That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Yes, “Tom Dooley” is a cover song. Should this even be a surprise, given its age? But even the oldest version you can think of is unlikely to be the original. Were you to ask me, a stripling of a lad, the version I presume to be the original is always going to be the Kingston Trio 1958 chartbuster. As I was 1 at the time, I have this knowledge only on the good authority of my ex, who sang it to me whilst courting, it having been sung to her by her mother as she lay in her cot. Indeed, whenever the song was prompted to her by her daughter, my mother in law was, and probably still is, capable of piping up into a few verses.
Younger readers have maybe had to make do with more recent renditions, Mr. Dooley surprisingly still having wings, popping up all over, and not always where and from whom you would expect. I say this as it is, let’s be fair, pretty limp fare. Cutting edge, perhaps, in 1958, but maybe not the trigger to awake the inspiration of the icons of the ’60s folk explosion, you know, Bob Dylan and that sort of artist. Well, we’ll see….
The Kingston Trio – Tom Dooley (Traditional/Frank Proffitt cover)
For such a jolly sounding tune, the discovery that it was a song about a grisly murder came as some latter-day surprise, it being one of the many such ballads that litter the annals of trad.arr. The usual sort of tale, the path of true love failing to run true, as boyfriend batters his sweetheart to death. Actually, this was complicated by the fact that Dooley’s girl was pregnant to boot, and that she was married to another. Dooley had earlier been her previous lover, as well as of her sister, which is nice, and then went off to fight for the south in the Civil War. On his return he picked up where he left off, with both sisters. And their cousin.
Anyway, Laura, for that was her name, was found stabbed to death, and Dooley was hanged for the crime. Whether he did it or was framed by any other of the potentially interested other parties, the other various husbands and partners involved, remains open to conjecture. 1868 if you want to look it up. And his real name was Dula. Yeah, real cheery chart topping fodder to feed kid’s ears with.
The first acknowledged versions are disputed as to their source, with a Thomas Land writing a song, if not the song, in the years after the hanging. Much later, famed folklorist Alan Lomax suggested a Frank Proffit was responsible, having made a recording of it in the late 1930s. Given there were earlier versions in what counted for the charts a full ten years prior to Proffit’s version, it seems safer to say nobody really knows. So here are a couple of the earlier ones, for contrast, together with a couple that are more contemporary, showing that, actually, it isn’t so bad a song.
Grayson & Whitter – Tom Dooley (Traditional cover)
Frank Proffitt – Tom Dooley (Traditional cover)
Intriguingly, these two, from 1929 and around ten years later, sound more attuned to current aural sensibilities, with none of the preppy polish that so ages the Kingston Trio. The Grayson & Whitter take is especially appealing, the comparison with the similar field recordings of ancient bluesmen, together showing how similar furrows were being ploughed in the equally impoverished white communities as to the black. You will note how the credits change. After the Kingston Trio had their successful hit version, they belatedly had to acknowledge Proffitt as the source, whereas, Grayson & Whitter, ten years earlier, could not have conceivably known of the later rendition, even if the label crediting it to Grayson is largely wishful thinking.
Greg Brown & Bill Morrissey – Tom Dula (Traditional/Frank Proffitt cover)
This 1993 version owes a good deal more to those early renditions, with little harking back to the 1958 style, and comes from a delightful duet recording made by Bill Morrissey and Greg Brown, each reasonably successful singer-songwriters in their own right. I doubt my erstwhile mother-in-law would recognize it the same song. You may note Tom Dooley has become Tom Dula for this rendition. Morrissey, who died in 2011, was also a writer, his songs and books mostly tending towards the darker side. Brown occupies a similar niche as a writer of thoughtful and literate songs; a tribute record, Going Driftless, was released in his honor in 2002 and is well worth a listen.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Tom Dula (Traditional/Frank Proffitt cover)
Finally, in utterly complete contrast, Neil Young’s extraordinary epic version is a must-hear, and as bizarre a cover as he has ever produced. Even by the standards of Americana, Young’s project confined to addressing the hidden history of American trad.arr., old campfire songs handed down the generations, it is… odd. In part a fairly faithful performance, it could fit alongside much of his own work, especially with the ham-fisted backing by Crazy Horse, always the default ideal setting for Young’s voice and guitar. But the atonal repeated hollering of Tom Dula, Tom Dula (sounding more Dulay at that), and that perpetuates the background, smacks more of the half-finished and rushed songs that litter Young’s work with the Horse, rather than the well-intentioned version it otherwise seems to be.
Again, another one not for my mother-in-law. She probably wouldn’t like the version by the Grateful Dead, either.
Neil Young is perhaps the last artist to compose well known murder ballads.
Powderfinger and Down By The River.
Jolly? Nothing about the Kingston Trio’s version is jolly. From the get, the lyrics and tempo ooze melancholy and sustain it throughout.
Nor is “limp fare” really a fair characterization. Sure, back in ’58 artists like Woody, Pete, Josh White, Odetta, Cisco, Leadbelly, and even revivalists like The New Lost City Ramblers might have been considered more authentic than the commercially successful Kingston Trio who made their way onto records players in middle class living rooms across the country.
But their commercial success didn’t render their work limp. They weren’t cheezy, one-dimensional lightweights. They were three talented guys, decent musicians, who sang beautifully in three-part harmony and in this instance, delivered a more than respectablel rendition of a classic folk song —- never mind their matching striped shirts.
And as you’ve thoughtfully directed your readers to the wonderful 2002 Greg Brown tribute, I’ll mention Mark Erelli’s equally wonderful 2014 tribute to Mr. Morrissey.