The Kingston Trio Place


"Tom Dooley":
The Ballad That Started The Folk Boom


Peter J. Curry







The Kingston Trio's recording of "Tom Dooley," which topped the music industry charts in 1958 and reportedly sold in excess of six million copies, is credited with starting the "Folk Boom" of the late 1950s and early 1960s and generating a worldwide interest in American roots music that continues to this day. That song (and the other Kingston Trio hits that followed) revived a slumping recording and musical instrument industry, created a demand for 33-1/3 rpm long-playing records and phonographs that could play them and, most important, paved the way for countless singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan who found in this basically do-it-yourself music an antidote to the commercialism that pervaded not only the recording industry of the day but Western society at large.

In light of the many trends this one song set in motion, a claim can be made that the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" is one of the most important recordings of the 20th century, second only perhaps to Mamie Smith's 1920 "Crazy Blues" (which was the first hit "race" recording and as such ushered in the black influence on American popular music without which there would be no blues, jazz, swing, rock & roll, soul, disco or rap).

Given the song's seminal role in the history of popular music, I became curious about where the Kingston Trio might have learned it. The label on the Kingston Trio LP on which the song first appeared says "Tom Dooley" was "Traditional, arranged by Dave Guard," while the LP's liner notes simply refer to it as "a classic 'do' of the Tennessee hill-folk." So neither of these was much help in identifying the Kingston Trio's source for the song.

A subsequent legal battle resulted in copyrights being assigned to Frank Warner who collected the song and to John and Alan Lomax who published it. But as I was to discover, this, too, was by no means the last word on the subject of where the Kingston Trio learned "Tom Dooley" (or, for that matter, on where in fact the copyrights truly belonged). Likewise, the various published accounts of where the Kingston Trio learned the song proved less than reliable.

Early into my research, however, I discovered there was one thing more myth-laden than the history of the song "Tom Dooley" and where the Kingston Trio might have learned it-and that's the story of Tom Dooley himself.



One of the most widely circulated accounts of the Tom Dooley-Laura Foster tragedy is the one that appeared in John A. and Alan Lomax's 1947 book, "Folk Song: USA," which was purchased by thousands of schools and libraries across the country and remains a standard text in the industry.

According to Alan Lomax in that book,  Tom Dula (Dooley's real name) fought in the Civil War with Zeb Vance's cavalry, had seen Gettysburg and finally made it home to the North Carolina mountains, only to find that his girlfriend had been seeing several other men in his absence, one of whom was a "dad-burned Yankee schoolteacher."

"One day," Lomax tells us, "he invited her to go for a walk in the hills, and that night she didn't turn up for supper. Nobody knew what had become of her, least of all Dula. The Yankee schoolteacher kept looking around asking questions. Then one morning, after a rain...he noticed a gleam of red against the rocks. He climbed the hill and clawed away the earth. There in the shallow grave lay his sweetheart, white and still, wrapped in her scarlet cloak and the cloak all muddy."

"When Dula heard about this," Lomax continues, "he saddled up the same old nag he'd ridden home from the war and took off for the Tennessee line. His brother, in order to throw the posse off the track, galloped off in the opposite direction. Hours later, as Tom was heading his winded animal up through the pass which led to Tennessee and freedom, a quiet voice spoke out of the laurel bushes. Tom pulled up. The Yankee schoolteacher stood there at the side of the path, his rifle lying across his mule's neck. Right there Tom gave up. A dad-burned Yankee had outfoxed him again."

Lomax then tells how Dula "made himself up a ballad, a confession of his crime." He adds: "Among real ballad singers, there are some who never forget a song if they hear it through one time. Some folks never forgot Tom Dula's confession song and so his stark verses have lived on among the people of the Great Smokies as a ballad epitaph of a bitter returned veteran of the Civil War. Since "Dooley" sings better than "Dula," that's the way the song has come to us from that flavorsome North Carolina singer, Frank Warner."

Apart from the ambiguity surrounding the mention of Frank Warner (is he one of the people of the Great Smokies that the ballad has lived on among or another folklorist like Lomax who learned it second-hand?), it's a dad-burned good story. Unfortunately, most of it is fiction.



While much of what Lomax tells us is myth, Tom Dula was a real person, as was Laura Foster and Mr. Grayson who are mentioned in the Kingston Trio recording. Likewise, the murder of Laura Foster and the subsequent conviction and hanging of Dula for the crime are true events.

An in-depth discussion of all known facts concerning the case can be found in John Foster West's admirable book, "The Ballad of Tom Dula." West painstakingly located and reviewed all available documents that were contemporary with the events including court records and newspaper accounts, the only researcher to do so. The following is a summary of his findings:

Thomas C. Dula was born on June 20, 1844. He was raised by his widowed mother Mary Dula in the tiny, backwoods community of Reedy Branch, near Elkville, in Wilkes County, North Carolina.

At age 17, Dula joined the Confederate Army at Elkville. He served in the 42nd North Carolina Regiment (not with Zeb Vance's 26th North Carolina Regiment which, like the 42nd, was infantry not cavalry). Near the end of the war he was captured and taken to Point Lookout, Maryland, as a prisoner of war. At war's end he was released and he returned home on foot to resume his life in Wilkes County.

Dula had two brothers who, according to his mother's testimony, were killed in the war. He also had a sister named Eliza [or Luiza]. He was known as a "desperate character," a womanizer and a fiddle player.

At the time of Laura Foster's murder at Elkville in May of 1866, Dula was involved with several women including Foster and a married woman named Ann Foster Melton (no relation to Laura). Laura Foster lived with her father in nearby Caldwell County, west of Linville Creek, in a community called German Hill. Ann Melton lived with her husband, James Melton, about a mile and a half from the Dula home.


In the pre-dawn hours of Friday, May 25, 1866, Laura Foster bundled a change of clothes, took her father's horse and rode off in the direction of Elkville. Along the way she met a local washerwoman, Betsy Scott. She told Ms. Scott that she was on her way to meet Dula and that they "were fixing to get married. "When she didn't return that day, or the following day, foul play was suspected, particularly since her only known boyfriend, Tom Dula, was still around and had no idea where she could be. Various parties searched the area around Elkville in the days and weeks following but found nothing.

Suspicion eventually fell on Dula. When he learned that people were saying incriminating things about him, he fled on foot to Tennessee, changing his name to Hall en route. He stayed about a week with Col. James W.M. Grayson in Trade, Tennessee, and worked for him as a hired hand--long enough to earn enough money to replace his worn-out boots.

Two deputies from Wilkes County, North Carolina, traced Dula to Grayson's home in Tennessee but Dula had already moved on. He hadn't gotten far, however, and with the help of the deputies, Grayson captured Dula and brought him back to the Wilkes County jail to await trial. Ann Melton was also arrested and jailed as a possible accomplice. Thus, as is mentioned in the Kingston Trio's spoken introduction to "Tom Dooley," there was an "eternal triangle" at play, but the participants were two women and one man. None of the principals involved was a schoolteacher, Yankee or otherwise.

In early September of that year, Laura Foster's badly decomposed body was found in a shallow grave in a wooded section of Elkville. She had been stabbed in the left breast, between the third and fourth ribs (a New York Herald correspondent said "It was believed that the murdered woman was enceinte," i.e., pregnant). Her corpse was carried down out of the forest, placed in a casket, and buried at German's Hill.

Interestingly, Dula was held in the Wilkes County jail without bail for over a month before Laura Foster's body was found. Thus there was no proof at the time of his extradition and incarceration that a crime had, in fact, been committed. So much for due process in 1866.

During Dula's first trial (there were two), a possible motive for the crime was established. Dr. George Carter of Wilkes County testified that he had treated Dula for syphilis which Dula said he contracted from Laura Foster. Another witness testified that Dula said he was diseased and was going to "put through the woman who diseased him." Ironically, it was learned later that another woman, Pauline Foster, a distant cousin of Ann Melton, had given the disease to Dula which Dula then gave to Laura Foster and Ann Melton-thus Laura Foster's death, if caused by Dula or Melton, was doubly tragic.

