A generation ago, parents complained of violence on television. Today they complain of violent videogames. Long before television and supermarket tabloids, however, local news of violent death and killing was passed from ear to ear in the form of folk music. These songs were called murder ballads, and they were just as gruesome and popular as any scary movie teenagers watch in our times.
One of the most famous Appalachian murder ballads is the legend of Tom Dula, who was hanged in Statesville, NC on May 1st, 1868 for the murder of Laura Foster. According to one version of his life story at the website for The North Carolina Visitor Center, Tom Dula was famous during his stint as a soldier during the Civil War for his love of music and banjo playing. The author of “The Story of Tom Dooley” recounts that, on the day of his hanging, “Tom Dooley rode through the streets of Statesville in a wagon,” and that he sat on the coffin on the way to the gallows, playing the banjo and joking with bystanders.
In the 1930s, folklorist Olive Wooley Burt started collecting murder ballads for a book entitled “American Murder Ballads and Their Stories.” This book was finally published in 1958, coincidentally the same year that the Kingston Trio released their version of the song about Tom Dula, which made his story famous outside of Appalachia for the first time. According to Harold Schechter, author of “Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment,” Burt collected many American murder ballads, including Tom Dooley, which “commemorate an enormous variety of shocking crimes, from notorious nineteenth-century serial murders … to obscure though equally disturbing cases, like that of Naomi Wise, who was gruesomely slain by her sweetheart during a riverside rendezvous.”
Here is a version of Tom Dooley sung by Bob Conroy, accompanying himself on the banjo, which was recorded at the 20th Inishowen International Folk Song & Ballad Seminar, March 2009 in Ireland.
Another popular subject for the murder ballad is the story of the Twa Sisters. This folk song comes to the Appalachian mountains from the Scottish and Irish settlers who brought their music with them when they emigrated to the New World. In one version of the song, she is pulled out of the river alive by a miller who steals her gold engagement ring and throws her back into the river to drown. You can hear that version by Celtic band Clannad here, but American folk singer Peggy Seeger also sang a version on the 1958 album “Alan Lomax Presents Folk-Song Saturday Night.”
Folk music from around the world helped spread the news of mining disasters and ships lost at sea, and the murder ballad that have come down to us from the Appalachian mountain people continue to be popular to this day.