Tom Dooley Studies

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

4. Digitizing Folk Music History discussion of “Tom Dooley”:

Tom Dooley board DFMH WQ16
Click for larger version.

Additional versions

5. Frank Proffitt

6. Frank Warner with Pete Seeger

7. Brothers Four

8. Ron Hinklin Singers, mislabeled as the Kingston Trio, on the Johnny Otis Show (note the electric guitar!)

9. The George Garabedian Troubadours, “Thomas Dooley Cha-Cha-Cha” (Also a shout out to the song in Sam Cooke’s “Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha”)

10. Grateful Dead

11. Neil Young & Crazy Horse (h/t to commenter Harry Briscoe)

12. David Holt teaches clawhammer banjo using the song

13. Lonnie Donegan

And finally, three deeper excplorations of the song and its story:

7 thoughts on “Tom Dooley Studies

  1. you might want to play them neil young and crazy horse’s awesome version from americana.

    on another note would like to discuss the idea of electrification with you. let me know

  2. Still working on electrification/technology, it keeps growing and I keep having to spend time mourning Airplane members and a Charlatan. Should be done soon. Watch for it.

    This is intended as a response to your statement: “Across the increasingly permeable and playful line between inside and outside they went at the Trips Festival.”

    There is much more to all this, I believe than what is here; cobbled it together and tried to hack it down. Your thoughts?

    I think that what is most important here is not the moving “across the. . .line between inside and outside,” but rather encountering or experiencing what is created at or on the line where the two opposites meet. (And I am speaking here about more than just this one instance.)

    This is the point at which these two diametrically opposed entities come together to become something new that retains characteristics of both halves but is neither. As such it becomes a metaphor for light.

    Light is a mysterious phenomenon in that it appears to be both wave and particle at the same time. Its genesis is seemingly magical.

    Just as in the process I described earlier, photons – individual quanta or units of light – come from a perfect union of particles and anti-particles. When particle and anti-particle meet, they annihilate each other, freeing the energy previously pent up inside them as a pair of new particles known as photons – or light. In doing so, they become something else entirely though they retain characteristics of their original state. Taking it further, light is the literal and metaphorical result of a resolution of dualities.

    Light is something that makes vision, or seeing, possible; it represents spiritual illumination or enlightenment; and it travels into infinity. As an expression of the soul (itself a product of the resolution of dualities), a psychedelic experience is one that “shows us the light” through some magical and perfectly balanced unity of opposites. That unity may come to exist when the two divergent halves of man’s nature merge, it could be man’s internal world combining with his external reality, or even where civilization meets the wilderness to create the frontier, among many other things. No matter what its genesis, however, the creation of light is a supremely spiritual moment.

    As it encompasses a resolution of dualities, psychedelic music also is a metaphor for light. Here are a few (of many) observations on the music:

    Jefferson Airplane
    • “Through the arrangement of each song, there remain strains of the individual styles of the musicians,” explained Barbara Rowes, Grace Slick’s biographer. “What evolved is an intriguing unity of oppositions which creates unusual breadth and original interplay within each structure. (Rowes 80)

    Big Brother
    • “I remember daily trying to solve some very technical problems with this new amalgam of a blues voice with a rock and roll band,” said Sam Andrew, Big Brother guitarist. “We had to feel and analyze at the same time. This can be a very difficult juggling act indeed.” (bbhc)

    Early S.F. Dance Concerts
    • “Each weekend people converged at auditoriums such as the Avalon Ballroom for all-night festivals that combined the seemingly incongruous elements of spirituality and debauchery.” (Hirshhorn)

    Psychedelic Music
    • Guitarist Steve Howe said: “It’s very hard to define what psychedelic music is. It’s a certain kind of looseness with a certain kind of tightness.” (Perry Higher 61)

