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Infectious: Tom Dooley

By Paul Slade
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Murder Ballads
Secret London

"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 morality 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.

The Kingston Trio's disc prompted the same question in every listeners' mind: 'What is this?'

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 1964 - 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.

Grave concerns: how to get lost in Wilkes County

Tuesday, September 7, 2010. Charlotte, North Carolina:
My plan when I arrived in Charlotte was to get settled in at my hotel and then get a taxi next day out to Statesville, where I'd arranged to have lunch with the playwright and actress Karen Reynolds.
    I'd been hoping to talk to Karen about her Wilkes' Playmakers annual production of Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend. Unfortunately, she was called for an audition at the last minute, and we had to cancel.
    That left me at a loose end on the Tuesday. I already knew there was no organised Tom Dooley tour I could take from Charlotte, so I was going to have to put an excursion together for myself.
    Statesville, where Tom had been hanged, was about 40 miles from Charlotte, which would have been just about possible by taxi, but the other sites presented more of a problem. Wilkesboro, where I hoped to see Tom's jail cell, was another 30 miles past Statesville, and his grave site sat somewhere between the two.
    None of that would have been a problem if I could have simply hired a car and driven myself out there, but I had to surrender my driving license a few years ago when some problems with diabetes buggered up my peripheral vision, so self-drive wasn't an option.
    I spent the next hour or so traipsing round Charlotte's tourist office, library and museum in search of a local Tom Dooley expert who would spontaneously say "No, really, I'd be delighted to take tomorrow off work and drive you round all these sites you have only the vaguest idea how to find". Oddly enough, no-one did.
    More realistically, it had struck me that one or other of these experts might be able to put me in touch with a knowledgeable friend who'd be prepared to drive me around for a day in return for some folding cash. Everyone I spoke to was charming and keen to help - as Americans always are, God bless 'em - but no such amateur guide seemed to exist.
   Next stop was hotel reception, where I explained all this to a very helpful young man who considered my predicament for a moment and then said "I'll call Hadi". Hadi turned out to be a driver the hotel sometimes used who would, in all probability, be willing to rent out his car and himself for however many hours I required next day. The price he quoted was a perfectly reasonable one, so I signed him up on the spot.
   That left the rest of Tuesday free, so I nipped back to the library, climbed the stairs to its third-floor local history department and set about trawling through the books in its music section. There was lots of stuff on local ballads there, including one whole book on Tom's case I'd never seen before.
   I also asked the old dear at the enquiries desk if she had any North Carolina newspapers from 1866 or 1868, the years of Tom's crime and execution respectively. She explained that very few newspapers were published in the South during that period, because the Civil War had left publishers there with a shortage of both paper and ink.

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