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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    The Flying Burrito Brothers Song That Includes a Tribute to Bobby Kennedy

    I have probably heard “Sin City” by the Flying Burrito Brothers more than a hundred times.  But I never realized that one of the verses is about Robert F. Kennedy until reading an interview with Steve Earle.

    In the interview, Earle recounted how the song’s co-writer Chris Hillman explained the Bobby Kennedy connection.  The following verse is about Kennedy.

    A friend came around,
    Tried to clean up this town;
    His ideas made some people mad;
    But he trusted his crowd,
    So he spoke right out loud;
    And they lost the best friend they had.

    In another interview from many years ago in The Los Angeles Times, Hillman confirmed the above verse was about Kennedy. Hillman also explained how he and Gram Parsons came to write the song.

    Hillman woke up one morning with the opening lines of the song in his head: “This old town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in….”  He immediately woke up his roommate Parsons, who soon came up with the melody for the song.

    Parsons and Hillman, who both had recently experienced relationship breakups, completed the song in about thirty minutes.  And they both ended up singing it on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).

    Bobby Kennedy was not the only person referenced in the song.  Hillman, who still had bad feelings about the breakup of his former band The Byrds, included an allusion to that band’s manager Larry Spector.  Hillman considered Spector a thief, and the man lived on the thirty-first floor of a condo.  Hence the line:  “On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door / Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.”

    Hillman further explained that they wrote “Sin City” as a cautionary tale to “people like Gene Clark from the Byrds, who came here from Kansas with all that talent and all bright-eyed and talented and idealistic, and the whole thing just swallowed him up.”  Unfortunately, that cautionary tale could equally refer to the tragic young death of Parsons.

    “Sin City” remains one of the great collaborations between two great singer-songwriters. While the original recorded by the songwriters remains definitive, there have been a couple of nice covers through the years. Below in a performance from 1989, k.d. lang and Dwight Yoakam do the song justice.

    Finally, here is a wonderful version by Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings (Buddy Miller is also there on guitar).

    And that is the story behind the song.

    What is your favorite song by the Flying Burrito Brothers? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Classical Gas and 3000 Years of Art

    One of the coolest videos on YouTube combines a hit instrumental with fast-flashing works of art.  The story of the tune, “Classical Gas,” and the video, “3000 Years of Art,” go back to the Smothers Brothers in the 1960s.

    The Creation of “Classical Gas”

    Mason Williams, who was born August 24, 1938, was a comedy writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  The show began its first season during the winter of 1967.  After the show completed its first season, Williams began to work on some other projects.

    Following a two-week tour with Dick and Tom Smothers in Las Vegas, Williams returned home and picked up his guitar.  He had missed playing the instrument and decided to write something he could play for friends.

    So, Williams started on a piece he called “Classical Gasoline.” He got the idea for the title from his thought that the piece would be “fuel” for the classical guitar.  He continued working on the tune during the second season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968.

    At one point, the Warner Bros. music label asked Tom Smothers for suggestions of new artists to add to its label.  And, one of the artist he suggested was Mason Williams from his show.  So, Williams began working on The Mason Williams Phonograph Record for Warner Bros.

    One of the songs featured on the record was the finished version of “Classical Gasoline.”  But the music copyist made the mistake of writing the name as “Classical Gas.” The new name stuck.  As Williams later explained, “It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized most people were thinking ‘Gas’ as in ‘Hey man, it’s a gas!’

    Below, Williams performs “Classical Gas” in 1968.

    “3000 Years of Art”

    After Williams premiered the tune on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the song climbed the charts.  Then, Williams contacted a filmmaker named Dan McLaughlin.  McLaughlin had made a student video putting together Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with a montage of art works.  Williams asked him to do the same with “Classical Gas.”

    So, McLaughlin created “3000 Years of Art” with the tune, using fast images in a visual effect that is now called kinestasis. The images purport to show a history of art in three minutes.

    The video premiered on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. Check out the really cool video of “3000 Years of Art” below.

    In 1969, “Classical Gas” went on to win three Grammy Awards. The awards were for Best Instrumental Composition, Best Contemporary-Pop Performance, Instrumental, and Best Instrumental Arrangement.

    And that is the story behind the song.

    What is your favorite instrumental pop tune? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Please Mrs. Avery . . . This Song Is Stuck In My Head

    Anytime I hear the song “Sylvia’s Mother” by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, it ends up stuck in my head for some time as an earworm.  It is one of those songs I have heard many times since its release in 1975, but I never thought too much about it even though it is an unusual song.  So, where did “Sylvia’s Mother” come from?