    Bob Dylan
    In rock critic Paul Williams’ view, the same thing held true for Bob Dylan’s music.
    • “. . .All the evidence is that Dylan’s songs from this period express a constantly shifting intent which is feeling-based and unconscious at least as much as it is deliberate, conscious, premeditated.”
    • Writer Ellen Willis characterized Dylan’s “strength as a musician [as] his formidable eclecticism combined with a talent for choosing the right music to go with a given lyric. The result is a unity of sound and word.” (Willis 234)
    • Upon hearing a tape of Dylan and the Hawks’ 1966 performance at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, rock critic Dave Marsh termed it “the music that springs out most completely from that place where magic most nearly operates as a totality. . . The extreme subtlety of the music is so closely interwoven with its majesty that they appear as one and the same. The first time I heard it, the effect was that of so many flashbulbs popping in my mind.” Dylan’s singing during these performances, it has been pointed out, is “simultaneously abandoned and disciplined, dryly crystalline and mouthily wet.” (Motion)
    • Historian Sean Wilentz observed that “[t]he making of Blonde on Blonde combined perfectionism with spontaneous improvisation to capture what Dylan heard but could not completely articulate in words.”

    Grateful Dead
    An audience member saw a unity of opposites in the Grateful Dead that he termed “the swirl” manifesting itself in the band’s unique musical approach.
    • “The Dead are the only ones who play the swirl. In a regular band, the bass, drum, and rhythm guitar move forward through the song in the same relationship to each other as if they were three little trains on parallel tracks,” he explained. “The Dead’s music doesn’t travel that straight line. Instead, all the players move inside and outside of each other in an intuitive dance. No one is playing pure rhythm because they’re all playing a rhythm. The melody might be primarily stated on lead guitar, but everything that everyone is playing at any given time is, in a way, an embellishment on the melody plus a rhythm. What I’m saying is that it’s pure melody and pure rhythm. . .When it’s all going smoothly – when they’re at their peak – it melts into a big ball of sound. You can still hear each element clearly, but overall that’s the swirl.” (Britton 211)

    The Byrds
    • A sense of unity also was abundantly present in the Byrds’ music, which according to Derek Taylor, “took the best of the Beatles and the best of Dylan and synthesized it,” in the process, fusing “the lyrical genius of Bob Dylan with the harmonic and melodic ingenuity of the Beatles.” (Twenty Years Ago Today,

    • In the case of “Light My Fire,” Doors’ organist Ray Manzarek saw opposites come together in the band’s music: “That’s what we were coming from. That combination of darkness and light. There can be no shadow unless there is a light next to it. The solos. . .go on and on – but they are orgasmic. But orgasm is not dark. It’s a big piece of light.” (Brodsky)
    Jimi Hendrix
    • Jimi Hendrix “married technology and technique in a visionary way, yet for all of the pyrotechnics and drama of his act, his music oozed soulfulness, sensuality and spirituality – there was nothing phony about it.” (Tamarkin 142)

    Achieving this type of resolution of dualities is a supremely spiritual moment and allows the music “to show the soul.”

    Why is all this important?

    Light is the ultimate spiritual expression in this world. The object or nature of any religious or spiritual quest is to gain enlightenment (in/within, taking light in, having light within one’s self, illumination) or illumination (in + luminarie meaning to light up) (Webster’s 599-600, 413). The perfectly realized being would be incandescent; he or she would possess light within. He or she would have become light itself.

    • According to LSD advocate Timothy Leary, “Every metaphor approximating the visionary experience is optical: illumination, revelation, insight, perspective, reflection. Right down the list. . .Light has always been the statement of the ultimate brain experience: Tibetans talk about the White Light of the Void. Dante’s Heaven was total white. . .the Egyptian religions (spoke of), sun. These are primitive anticipations of what we now have available. The human brain is starved for electronic stimulation; the human brain is addicted to light.” (Fahey)

    • John Cheever echoed Leary’s sentiments saying, “It seems to me that man’s inclination toward light, toward brightness, is very nearly botanical – and I mean spiritual light. One not only needs it, one struggles for it. It seems to me that one’s total experience is the drive toward light.”