Most of the people around Elkville believed that Ann Melton was involved in the murder and possibly committed it herself. The evidence showed that she had both opportunity (her whereabouts at the time of the murder could not be accounted for) and motive (jealousy over Dula's affections for Laura Foster and revenge for giving syphilis to her lover who passed it on to her). One witness claimed that Ann had confessed to the murder. But the night before he was executed, Dula signed a note stating that he was "the only person that had any hand in the murder of Laura Foster." Ann Melton was later tried and acquitted of any wrong-doing in the matter, primarily on the strength of Tom Dula's signed confession.

Tom Dula was tried at Statesville, North Carolina, on October 19-21, 1866, found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. His conviction was appealed, a second trial commenced on January 20, 1868 and he was again found guilty. Another appeal was made, but no error was found and the sentence stood. He was hanged on May I, 1868--not from a "white oak tree" as legend and song have it, but from a makeshift construction of uprights and a crossbeam erected near the old depot in Statesville.


There were several songs written about the Tom Dooley-Laura Foster affair, a sampling of which can be found in M.E. Henry's "Folk-Songs of the Southern Highlands" and F.C. Brown's "North Carolina Folklore, Volume II" (see also A.K. Davis, "Folksongs of Virginia-A Descriptive Index").

Most of these songs, such as "The Murder of Laura Foster" which appears in the Brown collection, would not be familiar to the modern reader. One of them, however, called simply "Tom Dula" or "Tom Dooley" (Brown 303), contains many elements of the modern song including the famous opening phrase, "Hang down your head, Tom Dooley" (a variant of this song, Brown 304, supplies the line about "Hanging on a white-oak tree"). In a 1921 interview, one of Brown's informants said of this song: "[It] has been sung and played for many years (probably for over forty) in Watauga.... There is hardly a fiddler or banjo picker in our county who cannot play 'Tom Dooley.'"

One fiddler who could play "Tom Dooley" well was G. B. Grayson.


Gilliam Banmon "G.B." Grayson was born in Ashe County, North Carolina on November 11, 1887. When he was two years old his family moved a few miles west, into Johnson County, Tennessee, where he remained for the rest of his life.

G.B. Grayson learned "Tom Dooley" from the singing of his family and had a personal connection with it: he was the nephew of Colonel James W.M. Grayson who captured Dula in Tennessee.

Near blind since early childhood and unable to make a living as a farmer, store clerk or mill-worker, Grayson made music instead. He played his fiddle and sang his songs at schools, turkey shoots, country stores--wherever he could earn enough money to feed his family. Over time, he played with most of the prominent musician in the area, including North Carolina's Doc Walsh and Clarence "Tom" Ashley.

In 1927, at a fiddler's convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, Grayson met guitar and harmonica player Henry Whitter. Whitter, a mill hand from Fries, Virginia, had already made some recordings as a solo including "Wreck of the Old 97" for Okeh Records in 1924 (which Vernon Dalhart later recorded and coupled with "The Prisoner's Song" to create the first million-selling country music hit). But they liked the way they sounded together. The crowd liked the way they sounded together. And one of the most important teams in early country and bluegrass music was formed.

Grayson & Whitter became well-known locally and were soon discovered by talent scout and recording company executive Ralph Peer, who also discovered country music legends Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. They recorded some fifty songs for Peer on the Victor label between 1927 and 1929, many of which would become country and bluegrass music standards.

At a 1929 session for Peer in Memphis, the pair recorded "Tom Dooley" which sold roughly 4,000 copies throughout the south and did much to keep the legend of Tom Dula alive.

Grayson was killed in a road accident in 1930, not long after his recording debut. Henry Whitter continued to make music after Grayson's death--but he was plagued with poor health and died in the State Hospital in Morganton, N.C. in 1940.

Here are the words to "Tom Dooley" as recorded by Grayson & Whitter:

"Tom Dooley"
As recorded by Grayson & Whitter (1929)

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,
Where there you hid her shoes.

Took her on the hillside,
To make her your wife;
Took her on the hillside
Where there you took her life. (CHO.)

Take down my old violin,
Play it all you please;
This time tomorrow,
It'll be no use to me. (CHO.)

