The Land That Time Forgot

Video smothers brothers tom dooley


You guys have all heard Tom Dooley, right? I heard Jon Langford singing his crazed version at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival last weekend. After his set, we were shooting the breeze and he added a few more details about the song I’d never heard, like yet another Foster sister and a case of syphilis. But, he was talking real fast in that Welsh accent, and I couldn’t exactly make out everything he was saying. I did capture a verse of Jon singing on my iPhone here:

It all got me to thinking about this odd gig klipschutz and I took on during the pandemic. There was a company out east who were cranking out podcasts and wanted to do a series on Murder Ballads. Capital idea! They were thinking of episodes on Delia’s Gone, Frankie and Johnny, The Knoxville Girl, Nebraska, etc. That kind of fare. I suggested Bob Frank and John Murry’s World Without End, Sun Kil Moon’s Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes, and some of the made for TV songs like Long Black Veil and Lee Hazelwood’s Pour Man, thinking this’ll be a breeze.

A gig is a gig is a gig and writing is writing. So, when they reached out, my answer was swift and to the point. Sure, we can do that, I said.

We did one pilot episode focused on Tom Dooley but the project never really went anywhere. Wasn’t exactly breezy either. In fact, I had to re-record the voiceover a few times. It was hard to find any quiet up in my then sixth-floor-shoebox-of-an-office space above Civic Center that wasn’t interrupted by sirens every 10 seconds.

The song though. We did the research. A warning: I don’t know if this borders on Folk-splaining or whatever. But here you go.

At one time Tom Dooley was impossible to avoid. The Kingston Trio recorded it in 1958 and sold something like 6 million copies. By 1965, when the Smothers Brothers made a name for themselves in television history, Tom Dooley was still going strong.

One of the Smothers Brothers least offensive bits on their show was a comedy version of Tom Dooley.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, on CBS. was filmed in black & white. Apparently the CBS executives saw the world in black & white and canceled the hit show after one season, for its anti Vietnam War content.

The “other folk group” referenced by Tommy Smothers on the show was of course none other than The Kingston Trio, who some have gone as far as to call the Beatles of folk music. And Tom Dooley, that was their showstopper.

As it happens, I actually hired The Kingston Trio in 2015 for a concert in front of San Francisco City Hall to celebrate the building’s hundredth anniversary I curated along with my pal Linda Champagne and the Mission Express. And, not surprisingly, there weren’t any original members in the lineup. We did talk shop, as musicians do—basically, we complained to each other—never mind what I was bellyaching about, but I did learn that any check written out to The Kingston Trio had to go through the last original member who was now retired and living in the San Fernando Valley. They would bring him the check, he would get a taste, everybody was happy. They also allowed that The Kingston Trio bookings hadn’t exactly been booming lately. And were a little cranky about it.

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But thanks to the original lineup, those three folkies in matching striped shirts—Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and Dave Guard—thanks to them, Tom Dooley became one of the most covered songs of all time. And Tom Dooley is ground zero for MURDER BALLADS in the American Pop Culture psyche.

Now, despite the harmonies of The Kingston Trio, and the happy arrangement of the song, Tom Dooley tells a dark story, a real life story of lust, deception, vengeance, and hot-blooded murder.

Okay, here’s some of that Folk-splaining I warned you about. Ballad itself is not a musical term like waltz or crescendo. So what exactly is a MURDER BALLAD? Well, in traditional folk music, ballads are songs which tell the stories of notable events, and are often passed down from generation to generation. MURDER BALLADS are a sub-genre that deal specifically with tales of jealousy, desperation, deception, and rage—all the good stuff, all the good stuff that makes for a memorable song, and yes, also results in the act of murder.

Some of them are well-known, some off the beaten path, some made their way across the Atlantic as a result of the potato famine in the Emerald Isle. Others are, well, more contemporary. MURDER BALLADS can take on many forms and can be sung from many different points of view—sometimes even the victim. That’s art for you, when a dead man or a dead woman narrates a song from the grave.

How much history do you guys want to hear about the events behind Tom Dooley – originally spelled D-u-l-a, and maybe pronounced “Doo-lah” up north by Yankees, but definitely pronounced “Dooley” in the Appalachian dialect?

From what we know, Tom Dooley was a young Confederate soldier who came home after the Civil War to his hometown in Wilkes County, North Carolina. And by all accounts, the love of Dooley’s life was Laura Foster. One day in the Spring of 1866, Laura Foster packed a few belongings, saddled her father’s horse, and left their family farm to rendezvous with Dooley at an abandoned farmhouse so that the two could elope.

Laura Foster would never be seen again.

Months later, Foster’s body was discovered in a shallow grave on the outskirts of town. She had been stabbed in the heart, long, deep, wide, and repeatedly.

