The True Story of Tom Dooley

On November 17, 1958, the Kingston Trio scored a number one hit on the Billboard pop chart with their recording of the folk song “Tom Dooley.” The song, asking Mr. Dooley to hang down his head, became one of those songs where everyone knows the chorus.

But the lyrics come out of a true story.

The Real Tom Dula

On May 1, 1868, a Confederate veteran named Tom Dula was hanged for the 1866 stabbing death of Laura Foster. Dula had been Foster’s lover and father of her unborn child.

Some questioned whether Dula was the actual killer. In addition to his affair with Foster, Dula had romantic engagements with two of Foster’s cousins, Anne Foster Melton and Pauline Foster. On the gallows, Dula professed his innocence while conceding he still deserved to be executed. Thus, some came to believe that Melton had killed Laura Foster.

The trial, a retrial, and the execution attracted significant attention. National newspapers covered Dula’s trial, and former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance represented Dula pro bono. Due to all of the attention, a North Carolina poet named Thomas C. Land wrote a poem about the case called “Tom Dooley.”

The video below provides some of the history behind the song. Check it out.

The Kingston Trio

Historians do not know who created the folk song “Tom Dooley.” But over time various artists recorded versions of “Tom Dooley.” And the Kingston Trio produced the most popular version when they recorded the song in 1958, selling more than six million copies.

In later years, some criticized Kingston Trio performances as a sanitized version of folk music. But many today recognize that the group, despite their clean-cut coordinated outfits, were instrumental in making folk music popular and laid the groundwork for other folk singers to find success.

The Kingston Trio version of “Tom Dooley” is more vague about the details of the real case than earlier versions of the song. But perhaps their decision made the song more universal, leading to its massive sales. Check out their complete version below.

The Legend of Tom Dolley

Finally, there is a 1959 film called The Legend of Tom Dooley, starring Michael Landon. The movie does not attempt to tell the true story about Tom Dula but is based upon the song.

Below is the first part of the movie.

We do know today that innocent people still often end up on death row in our modern system of justice.  But nobody could have predicted that we would still be talking about a nineteenth century North Carolina murder so many years later.

And we can never know the full story of what happened to Laura Palmer, even while we reflect on the folk song about the tragic story.  Yet, that is the story behind the song.


What is your favorite version of “Tom Dooley”? Photo via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    “Streetlight Harmonies” Tells the History of Doo-Wop

    A new documentary, Streetlight Harmonies (2017), explores the early years of Doo-Wop music. The film features early performers like the Drifters’ Charlie Thomas, explaining that the early street singers of the 1950s began singing for the friendship with other singers and to attract girls.

    Also, the film traces how the music that started out on the street corners developed into the girl groups of the 1960s and later influenced other singers including modern boy bands. Brent Wilson directed Streetlight Harmonies. Check out this trailer for Streetlight Harmonies.

    Streetlight Harmonies premieres November 14, 2017 at the Doc NYC festival.

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    Ali Farka Touré: “Soukora”

    Ali Farka Touré, an African musician and one of the best guitarists the world has ever seen, was born on October 31, 1939.  Touré was born in the village of Kanau, on the banks of the Niger River in the northwestern Malian region of Tombouctou.

    Touré became known as “the African John Lee Hooker.” His musical styles had many similarities to the American blues man.  But the similarities likely came from the underlying connections between African music and the blues.

    I first discovered Touré’s music in the 1990s from the album Talking Timbuktu (1994), where he was joined by Ry Cooder. Earlier, Touré had retired from music to concentrate on his rice farm.  But his producer convinced him to make the album.

    Talking Timbuktu went on to win the Grammy for Best World Music Album. Allmusic notes that on the album Ali Farka Touré is “singing in 11 languages and playing acoustic and electric guitar, six-string banjo, njarka, and percussion, while teaming smartly with an all-star cast.”

    My favorite track off of Talking Timbuktu is “Soukora,” which Touré wrote. I do not even know what the song is about.  But the guitar strings hypnotize me into thinking I have a sense of the music I might hear in heaven.

    In this short version of “Soukora,” Sékou Bembeya Diabaté joins Ali Farka Touré on the song.

    Touré won another Grammy in 2006 for his album  In the Heart of the Moon, recorded with kora player Toumani Diabate.  But Touré never got to accept the award.  He died in his sleep from bone cancer on March 7, 2006.

    He left a beautiful music legacy to the world that many are still discovering. Happy birthday wherever you are.

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    Fats Domino on “The Perry Como Show”

    Fats Domino, who passed away this Tuesday on October 24 at the age of 89, was one of the great early rock and rollers. His piano playing, his rhythm, his voice, and talent for performing helped set the foundation of rock music, influencing others as he remained a beloved legend through his lifetime.

    Domino was born as Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr. in New Orleans on February 26, 1928. He got his first break when bandleader Billy Diamond heard Domino at a backyard barbecue in the summer of 1947. Diamond gave Domino his nickname “Fats” because the young man reminded him of famous pianists Fats Pichon and Fats Waller.

    Domino gained national attention with his recording of “Fat Man” in 1949, but the release of “Ain’t That A Shame” in 1955 broke through on the pop charts. Pat Boone’s recording of the song written by Domino and Dave Bartholomew went to number one on the charts because it received more airplay during that racially segregated time, but Domino’s version still hit the top ten.

    “Blueberry Hill,” released in 1956, became Domino’s biggest hit. The song from 1940 — which was written by Vincent Rose, Al Lewis and Larry Stock — had been recorded by others but Domino’s take on it became a rock and roll classic. He recorded several other classics between 1956 and 1959, including “I’m Walkin’.”

    Although most known for his early work, Domino continued to be active even in recent years. In August 2005, some reported that he had died in Hurricane Katrina, but he survived despite losing all of his possessions and having to be rescued. In 2007, he performed in New York for the first time in twenty years.

    Domino’s work influenced many artists through the years. Elvis Presley spoke of how Domino influenced him, and artists like Paul McCartney and John Lennon recorded Domino’s songs. His rhythm also influenced ska musicians. And many credit his work as helping break down racial barriers in the early rock and roll years.

    On May 25, 1957, Domino appeared on “The Perry Como Show.” He performed two new songs, “Valley of Tears” and “It’s You I Love.” Then, later in the show, he reappears with Como as some teens “take over” the show with Domino singing “I’m Walkin’.” Check it out.

    RIP Fats.

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