I dug a grave four feet long,
I dug it three feet deep;
Throwed the cold clay over her,
And tromped it with my feet. (CHO.)

This world and one more,
Then where you reckon I'll be?
Hadn't a-been for Grayson,
I'd a-been in Tennessee. (CHO.)


In 1938, folklorists Anne and Frank Warner were song-hunting in the mountains of Watauga County, North Carolina. While there they met singer, guitar and banjo player Frank Proffitt who lived in Pick Britches Valley and was born in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee on June 1, 1913. 
"Tom Dooley" was one of the first songs Proffitt sang for the Warners. He told them it was the first song he remembered hearing his father pick on the banjo. Like G.B. Grayson, Proffitt had a personal connection to the song. He told the Warners that his grandmother, Adeline Perdue, had lived in Wilkes County and had known both Tom Dula and Laura Foster.

However far back the song went in Proffitt's family, it was new to the Warners who apparently were unaware of Grayson & Whitter's 1929 recording on Victor. Two years later, with a newly acquired Wilcox Gay Recordio disk-cutting machine in tow, they returned to Watauga County, North Carolina and recorded a number of Frank Proffitt's songs, including "Tom Dooley."

In a document titled "Statement of Frank W. Warner Regarding the Song 'Tom Dooley'" dated February 23, 1962 and on file in the Anne and Frank Warner Collection at Duke University, Frank Warner describes that recording session as follows:
"This time [1940] we took down the songs in shorthand and recorded on discs several stanzas of each song to secure the melodies. On the occasion of this visit Frank Proffitt recorded for us three stanzas of 'Tom Dooley.' After recording this much of the song, he sang the entire song for Mrs. Warner to take down in shorthand."

Warner then includes the following text of the song:

"Tom Dooley"
(As dictated to Ann Warner by Frank Proffitt in 1940)

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry;
You've killed poor Laurie Foster
And for that you're bound to die.

You met her on the hillside
And there you took her life
You met her on the hillside
And stobbed her with your knife.

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry;
Hand down your head, Tom Dooley,
Poor boy you're bound to die.

This time tomorrow,
Reckon where I'll be-
Down in some lonesome valley
Hanging on a white oak tree. (CHO.)

Take down my banjo
I'll pick it on my knee
This time tomorrow,
It will be no use to me.

You met her on the hillside,
And there, I suppose,
You killed her on the hillside
And there you hid her clothes. (CHO.)

Rings on her fingers
And bells on her toes,
She makes the sweetest music
Wherever she goes. (CHO.)

This time tomorrow,
Reckon where I'll be-
If it hadn't a-been for Grayson,
I'd a-been in Tennessee. (CHO.)

Apart from the stanza about "Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes" (which does not appear in the literature and may have been Proffitt's contribution based on the old nursery rhyme, "Ride a Cock-Horse"), Frank Proffitt's version appears to be essentially the same as the one recorded by Grayson & Whitter in 1929, with the usual amount of variation that occurs with orally transmitted material (or what is known as the "folk process").

This is not to imply, however, that Frank Proffitt or any of his ancestors learned "Tom Dooley" from the Grayson & Whitter recording. As noted by one of F.C. Brown's informants and quoted above, this song was well-known in Watauga County, North Carolina by 1921. However, we do know, based on a comment Proffitt made to the Warners which Anne Warner quotes in her book, "Traditional American Folk Songs from the Anne & Frank Warner Collection," that he was familiar with at least one other Grayson & Whitter recording, "Train 45," which he correctly identified as having been recorded by the duo for the Victor company "about 1930." It should also be noted the melodies of the two versions are essentially the same (Proffitt's 1940 field recording is available, with his family's permission, from the Library of Congress. Grayson & Whitter's version can be heard on their County Records CD-see Discography.)


Frank Warner, a capable performer himself, featured the song in his concerts and presentations for many years. As he says in a 1963 "Sing Out" magazine article: "I used 'Tom Dooley' in every lecture and program, telling the story of Tom--and of Frank Proffitt--and singing my own modifications of Frank's version, having taken the essence of the story and reduced it from six stanzas to four, and--over many years--having reshaped the melody line to fit my own feelings about the song."

