Killing Tom Dooley

It was 1958, I was six, and the song on the radio was “Tom Dooley,” by the Kingston Trio. When it came on in the supermarket, in the car, in the kitchen at home, grownups would pause and get a strange, dreamy look, humming along, mouthing the words. Sometimes they would meet your gaze and give a solemn little nod, as if it were God Bless America or Onward Christian Soldiers that they were hearing.

This was a lot for a six year-old to make sense of, since the song was — is — a shuddery blend of love and death, outwardly as devoid of uplifting content as song could be. Based on the well-publicized 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster, in North Carolina, by one Tom Dula, the folk song in earlier versions is mainly a bit of Gothic fun, heartless and untroubled as a tabloid. It jeers at Tom and gloats over his well-deserved punishment. But the Kingston Trio’s down-tempo version, with its Calypso beat and barbershop harmonies, aims at pathos. It begins with one of those portentous voice-overs that were so much the fashion in Fifties pop:

Throughout history, there have been many songs written about the eternal triangle. This next one tells the story of a Mr. Grayson, a beautiful woman, and a condemned man named Tom Dooley. When the sun rises tomorrow, Tom Dooley must hang.

Then the first of several choruses, mournful, simple:

Hang down your head Tom Dooley,
Hang down your head and cry;
Hang down your head Tom Dooley,
Poor boy you’re bound to die.

In short order, we learn of Tom Dooley’s crime:

I met her on the mountain
And there I took her life
Met her on the mountain
Stabbed her with my knife.

I can remember being seriously perplexed by all this. It was, I think, nearly my first hint that grownup love was less easy-sweet than in Disney movies, where the air-brushed lovers dance across swirling pastel landscapes, buoyed by a sound track that sounds like a church choir. If Tom Dooley was a bad man, why on earth was the song calling him a “poor boy,” and generally taking his side? What did Mr. Grayson have to do with anything? And that business with the knife—! The phrase “eternal triangle” meant nothing to me, and I took it that Tom met the “beautiful woman” there on the mountain for the first time and then promptly stabbed her.

And all the adults nodded and tapped their feet, mouthing the words, as if to say, yes, this is the way it is, yes, they saw how a “poor boy” could make such a mistake. It seemed that murder was one possible response to Beauty, not even all that surprising, almost natural. I was misreading, of course, but perhaps still finding something that was really there. What still unnerves me in the song is the eerie way it takes Tom’s deed as fait accompli, as if murder were so much in the normal run of things that it needed no special explanation. The tag-line, “Poor boy you’re bound to die,” repeats and repeats, in accents that vary from hushed pity to a kind of fey celebration, till the effect is of encountering something absolutely fixed, a stone wall against which you break your fists.

So those weeks of the song’s vogue were one of those times, not rare in the Fifties, when a child could suspect that the adults were all insane. Right at the borders of our agreeable household world, my sister and brothers and I knew, were the Russians and the Bomb. A little further out, the War that had so impressed the grownups was a dark surround peopled by Japs, Nazis, and other terrors, replete with tanks, flamethrowers, bayonets, and worse. In two generations America had fought two world wars, plus the Korean aftershock, and war had taken on an expected, seasonal aspect. Our turn was doubtless coming. And the next round, everyone knew, promised to end everything and everyone in one great flash of hydrogen.

Not that we were hearing much of this directly. Famously, those poor boys who went off to fight Hitler and Hirohito came back mute, disconnected from friends and family, unable for decades to give real voice to what they had seen and done. That was more or less the case with our own father, who said nothing to us children about his war. Much later, when I was nearing middle age, he began coming out with marvelous yarns about his year in the Philippines, where he logged 82 combat missions piloting a PBM, the Navy’s workhorse light bomber. How he and the crew once returned from a night mission to discover, at dawn, a palm branch stuck on one pontoon, so low had they dipped beneath the enemy tracers on their approach to target. How once in a tropical thunderstorm the wind shear pegged the variometer up, then down, while water spurted into the shuddering cockpit from a half dozen leaks. How he and his crew were shot down in a night action off Mindanao, and ditched in the ocean and swam all night before being rescued — all but the man who died. How half the pilots in the squadron were badly wounded or dead within six months. How MacArthur was a homicidal horse’s ass who got good men killed out of pure vanity.

But this would come later. In the Fifties he was still silent, and the country with him. With the nation still psychologically on a war footing, the threat of annihilation still looming, candor was unwanted, despair basically illegal. Hence Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Donna Reed, I Love Lucy, TV Westerns, To Hell and Back starring Audie Murphy as himself, Lawrence Welk, Dinah Shore, all the schlock and denial of that notoriously repressed and inexpressive era. Our parents and teachers and Walter Cronkite on The Twentieth Century, speaking essentially with one voice, went on rehearsing the lessons they believed War Two had taught them: soldier on, don’t ask too many questions, do what you must, hope for the best, follow orders. Such the Zeitgeist. In school, everyone still remembers, children practiced hiding under their desks, supposedly a response that would make some kind of difference in a nuclear attack.

