East Tennessee History Mountain Ballads Part 2
The people of the Appalachians are a unique people who have contributed much to our culture and our language.
Many people who first came into the mountains in the 1700’s and 1800’s were Scot-Irish, and they brought with them many things. This included a dialect in the language that is not found anywhere else in the world, except the mountains of Scotland, and they also brought their music. Their music was the folk ballad.
The folk ballad is a story that was meant to be sung that may have elements of the supernatural, murder, love lost, or even the deeds of an anti-hero.
These ballads served two purposes for those who dwelt in these mountains. They preserved the history, though at times it was not very factual, and the ballads entertained them.
Families would sing and play instruments with these ballads, and it would give a few moments of respite from a hard life.
This life may mean that they barely made a living off of the rocky hillsides or that they worked from sunup to sundown doing what they could to help raise a family that seemed to grow larger every day.
One of, if not the most famous of, these ballads did not have its origin in Scotland or anywhere else in Europe. It has its origin in the mountains near Boone, N.C., and its name is “Tom Dooley.”
The “Ballad of Tom Dooley” was based on real facts, with identifiable people and a real murder.
According to the story behind the song, Tom Dula was a young man who fought in the American Civil War. He returned home to the mountains around 1866 and started dating a local girl named Laura Foster.
Soon, Laura found out that she was pregnant with Tom’s child.
Some say that Tom was dating a woman named Anne Melton at the time also, and they decided to kill Laura and her unborn child. According to the official account, Tom stabbed Laura, killing her and her unborn child.
It didn’t take long for the police to arrest Tom for the crime, and he was found guilty. His punishment? He was to be hanged until he was dead.
The fateful day came, and Tom was taken to be hanged. His final words were
“Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn’t harm a hair on the girl’s head.”
Some believe that Anne Melton was the real killer because she was jealous of Laura, and that she killed her that night, not Tom.
Anne also stood trial, but she was acquitted of the crime. She would eventually go
insane, and when she died, it is said black cats gathered outside her home.
Tom’s trial made national news, and soon a ballad was written about it. The Kingston Trio heard the song from a man named Frank Proffitt, and they recorded it as “Tom Dooly.”
The ballad says:
“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
Met her on the mountain
There I took her life
I met her on the mountain
And I stabbed her with my knife.”
Because of the Kingston Trio’s version, this ballad became known throughout the world, and it all happened here in the heart of Appalachia.
Mountain ballads are part of our heritage, and they need to be told to the next generation so they can carry on the traditions of singing them and telling the stories behind them. After all, this is just a tiny part of who we really are.