Warner taught his version of Frank Proffitt's "Tom Dooley" to his friend Alan Lomax who included, it minus the second stanza, in his 1947 book, "Folk Song: U.S.A.," crediting the song to Warner. Then, in 1952, Warner recorded "Tom Dooley" for an LP on Elektra Records, accompanying himself on four-string banjo and crediting Frank Proffitt in the liner notes. Here are the words to "Tom Dooley" as Warner recorded it:

"Tom Dooley"
As recorded by Frank Warner (1952)

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang your head and cry;
Hang your head, Tom Dooley,
Poor boy, you bound to die.

I met her on the mountain,
There I took her life;
I met her on the mountain,
And stobbed her with my knife. (CHO.)

Hand me down my banjo,
I'll pick it on my knee;
This time tomorrow
H'it will be no use to me. (CHO.)

This time tomorrow,
Reckon where I'll be;
If it hadn't been for Grayson,
I'd-a been in Tennessee. (CHO.)

This time tomorrow,
Reckon where I'll be;
Down in some lonesome valley,
Hanging on a white oak tree. (CHO.)

Following Frank Warner's 1952 recording of "Tom Dooley," which was the first commercial recording of the song since Grayson & Whitter's release on Victor in 1929, the song was "covered" by several folk revival artists. It was recorded by the Folksay Trio (Erik Darling, Bob Carey and Roger Sprung) on the Stinson label in 1953; by Paul Clayton (as "Tom Dula") on the Riverside label in 1956; and by the Tarriers on the Glory label in 1957.

That was about it for "Tom Dooley" until the Kingston Trio came along and began looking for songs to fill out their repertoire. And here our story takes more twists and turns than the Yadkin River that flows past Tom Dula's birthplace in the hills of North Carolina.


In an article about the Kingston Trio that appeared in the June 1984 issue of "Frets Magazine," the author states that the group learned the song "from an unknown singer auditioning for a job at the Purple Onion" (a San Francisco nightclub where the Kingston Trio was appearing). Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio is credited as the source of this information. The "unknown singer" story (minus the attribution to Reynolds) was repeated in the book, "Artists of American Folk Music," in the book, "The Kingston Trio On Record," and in the liner notes to the Capitol Records CD, "The Kingston Trio--The Collectors Series."

This story is improbable given that it would be difficult if not impossible to learn all the words to "Tom Dooley" or any song of more than a few lines in one hearing. It is possible, however, that they learned the basic melody and some of the words of the song from the "unknown singer" and looked elsewhere for a complete text of the song.


In the notes that accompany the boxed set of CDs from Bear Family Records, "The Kingston Trio: The Guard Years," the author states that Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio told persons unnamed that he learned the song from the Folksay Trio's 1953 recording on Stinson.

Unlike the Kingston Trio's relaxed, Calypsoesque version, the Folksay Trio recording of "Tom Dooley" clips along at a much faster pace, driven by Roger Sprung's bluegrasss-style banjo playing. More important, the Folksay Trio version does not contain the verse about Grayson, which was included in the Kingston Trio version. It is possible, however, that the Kingston Trio learned the basic song from the Folksay Trio recording, slowed down the tempo and added the Grayson verse from the Lomax book.

Two members of the Folksay Trio--Erik Darling and Bob Carey--teamed up with Alan Arkin in 1956 to form the Tarriers who included an up-tempo version of "Tom Dooley" on their 1957 debut LP on Glory Records. This version of "Tom Dooley" contains all the verses that the Kingston Trio used. But since the line "Hadn't a-been for Grayson" is rendered by the Tarriers as "Hadn't been for Sheriff Jayson" (which is unique in the literature and probably penned by the Tarriers), this recording could not have been the Kingston Trio's only source for the song.

(To close out the subject of the Folksay Trio and the groups it spawned: The Tarriers [Darling, Carey and Arkin] had major hits with "The Banana Boat Song [Day-0]" and [as Vince Martin & The Tarriers] "Cindy, Oh Cindy." [Darling would later appear with The Folk Singers, The Weavers and The Rooftop Singers.] Roger Sprung joined Lionel Kilberg and Mike Cohen to form the Shanty Boys who recorded an LP for Elektra in 1958.)