    In “Sylvia’s Mother,” the singer calls a former lover but ends up speaking to her mother. Sylvia’s mother tells the man that her daughter is leaving town to marry another man. She tells the man not to say anything to Sylvia, but as the song continues the singer realizes that Sylvia is there with her mother, preparing to leave. But apparently Sylvia does not know it is him on the phone.

    The power of the song largely comes from the aching vocal provided by Dr. Hook singer Dennis Locorriere as the singer begs with Sylvia’s mother: “Please Mrs. Avery, I’ve just got to talk to her/ I’ll only keep her a while.”

    One of the interesting things about “Sylvia’s Mother” is that it was written by Shel Silverstein, which helps explain why the song does not sound like most other songs.  Silverstein is noted for writing Johnny Cash songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “25 Minutes to Go.”  Perhaps he is even more well known for his drawings, poetry, and books, such as The Giving Tree.

    “Sylvia’s Mother” was not the only song that Silverstein wrote for Dr. Hook. At the time Silverstein gave the band “Sylvia’s Mother,” Silverstein had already provided several songs to the band. But when the band was looking for a potential single to add to their first album, Silverstein offered them a new song, “Sylvia’s Mother.”

    “Sylvia’s Mother” initially bombed as a single when Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show released the self-titled album in 1971. But they had faith in the song, so instead of releasing another single, they released “Sylvia’s Mother” again as a single in July 1972. This time it was a hit. Silverstein eventually provided another hit to the band in 1973 with “Cover of the Rolling Stone.”

    Another interesting fact about “Sylvia’s Mother” is that Silverstein based it upon a true story from his own life. Silverstein had a relationship with a woman named Sylvia Pandolfi, but like many relationships, this one ended. Later, Silverstein, still in love, called her, but Pandolfi told him she was preparing to fly to Mexico to marry another man. The next day, Silverstein called again, talking to Sylvia’s mother, who reaffirmed to the distraught man that his relationship was finished.

    The following short video tells the real story behind “Sylvia’s Mother,” featuring both the real “Sylvia” and her mother. Arjan Vlakveld directed the short documentary.  Some sources, like Wikipedia, spell the name of the real woman as “Silvia,” but this video and other sources indicate her name was spelled the same way as in the song, “Sylvia.”

    The lead singer of “Sylvia’s Mother” Dennis Locorriere eventually saw the above video.  While he knew Silverstein wrote the song based on a true story, seeing the video left him “speechless.”  He eventually met the real Sylvia.

    Other performers also recorded “Sylvia’s Mother.” Around the same time as Dr. Hook’s version was released, Bobby Bare recorded a country version of the song that also was a hit. In many ways, the song’s story and heartbreak theme fits the country genre like a glove.

    Other artists have performed the song live.  For example, Billy Bob Thornton has performed a faster version of “Sylvia’s Mother” live with the Boxmasters.

    Bon Jovi has covered “Sylvia’s Mother” in concert. This 2003 performance appeared on the Bon Jovi video This Left Feels Right Live (2004). In the performance, Bon Jovi works to recapture the aching pain of the Dr. Hook version.

    The Refreshments, a band from Sweden, included a cover of “Sylvia’s Mother” on their 2016 album Straight Up.

    The song also featured prominently in the second season of the TV series Fargo. “Sylvia’s Mother” played on the radio during the death of one of the characters.

    Finally, one may wonder whatever happened to the singer and Sylvia’s mother. The British band, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, also wondered what happened to the singer in the song. So, they released a new song called “Mrs. Avery.”

    In their sequel, The Men They Couldn’t Hang tell the story of the singer calling Mrs. Avery years later after he has been married and divorced. The song appeared on the band’s 2009 album, Devil on the Wind.

    Silverstein throughout his life had a reputation as a ladies’ man. But one of his most-remembered contributions to the world is this song about a lonely man’s heartbreak.

    Silverstein eventually married another woman, Susan Hastings. The two had a daughter, although Silverstein and Hastings divorced and then she died in 1975, not long after the success of “Sylvia’s Mother.” Although Silverstein had another child in 1983, he never married again.

    And that is the story behind the song.

