“Tom Dooley” is a song that dates back to 1868. It tells the story of a man named Tom Dula who was accused of murdering a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County, North Carolina. Dula, a Confederate soldier, was Foster’s lover and, allegedly, the father of her unborn child. She was killed with a large butcher knife. Dula (whom the local people pronounced Dooley) was convicted of the murder and hanged on May 1, 1868. The song is said to fit into the genre of “Appalachian sweetheart murder songs.” The original song was written by Thomas Land.
The Kingston Trio is probably more responsible for the folk music movement of the late Fifties and early Sixties than any other group. Other groups and artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and many more owe their popularity to the Kingston Trio. The original group originated in the San Francisco Bay area and consisted of Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds. Guard and Shane knew each other in high school and went to college together where they met Reynolds. For a while, they called themselves the Kingston Quartet, adding a friend and a female vocalist. But, later those two both left and the group became the Kingston Trio.
They named themselves after Kingston, Jamaica since they wanted to emulate the Jamaican sound. One of their first experiences as the Kingston Trio was at The Hungry i in San Francisco. A club called The Purple Onion was close by and one night, when Phyllis Diller was scheduled to perform the Onion and couldn’t, they called in the guys as a replacement. This started their career and they continued to play the Purple Onion for several weeks after that.
“Tom Dooley” was their first song to hit the pop charts and it was, of course, a number one. After the song became such a sensation, people in North Carolina restored Tom Dula’s forgotten grave and started a petition to get him pardoned for the crime of murder since it seemed that there was no definitive proof that he did it.
The Trio continued to chart, recording songs that everyone knows like “Tijuana Jail” and “M.T.A.”, but they never had another number one. The group broke up in 1961, leaving just Bob Shane. They continued to chart until 1963, when music tastes started to change and they were relegated to doing oldie shows. Shane kept the Kingston Trio name alive with other singers over the years. In 1981, Tom Smothers of the Smothers Brothers held a Kingston Trio reunion on his television show and had the original three, plus three more members who had played with the group over the years. So, there was six members of the Kingston Trio on stage.
“Tom Dooley” hit the pop chart on October 6, 195 and stayed at number one for one week.
Here is a live version of “Tom Dooley”:
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