Paul Clayton's 1956 version of "Tom Dooley" (which he called "Tom Dula") can also be ruled out as the source for the Kingston Trio recording because it is done in a minor key and contains vastly different lyrics, some of which appear to be based on Brown 304.


In her book, "Traditional Folk Songs from the Anne & Frank Warner Collection," Anne Warner states: " 1958, the Kingston Trio used the 'Folk Song U.S.A.' version in a recording for Capitol Records...."

The text of "Tom Dooley" printed in "Folk Song: U.S.A." is identical to the one recorded by the Kingston Trio with the exception of a few minor modernizations (in the Kingston Trio version, "tuck" becomes "took"; "stobbed" becomes "stabbed"; "tomorrer" becomes "tomorrow"; "hadn'-a" becomes "hadn't-a"; and, "A-hangin on" becomes "Hangin' from"). Another slight difference between the two versions is the tempo: the Kingston Trio's version is slow and relaxed while a performance note in "Folk Song: U.S.A." indicates that the song should be played "Moderately Fast," which is the way Frank Warner (and his source, Frank Proffitt) played it.

Thus, Ms. Warner may be correct in asserting that the Kingston Trio learned the song from "Folk Song: U.S.A." Many other songs recorded by the Kingston Trio appear therein including "Santy Anno," "Blow, Ye Winds In The Morning," "Rock About My Saro Jane" (recorded as "Saro Jane") "John Hardy" (recorded as "Getaway John") and "Darlin' Corey" (recorded as "Corey, Corey"). So if "Folk Song: U.S.A." was not the Kingston Trio's source for "Tom Dooley," it is reasonable to assume that they were at least familiar with it.

However, this assumes that the Kingston Trio could read music. And if they were like most folk song performers of the day, they probably could not. A more likely scenario is that they heard the song (and all of those mentioned) elsewhere, and then consulted "Folk Song: U.S.A." for additional or alternate lyrics.

In any case, the Kingston Trio could just as easily have learned "Tom Dooley" from Frank Warner's 1952 Elektra recording. Warner's version contains all of the verses they used (plus one they did not use and which does not appear in "Folk Song: U.S.A."). What's more, it sounds like the Kingston Trio version, complete with four-string banjo accompaniment. (The Kingston Trio's usual instrumentation was five-string banjo, guitar and tenor guitar; but on "Tom Dooley" they featured four-string banjo, guitar and tenor guitar.)

As to why Ms. Warner failed to mention her husband's 1952 recording of "Tom Dooley" (or the recording by the Tarriers) as a possible source for the Kingston Trio's recording, the answer may lie in the following statement which she makes further on in her book: "The only existing copyright on 'Tom Dooley' [at the time the Kingston Trio recorded it] was the one covered by 'Folk Song U.S.A.'" Thus it appears that her husband's recorded version of the song was not copyrighted. And as we shall see, following the Kingston Trio's enormously popular recording of "Tom Dooley," copyrights became a major issue for all concerned.


The Kingston Trio were not the first recording artists to claim copyrights to material which was assumed to be in the public domain. In the 1920s, Carson Robison, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and others recorded many traditional songs which they or their publishers copyrighted. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and the Weavers did the same in the 1940s and 1950s.

Similarly, folk song collectors such as John and Alan Lomax routinely copyrighted the songs in their published collections. (Pete Seeger, America's best-known folk singer, took issue with his longtime friend Alan Lomax over the idea of anyone owning the rights to traditional material which, he said, belongs to us all. However, this was a bit of double-speak since the Weavers, of which he was a member, copyrighted any number of traditional songs under the pseudonym Paul Campbell.)

Be that as it may, a protracted legal battle followed the success of the Kingston Trio's recording of "Tom Dooley," no doubt fueled by the tremendous profits the song was generating, which resulted in an out-of-court settlement in 1962 whereby all subsequent royalties that accrued to the song were to go to Ludlow Music who represented the interests of John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax and Frank Warner. (It should be noted that according to Frank Warner's article in "Sing Out" magazine, an arrangement was made with Ludlow whereby fifty percent of his share of the royalties from "Tom Dooley" would go to Frank Proffitt.)

