“Tom Dooley” is in every folk guitar book in the world, or at least in all the ones I’ve come across. The song consists of only two chords, and it’s meant to introduce new students to switching from the I to the V minor while keeping the beat. But once that technique is grasped, old Tom is left hangin’ from the white oak tree, in favor of songs that people actually enjoy playing. Even worse than the tediousness of the song is the sense that “Tom Dooley” is a wasted opportunity. Many great folk songs have been written about a love triangle, or a murder, or an execution – “Tom Dooley” has all three, and is based on a true story at that. But instead, there’s nothing but the repetitious melody and the exactly nine unique lyrics over the course of three verses and a chorus. Even “poor boy, you’re bound to die” loses its impact when you hear it two dozen times. The weird syncopation in the chorus – “Hang down your head, Tom – Dooley!” – adds an awkward, boisterous note to an otherwise somber song.
The Kingston Trio attempts to break up the monotony by adding a dramatic spoken word intro that sets the song on the night before Dooley’s hanging. The trio’s real coup, however, arrives in the third chorus, when the voices twist in and out of each other in a three-tiered harmony that echoes the inner turmoil of a condemned man. “Hang down your head!” is no longer a sympathetic cluck from on-lookers, but a cry of desperation in the face of the gallows. It’s not enough to save “Tom Dooley” (the song or the man), but it’s a tribute to the last words of a dying man. 6
Hit #1 on November 17, 1958; total of 1 week at #1
6 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.62% through the Hot 100