RaR7 – Tom Dooley


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Tom Dooley by the Kingston Trio

In 1957 the Kingston Trio emerged from San Francisco’s North Beach club scene to reignite the American folk music movement and bring it successfully into the popular mainstream. Bob Shane, Nick Reynold, and Dave Guard were young musicians just out of college and were thus not burdened with the left-wing political associations that created problems with older folk singers. In the 1930s labor unions, aid societies, and populist movements embraced folk music to publicize the plight of farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl, the iniquities suffered by southern blacks, and the despair of millions of Americans. Folk musicians were generally supportive and often performed for social organizations. When Senator Joseph McCarthy convened the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1954, folk singers were among the groups accused of being communists or having communist sympathies; many were listed in the infamous “Red Channels,” a pamphlet of suspected communist entertainers. Though none were charged with a crime (save for Pete Seeger, who was charged with contempt because he refused to testify), folk music, which was just beginning to enjoy popular success, was stopped dead in its tracks. The Kingston Trio avoided political statements, favoring instead old ballads that they infused with pop music levity; they also carefully crafted a professional image, taking lessons in singing and professional comportment and choosing a name that would capitalize on the current fad for calypso music. Additionally, their sound was timely; it was fresh and spontaneous and provided an alternative to rock and roll and slick pop hits. The group had a number of hit records, but they faded from the charts as topical singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan emerged to address the social issues of the early 1960s.

Even though “Tom Dooley” is credited to “Frank Warner, John Lomax, and Alan Lomax,” none of them wrote either the lyrics or the melody. The song was a traditional ballad about the 1866 murder of Laura Foster by her ex-lover Tom Dula and his new lover Annie Melton. Song collector Frank Warner learned it from farmer Frank Proffitt and later recorded it. He gave Alan Lomax permission to transcribe his version for an upcoming book, Folk Music U.S.A., which credited Frank Proffitt as the arranger and original source. When the Kingston Trio recorded the song their record company listed the song as “traditional” and credited the arrangement to the trio. Alan Lomax sued; the book, he argued, gave him, Warner, and Proffitt valid copyright on the song. The courts decided in their favor, as the Kingston Trio had clearly learned the song from Frank Warner’s record.


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