Tom Dooley, who had left town around the time Laura Foster disappeared, was later apprehended in Tennessee and brought back to Statesville, North Carolina. After he was given what some people consider a fair trial—more on that later—Tom Dooley was found guilty and … spoiler alert … hanged by the neck till dead.

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Following the hanging, a local poet named Thomas Land decided to chronicle the events in a lyrical poem set to music—a MURDER BALLAD entitled “Tom Dooley.” That’s right. Now, what you have to know is at the time, most people were illiterate, and songs and ballads were kind of like the tabloid news of the day.

At some point, this poem, this Thomas Land poem evolved into the first known recording of “Tom Dooley” by Grayson & Whittier. That was in 1929. The recording has remained relatively obscure, but it clearly has the basic form of the song as it would become known decades later. Now, in 1938, musicologist and folklorist Frank Warner came across a young banjo player and singer named Frank Proffitt—no relation, as far as I know. He came across Proffitt during his travels through Appalachia.

Warner recorded Proffitt. Proffitt was completely unaware of any previously existing versions, and he performed his rendition of Tom Dooley. And it is thanks to this field recording that Frank Proffitt is commonly given credit as the author of the song. Now, in addition to his work as an archivist, Frank Warner was himself a folk music performer. Upon hearing Warner’s version on the radio, The Kingston Trio, in what has to be the best move of their career, started to perform Tom Dooley. And the rest is, as they say. Oh you know what they say, and here we are today.

Now, by the time Neil Young & Crazy Horse put their version of the song out back in 2014, Tom Dooley had been covered more times than anybody can count. I will say this for Uncle Neil’s interpretation, It’s pretty rad:

With his trademark 8-minute length and all: Neil really does sound like a killer—well, maybe a killer of CD technology with limited bit rates—but NOT a prep school killer like The Kingston Trio version. Neil’s guitar blisters and festers like an open wound. Neil sings of Tom’s fate while Crazy Horse chants Dooley’s name in the background—taunting him below the gallows.

[FUN FACT: At the end you can hear Uncle Neil say, “You always come out of a thing into a verse, never into the…”]

Right. Folk music.

In keeping with the folk tradition, over time the verses of Tom Dooley have changed from version to version [See: Jon Langford], while the chorus—where the gold resides—the chorus pretty much stays the same. Most versions embraced the whole love triangle theory of the original crime, with Laura Foster involved with another man, which in turn drove Tom Dooley to a crime of passion, which he is remorseful for. (Why else would he hang his head and cry?)

Okay, to digress for a minute, not all MURDER BALLADS rhyme. Not all MURDER BALLADS feature a criminal who shows remorse. In “What A Man I Was,” Charles Bukowski writes in the voice of a killer who sounds pretty damn pleased with himself. The poem ends

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and some guy shouted

“let’s send him to hell”

and with a jerk I was dancin’

my last dance,

but I swung out wide

and spit into the bartender’s eye

and I stared down

into Nellie Adam’s breasts

and my mouth watered again

Now, leaving remorse or the lack of remorse aside, there IS another matter when it comes to Tom Dooley: did he even commit the murder in the first place? None of the versions that I know of show a shadow of a doubt about Tom Dooley’s guilt.

And yet, standing on the gallows, when he was asked if he would like to address the crowd before meeting his maker, Tom Dooley stated calmly, “I never harmed a hair on that girl’s head.” Witnesses to this speech say he gave the impression of a man who spoke the truth.

A closer look at the comings and goings surrounding the death of Laura Foster leaves some real doubt about the accuracy of the song’s depiction of the events—and calls into question whether justice was truly served in the case of Tom Dooley.

Through careful examination of the historical record, details have emerged about a tragic love triangle involving numerous alternate suspects for the murder of Laura Foster, and a flawed, though potentially innocent man, who may have been coerced into confessing to a crime that he did not commit. A crime that he paid for with his life. Hang Down Your Head Tom, it’s a Murder Mystery wrapped in a MURDER BALLAD.

In fact, there’s even a credible theory that another woman, smitten with Tom and jealous of Laura Foster, did the dark deed instead of the man who swung for it.

The more that I learn, the more the second woman theory makes sense. Personally, I think it’s high time that we get a petition going to ask the Governor of North Carolina to posthumously declare Tom Dooley’s innocence—or at the very least reopen the case. I know some people in North Carolina. I could probably make this happen. Who’s with me?!

Also, about the fine art of newslettering? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m still making this up as I go. Why not become a paid subscriber today if you’re not already? If not, you can always donate to Doctors Without Borders. They’ve been providing food, water and healthcare around the globe for 50 years. Or an abortion fund or any gun violence prevention group. They can ban abortions, but can’t seem to regulate guns.

You can also do none of the above and just carry on. We are happy to have you.