hang down your head…for some serious cultural analysis: using tom dooley to track the shifting styles and cultural contexts of the us folk revival.
Drawing upon Robert Cantwell’s careful recounting of the circulation of the Appalachian murder ballad (and folk revival classic) “Tom Dooley” (insert plinking Kingston Trio banjo here) in the book When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar students and I mapped out the differences among three versions of the song (embedded below).
Here are a few ways that Cantwell handles Tom Dooley’s circulations.
First, he does so musicologically, treating the song as a text (though with his usual allusive imagination): “With its major tonality and foreshortened melodic range, ‘Tom Dooley’ is a kind of solemn duty, like planting a tree. Its simple tune, as declarative as a bugle call, climbs sadly in four nearly identical phrases, from a fifth below the tonic to a second or third above it, where it pauses to rest, lingering in one of the two chords, tonic or dominant, that resignedly bear away the stanza” (5).
Then, Cantwell attends to the suggested cultural associations of this sound: “What is haunting about it is the strange, uneasy confederacy of its melody, which strikes an urbane note, with a harmony in which one can hear echoes, in a plaintive pentatonic mode, of some old fiddler’s farewell—touching shame with a note of mockery and Tom’s remorse with self-pity…” (5).
He notices even more hidden historical traces buried in the song and its circulation: “…one might surmise that the song did not spring full-blown out of the imagination of a Capitol Records promoter in 1958…We only have to scratch the surface of ‘Tom Dooley,’ then, as thousands of its young admirers did, to discover that the emergent commercial youth culture of the late fifties had suddenly been intersected by a rich and energetic tradition of folksong scholarship and performance extending back at least into the regional festivals, folk dance society, and outing clubs of the 1920s…” (6, 7).
From there, Cantwell brings in an even larger historical and theoretical framework for “Tom Dooley,” one that is quite surprising and daring in its way of conceptualizing minstrelsy as more than just a racist form of entertainment (which it was), but also a certain mode of imagining vernacular culture in the United States, dating back to the early nineteenth century: “…but which in the larger historical perspective belonged to a particular family of theatrical, literary, and musical representations of folk culture that had begun in America on the minstrel stage—in the 1830s, when TD Rice introduced a black stableman’s torturous jig he called ‘Jump Jim Crow'” (7). This song, a big pop hit of the late 1950s, has within its simple melody the imprint, if faded, of a stance toward the “folk” culture of the lower classes (racialized as black in certain contexts, or as white Appalachian or some other ethnic identity in other cases).
That peculiar way of associating the past with the “folk” becomes loaded with power in the late 1950s/early 1960s folk “revival,” because, in Cantwell’s telling, of the silencing caused by the Red Scare: “It was precisely this momentary obscurity” caused by the blacklisting of folk music performers with lefty affiliations who had been achieving success on the charts in the late 1940s and early 1950s (think the Weavers), “that opened the immense resources of folksong to the young [those early baby boomers coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s] and made it, by virtue of their recovery of it in the postwar period, their own. When folksong reemerged into he light of popular culture in 1958, with its ideological and cultural connections largely suppressed, abandoned, forgotten, or lost, it welled up with all the vitality of a cultural symbol eager for rediscovery” (8).
Cantwell ends his book’s prologue on “Tom Dooley” with the words of Frank Proffitt, who had originally sang the song, which he had learned from his father, for folk revival song collector Frank Warner: “The strange mysterious workings which has mad Tom Dooly live is a lot to think about,” Proffitt wrote to Warner in 1963, “Other like affairs have been forgotten” (10).
There is much more about Cantwell’s When We Were Good that we will be confronting in the coming weeks in Digitizing Folk Music History, in particular his argument about the relationship of the folk revival to democratic conceptualizations of “nobility” (nobility in all senses of the term). But today, one tantalizing theme my students began to wrap their minds around was how song style might be an avenue for considering different cultural contexts.
The hypothesis we came up with together focused on how the different versions of “Tom Dooley” indicate different levels of immediacy or distance with social norms of sexually-charged violence and murder. The more melodramatic presentation of the song by the Kingston Trio registers their distance, as middle-class white Western US folkies, from the cultural milieu of the original event (yes, “Tom Dooley” is based on confederate soldier Tom Dula’s actual murder of Laura Foster in 1866 and hanged in 1868). But does Grayson (a descendent of the deputy Mr. Grayson mentioned in the song) & Whittier’s old-timey string band style of flat nasality and clogging-inspiring tempo perhaps take this kind of shocking murderous, masculinized violence as more a part of life?
It’s but a theory that would require further research and scrutiny, but it is nonetheless an intriguing approach that folklorists themselves, such as Alan Lomax, grew interested in developing. Song style arises out of cultural frameworks. Cantwell helps us to begin to address the way these frameworks linger, mutate, get buried, and come back to life. He does so with care, but also with a bit of adventurousness: by paying close attention to song style as a way in, a point of entrance into different cultural contexts and frameworks; then one can pay attention to a song’s circulations to trace the dynamic movement—sometimes occurring in strange mixes of continuity and transformation—of cultural values, assumptions, ideals, desires, and worries across chasms and ruptures of historical change and social structure.
All that from a few banjo plinks? Yes!
1. Grayson and Whittier’s old-time string band version from 1929
2. The Kingston Trio’s folk revival clarion call hit from 1958
3. Doc Watson’s virtuosic hybridization of the two styles in 1964
Digitizing Folk Music History discussion of “Tom Dooley”:
Frank Warner with Pete Seeger
Ron Hinklin Singers, mislabeled as the Kingston Trio, on the Johnny Otis Show (note the electric guitar!)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse (h/t to commenter Harry Briscoe)
David Holt teaches clawhammer banjo using the song
And finally, deep dives into the song’s story: