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The Legend of Tom Dooley

Tom Dula

2008 is the 140th anniversary of his hanging.
Tom Dula was hanged May 1, 140 years ago. His guilt may be a matter of debate, but his legend -- and the song that cemented it -- are indisputable........

The Murder That Sold 10,000 Guitars "May 1st marks the 140th anniversary of the hanging of Tom Dula for the murder of Laura Foster. Because of a ballad about this young man's death, a song kept alive in the North Carolina mountains, the nation carries the event in its collective memory almost a century and a half later.
I tell this story having grown up in Statesville, N.C., where Tom was tried and hanged because it's the biggest thing ever to happen there. It's difficult to separate fact from myth 140 years out, but through the research of Dula historian John Foster West, court records, and witness testimonies, we have a pretty good grasp of the basic facts. Keep in mind, however, that good storytellers never let facts interfere with a true story, so there are many versions and discrepancies in the telling. To my mind, it's the stories that mix historical fact and imagination that are most compelling and best illuminate the human condition.

In June 1865 a Confederate soldier just shy of his 21st birthday was released from a Union prison camp and began traveling back home to Reedy Branch, in mountainous Wilkes County, North Carolina.
The ballad of Tom Dooley tells us that Dula was captured before he got to Tennessee by a sheriff named Grayson, and although there are stories still repeated about Sheriff Grayson –
"You will notice that Tom Dulas name becomes Dooley in the song. Its common in the southern mountains to shift a final unstressed uh sound to ee, so Dula was -- and is -- frequently pronounced as Dooley. (The song is published as "Tom Dooley," so I use that spelling for the song.) The same practice gave us the Grand Old Opry (for opera), and if you watch The Andy Griffith Show reruns (and why wouldnt you?) you've heard Andy say about Aunt Beas cooking, That was extry good. Although Ive heard this manner of speech all my life, Ive never found an explanation for the derivation. " [continue with pictures]

Linguistics: Irish American Vernacular English

Explains a lot more on this topic. Imagine - the Irony in a name. This will explain the derivation. Tom and the hill people were probably Irish.
On June 28, a couple of days after Dula set out walking for Tennessee, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
You will notice that Tom Dula's name becomes “Dooley” in the song. It's common in the southern mountains to shift a final unstressed “uh” sound to “ee,” so Dula was -- and is -- frequently pronounced as “Dooley.” (The song is published as "Tom Dooley," so I use that spelling for the song.) The same practice gave us the Grand Old Opry (for opera), and if you watch The Andy Griffith Show reruns (and why wouldn't you?) you've heard Andy say about Aunt Bea's cooking, “That was extry good.” Although I've heard this manner of speech all my life, I've never found an explanation for the derivation."

Karen Ellis Educational CyberPlayGround writes:

Linguistics: Irish American Vernacular English Explains a lot more on this topic. Imagine - the Irony in a name. This will explain the derivation. Tom and the hill people were probably Irish.

Irish Dictionary
dul, dula
a noose, loop, Irish dul, dol, snare, loop, Welsh dl, noose, loop, doli, form a ring or loop; Greek @Gdlos, snare; Latin dolus, etc.
a pin, peg, Irish dula; cf. Latin dolo, a pike,
Middle High German zol, a log.


David Brose FOLKSCHOOL.ORG writes:

The Article has a great poster from the film called the "Legend of Tom Dooley".
I saw that film when I was 8 years old (1959) at a very grand theatre called
the RKO Palace in Columbus, Ohio...the film had nothing to do with the Tom
Dula of real life, but was a Hollywood contrived story about a confederate
soldier. The film did not go into the love triangle between Dula and his
three female companions.
If you can ever get hold of a copy, Frank Proffitt was the source for that ballad. It was collected from Frank Proffitt by Frank and Anne Warner. Proffitt was living near Reese, North Carolina at the time (Actually, he lived at Pick Britches Valley).
Alan Lomax placed the Frank Proffitt version into his compilation "THE FOLKSONGS OF NORTH AMERICA," Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, 1960. The Kingston Trio had their "hit" ca. 1958. You can hear Frank Proffitt sing "Tom Dula" on Folk Legacy Records, FSA-1.
As a North Carolina resident I may be biased toward this song, but I find the fact that the ballad(s) and the legends surrounding the man continue to circulate in oral tradition some 140 years after his death to be fascinating. By the by, the volume of the Frank C. Brown Collection of north Carolina Folklore that is dedicated to folk ballads contains five versions of that ballad, one written from the perspective of Laura Foster whom Dula murdered.

