Monday, July 7, 2008

Some Thoughts On Tom Dooley

Scenes From Karen W. Reynolds' Play
Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend

Sometime this week at current rates, our Chilly Winds' video of Tom Dooley on YouTube will pass the 30,000 views mark, making it our most popular upload by far. I am proud to say that of the dozens of versions on the web, ours is second only to the Kingston Trio itself, whose version from the 1981 Reunion Concert weighs in at 70,000 plus views (making it, I'm pretty sure, the most viewed single file of any of the now scores of videos of the group that YouTubers have posted in the last year and a half).

I hope Xroaders have seen theirs and ours. I dressed up the audio for ours for our upcoming CD and you can hear it here:

The Chilly Winds: Tom Dooley

The popularity on YT of the song is odd for a whole host of reasons, and the odyssey of the song itself from its origin to this point in time is strange. I figured that our version of The Gypsy Rover uploaded at the same time exactly a year ago would have outpointed TD by a mile, given the incredible popularity of Irish folk music online and on TV in the last few years. Well, our GR is closing in on 9,000 views and is the #1 version on YT - but our Tom Dooley hit 1,000 in three days and has never looked back.

And yet the song gets so little respect. I've been to the last five fantasy camps, and I have never heard the song performed from the stage or suggested and sung in any of the never-ending jams I've been a part of. It never appears on any of the "favorite song" polls occasionally conducted by KT fans. I've never heard it on oldies radio over the air (and once in a while I do hear MTA or Tijuana Jail or A Worried Man).

But TD is the only single song of the hundreds recorded by the Trio to be recognized by the Grammy people, both with the now famous first award for a Country and Western performance in 1959 and as #88 on the 100 Greatest Records of all time.

Probably the best extended discussion of the background of both the song itself and this recording was written by KT expert Pete Curry and can be found HERE.

The song remains controversial. Our upload generated a number of semi-negative comments, and there are more videos on YT of people making serious attempts to do something like the original Grayson/Whitter version from 1929 popularized by Doc Watson in recent decades (whose YT version has but - gulp - 13,000 views). Jeremy Raven did an excellent piece here two or three years ago complete with pictures and audio files - and yes, the Grayson of the duo was related to the Grayson who captured Dula.

Doc's version on YT is part of a documentary and not complete, but here's a band doing TD in its original form:

I've been surprised at FC at how many KT fans know primarily the Stereo Concert
version (which was not the Record of the Year) and not the original album
cut/single in glorious mono. So - here's what sold six million copies:

I'd guess that most KT fans know the murky story of their acquisition of the song. They allegedly ( KTOR p. 27) heard it at an open mic audition on 8/27/57 at The
Purple Onion and decided to include it on the first album, with Dave Guard grabbing
a copyright for the arrangement (and the subsequent writer royalties ).
But I always suspected part of the story. Most people don't learn a song after listening to it once. I've always guessed that Dave had a copy of John A. and Alan Lomax's 1947 Folk Songs Of North America, which includes seven songs that appear on the first album, including Tom Dooley with the exact words the Trio uses and the exact tune, adapted according to the Lomaxes by folkies Frank Warner and Frank Profitt from the Grayson/Whitter version, which as you can see above is very different. Warner and Profitt of course sued Guard and got the rights and the money back in 1961.

I've always thought that it is indeed a great, great song. The two hallmark aspects of the Trio's version, I always thought, were Buzz Wheeler's great bass work (whose syncopated "bottom" to the number makes it swing - it's almost jazzy) and the arrangement that gives Nick Reynolds that soaring "Hang down your head and cry" line following the second verse. It was also a statement song, even if initially the KT did not intend it to be so and it took the DJ at KLUB to make it so. But a statement it became, the Trio saying we are here, we are really good, and we are going to be different from anything you've ever heard before.

And they have been. And are. And because of Tom Dooley, the breakthrough mega-hit whose sales no other Trio recording ever equaled, they have enthralled us for fifty years.

Appendix - One Year Later, 7/4/09

Some other great videos have surfaced on YouTube since the initial post. First, Frank Warner (who "found" the song and arranged it) Pete Seeger:

The most genuinely traditional version by Doc Watson, whose grandmother knew Annie Melton, the "other woman" in the Tom Dula-Laura Foster association. Some still believe that Melton was the real murderer:

And recently added - the original 1929 Grayson and Whitter recording from which all the others are derived:

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