Doc Watson - Tom Dooley
from Doc Watson (1964)
In 2010, if you commit a grisly, sensational murder, your car chase will be broadcast live on the local news; the public will be able to follow your trial minute by minute on the Huffington Post; you’ll receive months of wall to wall coverage on Nancy Grace. In 1868, they’d sing a song about you.
In 1866, Tom Dula murdered his fiance Laura Foster; in 1868 he was executed. This song appeared soon afterward, and fulfills much of the role of the news media today: it tells us the story of the killing, titillates us with the gory details, and even has a journalistic bent, switching voice halfway through to tell Tom Dula’s side of the story: “I know they’re gonna hang me, tomorrow I’ll be dead / though I never even harmed a hair on poor little Laurie’s head.”
“Tom Dooley” is a folk song in the increasingly rare, classic sense — a song with no known author, that seemed to spring organically from the population of a particular place and time, and was passed on orally for decades before it was transcribed or recorded. Doc Watson has the perfect voice to bring it into the present, plain, strong and strident; it also doesn’t hurt that he’s one of the best guitar flatpickers to ever live. Blind from the age of one, Doc’s an inestimable interpreter of the American traditional music. Amazingly, he’s still alive and touring at the age of 87; along with Pete Seeger, Ralph Stanley, and Bobby Osborne, this puts him firmly on the list of “Octogenarian Music Legends to See Before They Die.” Anyone feel like driving to Albany in August?