I am not familiar with the particulars of the case, but apparently Messers Lomax, Lomax and Warner claimed that the Kingston Trio used the copyrighted "Folk Song: U.S.A." version of "Tom Dooley" for their Capitol recording. This being so, Ms. Warner no doubt felt compelled to reiterate that claim in her book. In fact, had she suggested that her husband's uncopyrighted recording was a possible source--which clearly it was--it might possibly have caused the case to be reopened.


After the above was written, a transcription of a 1983 New York City radio station interview with Bob Shane and the then current lineup of the Kingston Trio was posted on the Internet. In this interview, Shane said: "We recorded the song in '58 and it was part of the first album. I heard it originally on a Tarriers album, a speeded up version, and then the other fellows heard the version the guy who is given credit, I guess, for collecting it, Warner, something like that.... They saw him audition at the Purple Onion and they heard him do it. So we took the backgrounds we had on that and we eventually rewrote it just enough to try and claim it for our own and signed our name to it, got sued and lost because it was in Lomax's collection before that."

What of the 1929 Grayson & Whitter recording? Ralph Peer, who produced the session, routinely had his artists sign publishing contracts with his company, Southern Music. And as of this writing, BMI lists his company, now called Peer Music, as the publisher of "Tom Dooley" by Grayson & Whitter. But since Anne Warner does not mention Peer or his company as one of the participants in the battle over the royalties generated by the Kingston Trio recording, it appears that Peer, who died in 1960, was unsuccessful in establishing a prior claim.


Ultimately, we may never know the Kingston Trio's exact source or sources for "Tom Dooley," especially now that Dave Guard, who handled the majority of the group's song-finding, rewriting and arranging chores at the time, is no longer with us (although it appears, based on Bob Shane's remarks, that the Tarriers and Frank Warner were key sources).

What matters is that the world has the song now, to enjoy--and, no doubt, to further "adapt and arrange," for generations to come. In this regard, Dr. Jerome Epstein, Music Editor of the Anne Warner book, has something interesting to say:

"...the song ["Tom Dooley"] is now being sung by Frank Proffitt, Jr., who is sure that he learned it from his father; young Frank's tune, however, is as sung by Frank Warner, not his father."


In the collection of essays, "Wasn't That a Time!: Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival" edited by Ronald D. Cohen and published in 1995 (2002 in paperback), John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers says: "It was from that ten-inch LP ["American Folksay Ballads and Dances, Vol. 2" on Stinson] that the Kingston Trio learned 'Tom Dooley.' Dave Guard told me this.... It was Roger's introduction of the Calypso rhythm jump in 'Hang down you head, Tom Dooley" [in the Folksay Trio version] that moved the song out of Appalachian tradition and into the Revival--and into the mass media."

To my knowledge, this was the first published mention of the pause between the words "Tom" and "Dooley" which distinguishes the Kingston Trio version of the song from those by Frank Warner, Frank Proffitt and the one published in the Lomax book, and John Cohen deserves much credit for adding this important observation to the discussion about where the Kingston Trio might have learned the song. But as I pointed out in my article, the Folksay Trio version does not contain the verse about Grayson. So wherever they learned the basic song, the Lomax book was probably their ultimate source for the lyrics. And as I also pointed out in my article, the Tarriers' recording (with the same “calypso jump” between “Tom” and “Dooley”) was another possible source for the Kingston Trio. But with their odd mention of a "Sheriff Jayson," their recording, like the Folksay Trio recording, could not have been the Kingston Trio's only source.

Of course, the Kingston Trio made their own significant changes to the song such as slowing down the tempo and giving it a 2/4 (one-and, two-and) rather than a 4/4 feel, adding a very effective spoken introduction, and singing it in their own unique, highly appealing style. And I think any fair-minded listener will agree that the huge success of the Kingston Trio version of "Tom Dooley" had little to do with timing (that is, who recorded it when) and everything to do with the very special amalgam of talents that was the Kingston Trio.

