Monday, November 7, 2011

The Ballad of Tom Dooley

A couple of weeks ago I read a review for a book that caught my interest.  First of all, it is based on an actual historical event and being a boomer, I grew up hearing the song.

The book is by Sharyn McCrumb and the title is The Ballad of Tom Dooley.    She is not an author I generally read but after reading this review I ordered it from my library.

Plug for Amazon here.   I will say, I usually do check them out to see how many stars the books get and how the reviews are going.

I believe the most well known song about Tom Dooley (whose real name was Tom Dula ) was made popular by the Kingston trio.


Sharyn McCrumb unearthed real evidence that all we may have thought we knew about this lover's triangle may not have been the whole truth.

The story takes place in the mountains of Wilkes County, North Carolina just after the Civil War.  Tom Dula and Ann Foster had known each other from childhood and had silently staked their claim on each other early.  Tom was not known for his strong work ethic, but rather the lack of it.  Ann, the beauty of the family, decided she had better marry for security instead of love, so she accepted the offer of James Melton, just 6 years her senior, when she was 15 years old.  Both James and Tom went  off to war and returned, much to Ann's dismay.  She had hoped only Tom would come home. 

So there is this triangle.  Tom, living with his mother, and romancing Ann, along with many other local ladies willing to overlook his lack of funds, but enamored with his good looks.  Ann is not pleased with this situation but accepts that Tom will always come back to her.  That is until he shares his favors with her cousin Laura Foster, over the mountain, about 5 miles away.   Throw into that mix  another cousin, Pauline, who is living with Ann and James as a servant basically, because she has her own issues.  Pauline fuels the fire at every instance.  

Another version of Tom Dooley was recorded by Doc Watson and is a little closer to the truth, but not completely.

The songs say Tom and Laura were running away to get married, but both were over 20 years old and both were single . They didn't have to run. 

The author visited the locations and read court transcripts that are still in existence today.  That trial went on forever, much like O.J.'s and the Casey Anthony trials of today.  It was big news in the Appalachians.  Pauline was very much at the center of things.

The grave of Laura Foster is still well marked today.

photo by David Spiceland
As we know, from both songs, Tom did hang for her murder.

photo by David Spiceland
But, did he do it?

I found the book a very quick read.  I was enthralled with the story.  What really happened?


mary said...

I'll have to look for that book. But THANK YOU for the opportunity to hear Doc Watson. Love that man's music.

My Journey With Candida said...

My Dad had the record by the Kingston Trio and I was raised on that song. What a flash back this is!!!

Not sure what is going on with blogger, but hopefully you can comment on my blog next time. Blogger has been messing up a lot.

BECKY said...

Oh, what cool info. I never knew there was a true story behind that song. I thought it was "just" a folk song. I grew up in that era and loved ALL the music: Motown, Rock 'n Roll, Folk, Old Standards. Thanks for a great post!

Chatty Crone said...

Great information I've heard the song but never knew the story! sandie

Vicky said...

That was really interesting, oh and that was the first song that I learnt to play on the guitar many many years ago LOL

Kathy said...

I never realized there was a story behind that song! It sounds like quite a complicated story, too!!!

Tina Lane said...


I have such an admiration for historical novelists. You can rarely uncover anything more complex than real life.

Intense Guy said...

Oh wow... I've heard (of) the Kingston Trio... I guess I'm a boomer now. :)

Yes, life is often stranger than fiction... and human endeavors filled with errors, good and evil, and unbridled passions.

Jenny Woolf said...

I happened across your blog via Becky's. I was delighted to find the Tom Dooley song - I hadn't heard it for so many years and as soon as I played it, I knew every word. It's so very strange how that happens! :)

hocam said...

Thank you for the recommendation. I'm always on the look out for a good book.

Kay said...

I remember this song very well, but I didn't realize there was a real story behind it that it originated from. This is very interesting.

I'm loving your blog. I'm going to add it to my sidebar so I can visit you again another time.

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