    • A person playing music in such a state might resemble Skip Spence of Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape as he was described by Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company: “[He] was a flame. One night I walked into the Matrix, a small nightclub down in Cow Hollow at the bottom of Fillmore Street in San Francisco, and there he was drumming with the Jefferson Airplane. Skip was the only thing I could see onstage. He was glowing. It seemed as if there were a bright searchlight burning inside him. Wearing a white shirt, he was a kind of an avenging angel, driving the band, the music flowing through him. It looked as if Skip had taken hold of a live electric wire straight from God. He was very animated, improvising a mile a minute and there was a huge smile on his face. (website)

    It was all a very alchemical sort of thing in the truest sense of that word. While alchemy is involved with turning the common into something spectacular (most familiarly base metals into gold, a substance that was held to be the purest known), there are other dimensions to it. In true alchemy, the desire for gold had nothing to do with the desire for riches. Alchemists were not interested in amassing fortunes per se. The ability to make gold was a sign they had reached a state of inward perfection and discovered the secret workings of the universe – that they had become enlightened beings. There would now be a one-to-one correspondence between their souls and gold.

    But there was an alchemical dimension beyond even this as Carl Jung described: “Therefore it is impossible to say whether the practice of alchemy was designed to create. . .physical or spiritual transformation only. There was no “either-or” for that age, but there did exist an indeterminate realm between mind and matter – a psychic realm of subtle bodies whose characteristic it is to manifest themselves in a mental as well as a material form.” (Ball 90)

    Where the alchemists of the Middle Ages sought to become living metaphors for gold, however, the vision quest of the psychedelic musicians of the mid-1960s involved a somewhat different, yet somehow similar, goal. They were chasing the possibility of becoming living metaphors of light. They sought not just to reflect or generate light but also to become it. Just as medieval man believed gold was the purest substance known and becoming its equivalent represented the clearest path to heaven, so did light represent absolute purity to those who lived in a post-Einsteinian world, where the special theory of relativity (E=mc2) defined reality.

    Journalist Eric Hoffer put his finger squarely on it when he said, “It is the stretched soul that makes music, and souls are stretched by the pull of opposites – opposite bents, tastes, yearnings, loyalties. Where there is not polarity – where energies flow smoothly in one direction – there will be much doing but no music.” (Annabelle’s)

    FWIW: LSD also is one of the world’s few piezoluminescent substances, meaning that, in its pure crystalline state, it gives off light. Jerry Garcia caught some of this connection of LSD with light when he said, “How gray life would be without psychedelics.”

    1. “encountering or experiencing what is created at or on the line where the two opposites meet. (And I am speaking here about more than just this one instance.)” Nice! I get what you are after here and love all the evidence you have pulled together from these sources of people chasing the light, as it were. Look forward to how you keep formulating this. I will keep thinking about it.

      1. Thanks for taking the time.

        I have tons of this stuff lying around; it’s the mere tip of the iceberg so to speak.

        And trying to put it together in some different kind of way to answer the question: “Why was American psychedelic music of the mid-1960s so attractive and so different in such important and exhilarating ways from any music that had come before or after it?” In other words: Just what was the music itself? And how can I make the form fit the subject matter; be its true equivalent

        Have arrived at the conclusion that metaphorical/metaphysical is the way into the question rather than analytical.

        Metaphor that seemed best for this project was “light,” a phenomenon that could be used metaphorically for so many things in the music and the culture.

        Trying to blend oral history with something I haven’t decided yet.

        I guess I’m trying to paint a picture of what it was rather than analyzing or critiquing it using words. Sort of here it is – plain and simple.

        What I sent the other day is really not part of thoughts on electrification/technology. Though because they’re part of the same thing they are and they aren’t.

        Electrification is growing like Topsy. May have to send through different means if you want to see it.

        Thanks again.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *