The Truth About Murder Ballads

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar

It all began innocently enough, I was practicing my guitar and working from my new book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar” when I was curious about the first song being taught. It’s a great song for beginners as it is comprised of two simple chords, the A chord and the E chord. But the words took me by surprise, in part because this song is in a major key rather than a minor key. Which was not at all what I expected based on the subject matter. I took the book to my husband and said, you know a book is being written for adults when the first song they teach is this dark.

Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Hand down your head and cry
Hang down your head Tom Dooley
you know your gonna die.

What a great song to begin with! I’ve always enjoyed a good murder ballad. Since the book only lists this part of the song, my curious nature got me wondering what the rest of the song is about. Who is Tom Dooley and why is he going to die? As a folk singer, I wanted to know the whole song anyway, because if I was going to be working on this I wanted to make it part of my repertoire. So I went straight to YouTube and found the full version by the Kingston Trio. The introduce the song this way:

Throughout history
There’ve 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…

But the story in the song was still fragmentary, and it’s a very strange sweet version of a Murder Ballad as well. The song was short and simple, repeating the chorus many times. I knew there should be more to it than that. Sure enough, there is. It turns out this song is based on a true story. You can read the short version about it in the notes under the Lonnie Donegan version on YouTube. The story is that Tom Dooley actually composed the original version when he was in jail awaiting his hanging. My research took me deeper into the tale, and into the lyrics, and I’m still debating which version I intend to learn. Definitely not the Kingston Trio version as there isn’t enough information, not enough story telling quality for me. So I googled and I hit the motherload of information on this song.

Here was a folk song – a folk song, for God’s sake – that had somehow managed to top the charts and sell six million copies. Here was a tale of murder and judicial execution sung by three clean-cut young boys any mother could admire. Here were novelty records, movies, books and a story which contradicted itself with every new telling, and yet never seemed to change.

The true tale includes everything you ever wanted to know about sex, adultery, syphilis, class confilicts, and murder in North Carolina in the 1800’s. It’s the honest truth about this Murder Ballad, and I’m happy to have found it. What I love about folk music is it’s honesty about life, love, and death of real people. The full text of the very long online story is in a book: “Unprepared To Die: America’s Greatest Murder Ballads and the True Stories that Inspired Them” which has now been added to my Amazon Wish List, as it’s about several other murder ballads as well. The version of the song which has the most information is by blind folk singer Doc Watson, and it’s a great story-telling rendition, and is a fine example of bluegrass guitar to boot.

In composing this post, I really had to think about how to title it. There are so many different options! I did finally go with the simple title of The Truth About Murder Ballads, but here were some others I considered.

  • Practicing Guitar Is Murder
  • Murder and Syphilis in Folk Music
  • True Tales of Silver Dagger Mountain Music
  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Murder Ballads

And so my folk music quest continues, and it’s leading me in many different directions. There is a surprise at every turn, I had no idea that learning a two chord song could be this interesting. Come to think of it, the title could be: There and Back Again: The Whitewashing of Tom Dooley. I like to keep it real.