Tom Dooley

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Some years back Vickie and I vacationed near Boone, NC, home of Doc Watson. We stayed in a place with a view of Grandfather Mountain and traipsed around in the Smokies for a week. It was great. We ventured over to Wilkesboro, NC where the events remembered in the old murder ballad “Tom Dooley” happened. There are many versions of the story and many versions of the song, but here is a more traditional one I recorded a few years ago more in the style of Doc.

Read a most interesting piece on the migration of lowland Scottish people to Appalachia via a stay and invitation to leave Ireland for the new world. Fortunately they brought their music with them and a century later, thanks to their geographical isolation, they had preserved it almost without alteration. Because they were from the lowlands of Scotland, they emphasized the fiddle rather than bagpipes, for which we may be grateful. The highland pipes are wonderful, but you can’t listen to a two hour concert of them. They’re like the accordian–better confined to Lawrence Welk reruns or background. (Yes, I know the old definition of perfect pitch–you through the banjo into the dumpster without touching the sides and it lands on an accordion).

At any rate, these fierce, independent mountain people of the South were hard working, resentful of interference and suspicious of outsiders. And occasionally murderous. Wilkesboro was the capital of the moonshine runners who eventually took their souped up cars and started NASCAR. “Family Feud” was not a television show. It was a matter of honor and violence.

Thank goodness the territorial domination of men over women is no longer the same among intelligent people, but the song is a memory of a time when things were a certain way and shame was powerful. You may have heard the Kingston Trio’s version or any of a hundred folkies in the Sixties. I was attracted to that version when I started playing, but I like this one better.

In Wilkesboro they put on an outdoor drama every summer of the story of Tom Dooley and the murder of poor Laurie Foster. It starts with a Civil War re-eneactment, allowing the men and boys to shoot off blanks for way too long with almost no relevance to the story advancement, but it’s great fun. We waited out a downpour to see it, and had a great time. It’s a sad story and justice was severe in those days, but at least there were concessions. It’s worth a see. Take some earplugs.

Maybe it’s true what Elie Wiesel told us–to forget our sins is as great a transgression as to have committed them in the first place. Remembering and grieving are essential to healing.

2 comments

  1. Gary, are you familiar with Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, The Ballad of Tom Dooley? It’s a good read if you’re interested. She’s a gifted writer and has novels about several of the old ballads from that area.

  2. Gary, are you familiar with Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, The Ballad of Tom Dooley? It’s a good read if you’re interested. She has written novels about several of the old ballads from that area that I have enjoyed.

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