Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, June 2003)

Last month, Lyle gave us a song from Grayson and Whitter. For a duet with a relatively small total output, these two were amazingly significant. They are largely responsible for the popularity of Rose Connolley, which Lyle gave us last month, and wholly responsible for Handsome Molly among others.

But G. B. Grayson had a much more intimate acquaintance with one of the most famous songs in the entire Appalachian repertoire. The sheriff who apprehended Tom Dula for the murder of Laura Foster was a relative of Grayson's. And it appears that G. B. Grayson was the first ever to record the most famous song about that murder.

The version most of us know of this song, from the Kingston Trio, in fact derives from Frank Proffitt, as transmitted by Frank Warner and then jazzed up. But Warner didn't pick up that version until 1938. Grayson (who, like Proffitt, came from western North Carolina, where the tragedy occurred) recorded Tom Dooley in 1929.

The story behind this song is fairly well known. Thomas C. Dula was a Confederate veteran who came back from the war with what we now would probably call post-traumatic stress disorder; he seemed to have no real self-control. Still, he was a handsome man, and with so many others dead or maimed, he had no trouble finding women. He hooked up first with Laura Foster, then with the very beautiful Anne Melton.

The soap opera report is that Foster had a venereal disease (possibly contracted from Grayson). She passed it to Dula, who passed it to Melton. As supporting evidence, I can only offer the fact that Melton went blind in later life. Whether that is true or false, Foster was murdered on or about January 25, 1866. The trial was very badly conducted, and a new trial granted. In the end, Dula was convicted of murder, and Melton of being an accessory. Dula was hung on May 1 — and he did produce a gallows confession (though the song isn't it), in which he claimed sole guilt. But it is likely that Melton was at least as guilty as he. A juror later said they let her off because she was too pretty to die.

The lyrics here are as recorded by Grayson. So, if nothing else, here is a chance to get another perspective on what was, for me at least, probably the first murder ballad I ever heard.

It's interesting to note that, melodically, Grayson's two biggest long-term hits (Tom Dooley and vHandsome Molly) have almost the same tune. Grayson hid that a bit by rushing Tom Dooley, so you have to rather take them apart before you notice. But it's true.

At least for the common versions. I seem to have picked up another tune somewhere, rather bluesified. The only real melodic difference is in the next-to-last measure, but the A minor chord in at the end of the first line gives the whole song a very different feel. I was tempted to give a banjo rather than a guitar tab, but what I do with this song is unusual (involving a slap with the side of the hand), and even if I had a tab for it, you probably wouldn't know how to read it.

Metrically, I've seen this song written two different ways (with all quarter notes in each measure, and with an odd mix of eighths and quarters). None really fits. Neither does my way. But you know how it sounds....


Complete Lyrics:

Hang your head Tom Dooley,
Hang your head and cry.
Killed poor Laura Foster,
You know you're bound to die.

You took her on the hillside
As God almighty knows,
You took her on the hillside
And there you hid her clothes.

You took her by the roadside
Where you begged to be excused,
You took her by the roadside
And there you hid her shoes.

You took her on the hillside
To make her your wife,
You took her on the hillside
Where there you took her life.

Take down my old violin
And play it all you please.
At this time tomorrow,
It 'II be no use to me.

I dug a grave four feet long,
I dug it three feet deep,
And throwed the cold clay o'er her
And tramped it with my feet.

This world and one more,
Then where do you reckon I'd be,
If it hadn't a-been for Grayson,
I'd a-been in Tennessee.

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