Peter J. Curry is a writer and musician who lives in Palmyra, New Jersey. Among his favorite recordings he lists the Doc Watson version of "Tom Dooley" which can be heard on the 1964 Vanguard release, "Doc Watson."



Blake, Benjamin, Jack Rubeck and Allan Shaw, "The Kingston Trio On Record." Naperville: Kingston Korner, Inc., 1986.

Brand, Oscar, "The Ballad Mongers." New York: Minerva Press/Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1962.

Brown, Frank C., Editor, "North Carolina Folklore," Volume II & IV. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1952.

Bush, William J., "The Kingston Trio," "Frets" Magazine, June and July, 1984.

Carr, Patrick, Editor, "The Illustrated History of Country Music." Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1979.

Davis, Arthur Kyle, "Folksongs of Virginia-A Descriptive Index." Durham: Duke University Press, 1949.

DeCormier, Robert, Arranger, "The Weavers' Song Book." New York: Harper & Row, 1960.

Dunaway, David, "How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger." New York: Da Capo Press, 1990.

Goldblatt, Burt and Robert Shelton, "The Country Music Story." New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1971.

Henry, Mellinger Edward, "Folk-Songs From The Southern Highlands." New York: J.J. Augustin, 1938.

Hood, Phil, Editor, "Artists of American Folk Music." New York, William Morrow, 1986.

Keefer, Jane, "Folk Music Index to Recorded Sources." Available:

Lawless, Ray M., "Folksingers and Folksongs in America." New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1965.

Lomax, Alan, Editor, "Folk Song: U.S.A." New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947. (Also printed under the title "Best Loved American Folk Songs")

Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh, Editors, "Stars of Country Music." Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Rosenberg, Neil V., "Bluegrass-A History." Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1985.

Warner, Anne, "Traditional American Folk Songs from the Frank and Ann Warner Collection," Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984.

Warner, Frank, "Frank Proffitt." Article in "Sing Out" Magazine, Vol. 13, No. 4 (October-November, 1963).

_____, "Statement of Frank W. Warner Regarding the Song 'Tom Dooley,'" Anne & Frank Warner Collection, Duke University Special Collections Library, Durham, North Carolina.

West, John Foster, "The Ballad of Tom Dula." Durham: More Publishing Company, n.d.

Wilson, Joe, "The Recordings of Grayson & Whitter." Liner notes to County Records CD, "The Recordings of Grayson & Whitter," CD-3517, 1998.

Wolfe, Charles, "Tom Dooley: Legend and Song." Liner notes to Bear Family Records CD set, "Kingston Trio-The Guard Years," BCD 16160 JK, 1997.



Clayton, Paul. "Tom Dula." On "Bloody Ballads," Riverside RLP 12-615, 1956. (Reissued on "Singing the New Tradition-Songs, Singers and Instrumentalists of  the Folk Revival," Riverside RCD-9911-2, 1996.)

Folksay Trio, The. "Tom Dooley." On "American Folksay-Ballads and Dances, Vol. 2," Stinson SLP6, 1953. (Reissued on "American Folksay-Ballads and Dances, Volumes 1 thru 4," Collectible COL-5600, 1995.)

Grayson, G.B. & Henry Whitter. "Tom Dooley." Victor Phonograph Company, 1929. (Reissued on "The Recordings of Grayson & Whitter," County CD-3517, 1998.)

Kingston Trio, The. "Tom Dooley." On "The Kingston Trio," Capitol T-996, 1958. (Reissued on "The Kingston Trio-The Collectors Series," Capitol CDP 7927102, 1990.)

Proffitt, Frank. "Tom Dooley." Library of Congress Field Recording, AFS 15264:a2, 1940.

Tarriers, The. "Tom Dooley." On "The Tarriers," Glory PG 1200, 1957.

Warner, Frank. "Tom Dooley." On "American Folk Songs and Ballads," Elektra ELK 3, 1952. (Reissued on "Follow The Music-A Commemorative Sampler of Elektra's Pre-Rock Era," Elektra FM-201, Limited Edition CD, n.d.)

Tom Dula/Dooley grave-site photos (David Spiceland)