula and was involved in returning him to North Carolina, but otherwise played no role in the case.[citation needed]

Dula was tried in Statesville, because it was believed he could not get a fair trial in Wilkes County. He was given a new trial on appeal but he was again convicted, and hanged on May 1, 1868. On the gallows, Dula reportedly stated, "Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head."[citation needed]

Dula's last name was pronounced "Dooley," leading to some confusion in spelling over the years. The pronunciation of a final "a" like "y"[clarification needed] is an old feature in Appalachian speech, as in the term "Grand Ole Opry".[citation needed] The confusion was compounded by the fact that Dr. Tom Dooley, an American physician known for international humanitarian work, was at the height of his fame in 1958, when the Kingston Trio version became a major hit.[citation needed]


Several notable recordings have been made:


"Tom Dooley" prompted a number of parodies, either as part of other songs or as entire songs. For example:

Chart positions[edit]

For Capitol Records 45 rpm Release #F4049 By The Kingston Trio[20]

Chart (1958) Peak
Australian Singles Chart 1
Canadian Singles Chart 1
Norwegian Singles Chart 1
Italian Singles Chart 1
South African Charts 8
U.K. Singles Chart 5
US Billboard Hot 100[21] 1

All-time charts[edit]

Chart (2018) Position
US Billboard Hot 100[22] 198

In film and television[edit]

The Kingston Trio hit inspired the film, The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959), starring 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.

"Tom Dooley" is the name of a season 5 episode of Ally McBeal, in which John Cage sings a version of the song with his Mexican band.

The song was parodied in episode #702 of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Crow T. Robot, motivated by one actor's resemblance to Thomas Dewey, sang a version beginning "Hang down your head, Tom Dewey."

Glada Barn's version of Land's song closes Rectify season 2 episode "Mazel Tov".[23]

In the 1980 film “Friday The Thirteenth” the campers in the opening scene start to sing the song. The opening scene is set in 1958, the year “The Kingston Trio” version of the song debuted.

Song books[edit]

  • Blood, Peter; Patterson, Annie (1992). Rise Up Singing. Quaker Song. Amherst, Ma: Sing Out Publications. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-881322-13-9.
  • Lomax, Alan; Lomax, John A. (1947). Folk Song U.S.A. Best Loved American Folk Songs (1 ed.). New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014.
  2. ^ a b Waltz, Robert B. & Enge, David G. "Murder of Laura Foster, The [Laws F36]". The Ballad Index. Fresno State University.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
  3. ^ a b Trimble, Marshall (September 25, 2009). "Ask the Marshall: What is the story behind the folk song 'Tom Dooley?'". True West Magazine.
  4. ^ Lomax, Alan (1991). Appalachian Journey (PBS American Patchwork Series ed.). Association for Cultural Equity.
  5. ^ Cohen, Ronald (2002). Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970. University Of Massachusetts Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-1-55849-348-3.
  6. ^ a b c Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 18 – Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries. Track 5.
  7. ^ Trimble, Marshall (September 25, 2009). "What is the story behind the folk song 'Tom Dooley?'". True West Magazine.[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ a b Lopresti, Rob (2010-01-17). "Boy Kills Girl". Tom Dooley. Criminal Brief. Retrieved 2010-02-21.
  9. ^ ed. John & Alan Lomax, ed. (1947). Folk Song USA. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. ISBN 978-0452253070.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link)
  10. ^ "G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter". Our Musical Heritage– Biographies. Bristol, Tn: Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. 2007-09-30. Archived from the original on 2011-06-03.
  11. ^ "Grayson & Whitter". Artist Biography. CMT. 2009-10-18. Retrieved 2010-02-23.
  12. ^ Curry, Peter J. "Tom Dooley: The Ballad That Started The Folk Boom". The Kingston Trio Place.
  13. ^ Wirz, Stefan. "Paul Clayton Discography". American Music.
  14. ^ "The Full National Recording Registry". The Library of Congress. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  15. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Award: Past Recipients". The Recording Academy/ Archived from the original on December 24, 2010. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  16. ^
  17. ^ Sing the Folk Hits With Jack Narz
  18. ^ Dot Album Discography, Part 2 LPs 3000-3250/25000-25250
  19. ^ "Heino – Seine Großen Erfolge 4 (Vinyl, LP)". Retrieved 2016-08-29.
  20. ^ Rubeck, Blake, Shaw, et al. The Kingston Trio On Record. Kingston Korner LLC, 1986. p.164.
  21. ^ "The Kingston Trio Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  22. ^ "Billboard Hot 100 60th Anniversary Interactive Chart". Billboard. Retrieved January 14, 2019.
  23. ^ "Rectify Season 2 Music Round-up". Sundance TV. August 27, 2015. Archived from the original on 2017-12-01. Retrieved 2017-11-22.