    What is your favorite Shel Silverstein song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Billy Grammer and Buddy Holly’s Opening Song, “Gotta Travel On”

    Buddy Holly opened shows on his final tour in 1959 with “Gotta Travel On” a song that was not one of his originals.  Crickets drummer Jerry Allison once was asked why Holly performed the song so much.  He explained, “Because Buddy liked it.”

    I’ve laid around and played around,
    This old town too long;
    Summer’s almost gone,
    Yes, winter’s comin’ on;
    I’ve laid around and played around,
    This old town too long,
    And I feel like I gotta travel on.

    Tommy Allsup, who played guitar for Holly on The Winter Dance Party Tour, also has noted that Holly liked “Gotta Travel On” as the opener on that tour. There are no recordings of Holly singing the song, but here the late Tommy Allsup plays the song in 2015 in tribute to Holly.

    Bob Dylan also had a fondness for the song.  He recorded “Gotta Travel On,” which appears on his Self-Portrait (1970) album.

    And, perhaps because as a 17-year-old he had seen Holly perform the song on The Winter Dance Party Tour, Dylan also often closed with the song during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1976. Additionally, The Seekers, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Dean, The Limeliters, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, Boxcar Willie, and others have covered the song.

    So, where did Buddy Holly’s opening song come from?

    Origins of “Gotta Travel On”

    “Gotta Travel On” is credited as being written by David Lazar, Larry Ehrlich, Paul Clayton and Tom Six.  But the song goes back quite a ways.

    The first time one hears the song, a listener may think the song is just about an adventurous person off to see the world.  But upon closer listen, there is a darker undercurrent.  There is a reason the person must be traveling on:  The singer has been gambling (“played around too long”), perhaps fraudulently.   And the singer also notes,”High sheriff and police riding after me.”  And Johnnie (the singer’s brother?) has “been on the chain gang too long.”

    The song has been traced to a song called “Yonder Comes the High Sherif” in 1891, although it also was called “I’ve Laid Around and Played Around.”  Ollis Martin made the first official recording of the song in August 6, 1927, with his version called “Police & High Sheriff Come.”

    The melody appears in different songs with different lyrics.  One song that uses the same tune is “Long Journey Home,” as in this version by The Delmore Brothers.

    A number of years passed before a variation of the original version of “Gotta Travel On” appeared through Sanga Music Inc. obtaining copyright in early 1959. The composers were listed as folksinger Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, and Tom Six.

    Clayton was an important figure in the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s.  In addition to his work on writing “Gotta Travel On,” he was a fine singer and scholar of folk songs.  He influenced a number of more famous artists, such as Bob Dylan, and also loosely inspired a character or characters in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. [Thanks to @pangurdubh3 for the additional information on Clayton.]

    The three latter names listed as writers were pseudonyms for members of The Weavers.  Ehrlich was a pseudonym for Lee Hays, Six was a pseudonym for Fred Hellerman, and Lazar was a pseudonym for Pete Seeger.

    On February 22, 1958, The Weavers performed the song with the title “Done Laid Around” live at Carnegie Hall (appearing on their album Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall).

    But it would take another singer to make it a massive hit.

    The Hit Recording of “Gotta Travel On”

    Billy Grammer — who was born on August 28, 1925 — took “Gotta Travel On” to near the top of both the pop and country charts in 1959.

    After the success of the song, Grammer became a regular member on the Grand Ole Opry.  Regarding his recording career, Grammer is largely known for “Gotta Travel On,” his one big hit.  But he had an interesting life.

    Billy Grammer’s Life

    In 1963, Grammer also was the first to chart with the “I Wanna Go Home.” The song later was a much bigger hit as “Detroit City” for Bobby Bare. Below is Grammer’s version.

    In the 1960s, Grammer formed a guitar company, RG&G Company, which after a sale was renamed Grammer Guitar, Inc.  Today, many collectors and musicians seek out Grammer guitars.  The first one made is on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Grammer was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.

    Finally, Grammer and his band, “The Travel On Boys,” attended an infamous event in American history.  They performed at the rally in Laurel, Maryland where Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and paralyzed on May 15, 1972.

    Grammer, who became blind in later life, passed away on August 10, 2011, after a long-term illness and an earlier heart attack.  He was 85.

    Although Grammer was not in the news toward the end of his life, many still remembered his work. The Grand Ole Opry honored Grammer for his 50 years of membership in February 27, 2009.  He was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.

    In this video from later in life with Grammer’s wife Ruth, Grammer tells the story behind another song of his and plays, “I’m Letting You Go, Goodbye.”

    And that is the story behind the song.


    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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