Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley

Jun 18, 2013

Tom Dooley sign as seen along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Credit Jan Kronsell, 2002 / Wikipedia, Wikicommons

On June 18, 1866, the body of 21-year-old Laura Foster was found in a shallow grave in Wilkes County, NC. Thomas C. Dula (Tom Dooley), a veteran of the Civil War, was tried, convicted and hanged on May 1, 1868, in Statesville, NC, for the murder.  Dula had fled to Tennessee before the discovery of the body.

Controversy surrounded the trial and conviction. The trial was covered widely in national papers including The New York Times. Dula is reported to have said on the gallows, “Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn’t harm a hair on the girl’s head.” 

Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley

Dula (Dooley was a local pronunciation of the name) was known to play the fiddle, to be somewhat of a "ladies' man," and was romantically involved with both Laura Foster, his fiancee, and her cousin Ann Melton. Dula is often painted in stories and oral history as a rogue and ne'er do well. Over the years, suspicions grew that in fact it may have been Ann Melton who jealously murdered Laura Foster.  

For generations, families in Wilkes County retold stories of the Dulas and Fosters and Meltons. Myths and legends grew entangled with the facts. Doc Watson shared some of his family stories in concerts and interviews and here's one with his great grandmother who knew the families:

Poor Boy, You're Bound To Die  

These stories and retellings include a folk song that became a No. 1 Billboard hit for the Kingston Trio in 1958, selling more than a million copies and reaching No. 1 on the singles chart in November of that year.

1929 - The First Recording

The song has origins in a 1929 recording by GB Grayson and Henry Whitter.  (GB Grayson's uncle had assisted in the capture of Dula from Tennessee. "If it hadn't a been for Grayson, I'd a been in Tennessee.")

Hundreds of recordings have appeared over the years and YouTube is full of performances and accounts, including this video with Frank Proffitt, Jr. and residents of Wilkes County who share quite a bit of oral history:

Laura Foster gravestone
Credit Lou Murrey / Flickr

The story of Tom Dula, or Tom Dooley, remains one of North Carolina's best-known contributions to a genre of songs called "murder ballads". These songs, some with origins in England and Ireland, are retellings of historic murders in folk ballads. These  include songs like "Omie Wise," another North Carolina-based murder ballad that was once nearly as widely known as "Tom Dooley."

More Dula Info: