"The community in the vicinity of this tragedy is divided into two separate and distinct classes. The one occupying the fertile lands adjacent to the Yadkin River and its tributaries is educated and intelligent, and the other, living on the spurs and ridges of the mountains, is ignorant, poor and depraved. A state of immorality unexampled in the history of any country exists among these people, and such a general system of freeloveism prevails that it is 'a wise child that knows its own father'."
- New York Herald, May 2, 1868, on Wilkes County, North Carolina.
"And so you dance and drink and screw,
Because there's nothing else to do."
- Jarvis Cocker, Common People.
Sometimes, it's not the information a song contains which gives it its power, but precisely what it chooses to leave out.
The Kingston Trio's 1958 recording of Tom Dooley scored a top five hit on both sides of the Atlantic and dragged the burgeoning folk revival from a few Greenwich Village cafes to the global stage. It's a sparse 16 lines long - just 82 words in all - and the sheer economy this forces on its bare-bones tale guarantees that the record will raise many more questions than it answers.
We're introduced to a man called Tom Dooley and told he's due to hang tomorrow morning for stabbing an unnamed beauty to death. If it hadn't been for this Grayson fellow, he'd have been safe in Tennessee instead. Listen again, and you may pick up from the spoken word introduction that some sort of romantic triangle was involved.
It's not much, is it? And yet this rudimentary tale was enough to ensure the record sold six million copies round the world, topping the charts not only in America, but in Australia, Canada and Norway too. Only Lonnie Donegan's canny decision to quickly cut his own competing version - itself a sizable UK hit - kept the Trio's original from scoring the top spot in Britain too. Dooley's ballad and the killing that inspired it have been firmly cemented in the public imagination ever since, spilling over into movies, comedy, theatre and every other medium. In his 1997 book Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus calls the Trio's record "insistently mysterious" and suggests it's the very paucity of information it offers which makes the song so fascinating.
The singer clearly sympathises with Dooley - "Poor boy, you're bound to die" - and invites us to do likewise. But how can we oblige when he refuses to tell us who it was that Dooley killed, why he did so or what the extenuating circumstances might be? Where did all this happen? And when? Who was Grayson, how did he thwart Dooley's planned escape and what's so special about Tennessee? And why have these innocent-looking preppy boys, with their short hair, slacks, and crisp stripy shirts, chosen such a violent song?
A quick glance at the discs surrounding Tom Dooley in the US chart that autumn confirms how awkwardly it sat with the era's sugary norm. Dooley's tale of slaughter and despair made a strange bedfellow for Rockin' Robin, Queen of the Hop and The Chipmunk Song. Conway Twitty's cornball country reading of It's Only Make Believe was the single that preceded Tom Dooley at Number One, and it was The Teddy Bears' winsome To Know Him is to Love Him that dislodged it. Small wonder, as Marcus says, that Dooley's disc prompted such a nagging question in listeners' minds whenever it was played: "What is this?"
That question was only heightened by the many bizarre spin-offs which Dooleymania produced. The first to show through were a batch of late fifties "answer songs", such as Merle Kilgore's Tom Dooley Jr, Russ Hamilton's The Reprieve of Tom Dooley and The Balladeers' Tom Dooley Gets the Last Laugh. These were typically facetious attempts to cash in on the original hit's popularity, with The Balladeers' disc, for example, giving Tom an unlikely escape on the gallows. "There on his toes he balanced," it smirks. "They'd made the rope too long".
Columbia Pictures was keen to exploit the original song's success too, and in 1959, they released a film version called The Legend of Tom Dooley. This cast Michael Landon - best-known as Bonanza's Little Joe - in the title role, but cheerfully made up its own story from scratch. In this telling, Dooley and his Confederate army friends are framed for murder after what they take to be an honourable wartime shooting, and Tom kills his unfortunate girlfriend in a tragic accident.
Ella Fitzgerald got in on the act too, slipping an unexpected snatch of Tom Dooley into her 1960 recording of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. Listeners to that year's A Swinging Christmas album were startled to hear Ella replying to the track's short piano break by singing the improvised lines: "Hang your nose down, Rudy / Hang your nose and cry'. If nothing else, this shows how firmly Dooley's ballad had already lodged itself in America's collective mind, and suggests that even the finest jazz singer of her generation had found its chorus ringing through her head.
Still we were no closer to discovering what the true story was. The folk music covers which started to appear in the next couple of years took a more serious approach, but many were content to simply copy The Kingston Trio's template. Where these did manage to slip in an extra bit of information - Lonnie Donegan's reference to "Sheriff Grayson" for example - it often turned out to be untrue.
Mike Seeger's New Lost City Ramblers went back to an earlier folk version of the song for their 1961 recording, adding the news that Tom had been a fiddle player, naming his victim as Laura Foster and giving us the rough dimensions of her shallow grave. The blind country singer Doc Watson contributed a third version in 1963 - perhaps an even older one - which claimed Tom was innocent of any crime, and condemned to hang only because someone was determined to persecute him. Just who that someone was, Watson declined to say.
Really determined researchers could consult the few printed sources available with Tom's story, but these proved just as impossible to reconcile as the songs. John and Alan Lomax had included Tom Dooley in their 1947 collection Folk Song USA, printing the same lyrics The Kingston Trio would use eleven years later, but their account of the case behind the song relied more on folklore than fact. Rufus Gardner's 1960 book Tom Dooley: The Eternal Triangle located the tale firmly in North Carolina, but was determined to whitewash the reputation of everyone involved. When the newspapers deigned to print a background article about Dooley's song, they simply reproduced the same mistakes and tall tales these two books contained.