So hearing the song now, one thinks, how very Fifties. Soldier on, Tom, down into that lonely valley where they will hang you. What is nascently subversive, though, is the studied pity for Tom, depraved wretch that he is. Within a decade the Stones will record Sympathy for the Devil, and the Animals, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the later Beatles, and countless other demons will be escaping from the opened Pandora’s Box of Rock. Here in 1958, the lid is just beginning to lift.

These days I wonder if the feminists ever took hold of the song, noticing (what now seems as jarring as a pretty housewife smoking over breakfast in a Life magazine) that Grayson and Tom Dooley are both named, but not Laura Foster, who figures only as the “beautiful woman” of the introduction and the “her” of the first verse. In real life Grayson was a wealthy farmer who briefly employed Tom Dula, then rode with the posse that captured him. Some versions of the folk song transformed him into a romantic rival, others into the sheriff who apprehended Tom, and the Trio’s abbreviated take seems to endorse the first possibility without excluding the second. Laura Foster becomes even more ambiguous, a mythic femme fatale, the scene and cause of Tom’s crime rather than its human center. The song does not scorn her pain, exactly, but seems unable to imagine it, while it gives eloquent voice to Tom’s. She could be a pinup on the wall over a GI’s bed, revered at a desperate distance, never known. Or she could be Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Sophia Loren, any of those bosomy visions who ruled Fifties cinema, their agreeable silliness as soothing to the veterans as, later, it would be problematic to their children.

The song also invites a psychoanalytic reading, and not just because1958 marked the approximate zenith of Freudianism in the United States. The “Mr.” before Grayson’s name makes him an older and more powerful nemesis, while the distance of the “beautiful woman” from the “boy” Tom makes the Laura-figure seem likewise his elder: enough to convict them of being Mom and Dad, if we are talking orthodox psychoanalysis. Still more to the point are the phallic overtones of “my knife,” as patent as they are discomforting. Tom kills Laura by putting something of his own deep inside her, a gruesome caricature of love that epitomizes all the darker elements of Eros. Even at six, I swear, the gist of the warning was clear to me: sex is dark and dangerous, steer clear.

But even more, the song then and now seems mysteriously linked to the War. Like all modern war stories, it expresses the shock of sudden disillusion, of fatal rupture from a world one had thought to be good. Not too absurdly I hope, it reminds me of Randal Jarrell’s great “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the state
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

“Tom Dooley” has not progressed so far into either disillusion or surrealism, but it has some of the same nightmarish foreshortening: the murder already done, the verdict in, only the hanging left. Evil is real, desire can be savage — and life is not so rosy after all. It ends suddenly and far too soon, in a catastrophe for which you yourself bear most of the guilt — most but not all, for it is Beauty and Love which have betrayed you to your own worst possibilities. In all this there is a hint, at least, of the returned soldier’s eternal complaint against the society which has sent him to do and suffer the unthinkable. The historical Tom Dula was in fact a Confederate war veteran, impoverished, as soldiers on the losing side tend to be. America and I did not know this in 1958, but part of what we were hearing, just possibly, as the song rose up the charts and inspired Folk Rock and became a landmark of the popular culture, was the sadness of that older war resonating with our more recent ones. What made the grownups tap their feet and nod was that so many of them knew too well what it was to keep vigil the night before a day when you expect to die.

And some of them knew what it was to take a life. Granted, Tom’s “sweetheart murder” of Laura is quite another thing than combat; yet it strands Tom in spiritual terrain that must have seemed familiar to many men who had seen too much in Europe or the Pacific or Korea, even as it suggests the anger at the home front that can be one of the soldier’s deepest secrets, his rage that can have a cold core of misogyny. If it is for Mom and apple pie and Your Sweetheart that the boy fights, then anguish can whisper the corollary: that it is the women who sent you to war, betrayed you to a living hell. Meanwhile, as Dave Grossman and others have shown, the soldier who has killed fights the fear that he may be actually and permanently a murderer, at war with everything he has fought to protect, with the Good, with the Eternal Feminine. It all comes together in this nebulous lament of a soldier (perhaps) who comes home to the woman he loves to find that she has betrayed him (perhaps), and very certainly kills her and is hanged for it.

Playing in the attic one gray day in Minnesota, six months or so before the song hit the charts, my sister and I found the flight mittens my father had worn in ’44-’45. They were huge, clumsy things, big enough to serve as hats for us, hastily stitched together on the wartime assembly lines; but the leather and the fur trim and lining were oddly luxurious. To plunge your hands into that thick warmth was to feel, in the most unsettling way, the pitiless altitudes to which Dad had climbed in his slow and shaky plane, to bomb enemy ships when he could find them. The absoluteness of the whole martial proposition came suddenly clear, the lunacy. Right here had been our father’s steady, much-washed surgeon’s hands, the surest and gentlest things in our little world. In these clumsy mitts they had guided the plane through the searing cold air, hour after patient hour, till it was over the target, till the bombs were in position, till they could be dropped on the screaming men below.

Enough to make you hang down your head and cry.


John Kilgore is nonfiction editor of TheScreamOnline. He has been a frequent contributor to this journal and to two other online venues, Agora and The Vocabula Review. Since his retirement from Eastern Illinois University in 2010, he has been working all too slowly on a collection of essays on language, DonŐt Shoot the English Teacher.