In 1958, a new song called "Tom Dooley" meant a national hit for the Kingston Trio.
For Frank Noah Proffitt, it meant that part of his heritage had suddenly been launched into national fame. Born to Wiley Proffitt and Rebecca Creed Proffitt on June 1, 1913, in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, Frank moved to and grew up in Pick Britches, now known as Mountain Dale, at the foot of Stone Mountain in Watauga County. He learned how to make banjos and dulcimers from his father.

Wiley Proffitt was not the only family member who taught young Frank folk songs and instrument-making. Frank learned traditional folk songs from his aunt, Nancy Prather, and from his father-in-law, Nathan Hicks, who also made dulcimers. His grandmother, Adeline Perdue, who lived in Wilkes County during the Tom Dula trial, taught Frank "Tom Dula." According to family legend, she saw Tom riding in a coffin, and as he strolled down the street to his hanging, he sang a song--the same song she taught her grandchildren.

As a family man, Frank made his living growing tobacco and strawberries and making instruments as his father and father-in-law had done. One day in 1937 a couple from New York named Warner visited them to buy one of Nathan Hicks' dulcimers. The man, Frank Warner, was particularly interested in learning Appalachian folk songs, and Nathan sang some of the ones he knew. The next year, when Frank Proffitt was visiting his father-in-law, Frank and Anne Warner returned, and Proffitt sang "Tom Dula" for them.

"His eyes sparkled as I sing Tom Dooley to him and told him of my Grandmaw Proffitt knowing Tom and Laura.I walked on air for days after they left," Frank said about Frank Warner's visit.

The Warners used one of the first battery operated recorders to capture the songs Frank sang for them.

What happened after that visit sparked the eventual recording that made the Kingston Trio famous.

Surprised that others were interested in the folk songs he had grown up with, Frank Proffitt decided to try to collect as many songs as he could. He sent a book of songs to Warner, who modified several of them and performed them himself.

Shortly after that, in 1947, Warner shared "Tom Dula" with Alan Lomax, a professor at New York University, who published it in his collection titled "Folk Songs USA."

In 1958, the Kingston Trio heard the song almost by accident, adapted it, and added it to their stage act. They renamed the song "Tom Dooley" and recorded it for their album that year. Frank Proffitt heard the Kingston Trio perform the song on the Ed Sullivan show and was completely surprised.

Eventually Proffitt and Warner filed a joint lawsuit for legal claim to "Tom Dooley." Three years later, they began receiving royalties.

Frank Proffitt agreed to accompany Warner to performances in the early 1960s. Proffitt received numerous invitations to perform around the country, with Warner's encouragement. He also participated in workshops in Chicago and at a camp in Massachussetts.

In 1962 Folkways Records and Service Corp. recorded him, and Folk-Legacy Records, Inc. released Frank Proffitt, of Reese, North Carolina as their first album.

Even with the hundreds of invitations and the travel, Frank Proffitt's first priority was always his farmwork. In fact, he eventually refused to sing for free. In fact, he sang the songs for people not out of a motive for personal gain, but to give tribute to the people who had taught him the songs. He said the songs helped him remember his older family members and even picture them.

Frank never let his fame prompt him to move out of Watauga County. On November 1, 1965, he drove his wife, Bessie to a hospital in Charlotte for surgery and returned home. Later that evening, he died, at age 52.

The Kingston Trio's rendition of the song made the legend of Tom Dula a national fascination. Because Frank Proffitt sang the song for the Warners, and the Warners gave it to Alan Lomax, the Kingston Trio launched an old country folk ballad about a century-old murder in a small, rural county into immortality.

Lynip, Amaris O. "Proffitt Sang the Legend of Tom Dooley." The Democrat.


Tom Duly - Frank Proffitt
Alan Lomax travels through the Southern Appalachians investigating the songs, dances, and religious rituals of the descendents of the Scotch-Irish frontiers people who have made the mountains their home for centuries. Preachers, fiddlers, moonshiners, cloggers and square dancers recount the good times and the hard times of rural life. Performances by Tommy Jarrell; Janette Carter; Ray and Stanley Hicks; Frank Proffitt, Jr.; Sheila Kay Adams; and Ray Fairchild, the man reputed to be the fastest banjo-picker in the world.

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