In 1868 a man named Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley) was hanged in Statesville, N.C. after being convicted of murdering his lover, Laura Foster, in 1866.
The execution wasn’t the end of Tom Dula’s story. For generations rumors, conspiracies, and a hit song have swirled around the crime and its fallout.
As the story goes, the young Tom Dula was romantically involved with a woman named Ann Melton prior to enlisting as a confederate soldier in 1862. After the Civil War, he returned to Wilkes County, N.C. and resumed his affair with the now married Ann Melton, while also becoming romantically involved with her cousin Laura Foster.
In the spring of 1866, Laura Foster’s body was found in a shallow grave days after she’d been stabbed in the chest. Dula was arrested in Tennessee and returned to North Carolina for trial. His highly publicized case was tried, convicted, temporarily overturned, and ultimately upheld.
Legend has it that the actual perpetrator of the murder was Dula’s other lover Ann Melton.
The mythology around Tom Dula’s story reached new heights in 1958 when The Kingston Trio recorded and released to great critical and commercial success “Tom Dooley,” a traditional murder ballad about the incident.
Now a part of the canon of American folk music, the recording of “Tom Dooley” that started it all was captured by Frank and Anne Warner, two song-collectors who recorded a carpenter named Frank Proffitt singing the song in Beech Mountain, N.C. in 1938. Many have gone on to record and cover the murder ballad, including North Carolina flatpicking legend Doc Watson, who released his version in 1964.
In a poignant twist of music and historic lore, Doc Watson’s great grandmother allegedly heard Ann Melton confess to the murder on her deathbed in 1874.
Jan Davidson, executive director of the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown from 1992 to 2016, is a native of nearby Murphy, North Carolina. A musician and a writer, Jan has a Ph.D. in folklore and museum studies.
Jan Davidson: I Really Wanted to Get a Banjo
I’m from Murphy, North Carolina. My folks have been there since the 1840s. Back then they were farmers in the valley between Murphy and Andrews, but the last few generations have been town people. One of my granddaddies was a storekeeper, and my other granddaddy was a salesman for a wholesale company. I grew up in downtown Murphy in an old house that was built by my grandmother’s father, my great-granddaddy Robert Alexander Akin. He was a Confederate captain, and then after the war he was a schoolteacher.
That house has always been in our family. When I was a kid, there was a church on one side of it and a funeral home next to that, and then on the other side and across the street were filling stations. Those were the musical centers in towns like Murphy. In fact, there were four filling stations within an easy walk of our house, and they all played music. People came and played different types of music in each one. It was just great. It was good music.
My dad, who’s still living—he’s a hundred years old—was the Veteran’s Affairs officer for six counties here in western North Carolina. He helped people get their GI Bill benefits and so forth. He went to those counties every week, and in the summertime I’d go with him. I saw a lot of this whole end of the state, and I heard a lot of music. My dad knew I liked that.
When I first started listening in the 1950s, most of the guys tried to play like Flatt and Scruggs, but there were still a few old people around who did something that was obviously different from bluegrass. Once, I remember my father said he was going to see an old guy who had a banjo, a World War I vet named Caleb Mashburn. He’d had some health troubles, and his banjo didn’t have but about three strings on it, so I took him some new strings and he started playing things like “Mamma’s Darling Child,” which most people call “Soldier’s Joy” using a two-finger style. I worried a number of elderly people back then, asking them to play for me. I never saw clawhammer played around here. Nobody around here did it that I know of. The way they played the banjo here was up-picking, like Pete Seeger’s strum, which he learned from Aunt Samantha Bumgarner, who used to play a lot around Murphy.
When I was about thirteen, my daddy took me to Asheville to see a music show, and Frank Proffitt was in it. I really liked him. So I wrote him a fan letter, the only one I ever wrote in my life. And he answered it. I told him I really wanted to get a banjo just like he was playing. “I’m gonna get a job,” I wrote. I was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to get a banjo. [Laughs.] So I did, I worked at the Cherokee Scout newspaper folding papers, and then when I was fourteen I went to work at WC VP (Western Carolina Vacation Playground) as a DJ. The guy who’d been doing the job had gone off to college, so I became the early-morning DJ. So I had to get up at four in the morning. We signed on at five. A thousand watts! It was me and the farmers and the milkman and the cops. The yawn patrol. So I did that for a while, and then Frank Proffitt sent me a banjo. He said, “It’s got a crack in it, but you can have it if you’ll pay the shipping.” I’ve still got it. Then the guy who did the afternoon show went off to college, too, so I got that job, a teen show playing rock and roll records. I’d do the early-morning bluegrass show, go to school, and then do the afternoon rock and roll show.
While I worked at that radio station we had people like the Osborne Brothers come through here. Jim and Jesse were real popular, and they came here all the time. During that time I was playing commercial music on the radio and we’d change formats every couple of hours. Rock and roll, bluegrass, country—and live music, especially on the weekends. Church music. Whole congregations from places like Hanging Dog would come in the studio and sing and have preaching. Sometimes the station would sponsor music shows at the gym, and those bands would come into the studio and play live. I worked there from 1962 to 1966. Then I went off to Chapel Hill.
I first came here to the Folk School as a small child at Christmastime. They had a great Christmas event here with a big tree and all that. That’s the first thing I remember about coming here. Then we’d come up in the summertime and eat lunch here. The food was great. They always had homemade bread and fresh vegetables, so I remember that pretty well.
I first took a class here when I was in high school—wood carving. Then, later, when I was in college and I’d come home to Murphy, I’d go up to Brasstown and find the other college kids I knew who’d come home from school at the folk school dances. I always liked to see what was happening here.
During the late seventies the school started to get into local music more than it had before. There had never been a total connection between local music and the Folk School until the late seventies. I got hired to play the guitar here for a clogging event around then, and I’ve been involved with the Folk School ever since.
I’m really happy that there’s this richness at the folk school in such a rural area. We have great concerts here; we have dances once or twice a week, a great classical concert series, jams on Sunday afternoon, and often more jams on Tuesday nights. What I like best about all this is that it’s accessible to everybody and local people feel comfortable with coming here and participating. That’s what I like to see.
Jerry Jackson has served as director of the John C. Campbell Folk School since 2017. For more information visit their website.
The essay was reprinted from Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina Guidebook, published by the North Carolina Arts Council in partnership with UNC Press.
Since 1989, the State of North Carolina, through the North Carolina Arts Council, has honored dozens of folk artists with the North Carolina Heritage Award. Throughout 2019, we will highlight the eminent musicians honored with the award. Today, we republish the official N.C. Heritage Award profile of the Wilson Brothers, a gospel duo from the western part of the state who received the award in 1998. Jerry Wilson passed away in 2016, and Ray is no longer performing music, but their families continue the tradition of performing to this day, as documented by Jerry’s daughter Tipper Pressley here.
“I know that there’s a gift, a natural gift, that a lot of people have more than others," says Ray Wilson. "But if you don’t work on that to perfection, you don’t ever do much with it.” Ray and his brother Jerry have approached their music with this idea firmly in mind. Influenced by the brother duos that had their heyday in the 1930s, the Wilsons have worked out precise harmonies for the duets that have become the signature of their style. By their own choice, the Wilson brothers have focused their efforts on singing gospel, even when they could have enjoyed greater financial gain and attention by performing other types of music.
Jerry and Ray grew up in a religious family that has its roots in Cherokee and Clay Counties. Their father preached and both parents sang in the choir. However, their first forays into music were instrumental jam sessions with neighbors. Then, asserts Ray, “we got saved and got to going to church, and we started using our talents for the Lord.” They began playing at church revivals and singings, performing songs remembered from their youth and learned from radio and records.
By the late 1960s, the Wilson brothers were performing in churches located in mountain communities throughout southwestern North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. Balancing their desire to make music with their need to make a living wasn’t easy. “We’ve always had to work hard for a living,” says Jerry, “and you can cut pine woods like Ray did and work with your hands all the time, why you’re not too apt to have the flexibility you need in your hands.”
Despite such challenges, Jerry and Ray have always held their singing and playing to a high standard. They sing tightly harmonized duets that combine a lead with high-tenor harmony, and they pitch songs in keys that allow for a smooth blending of their voices. While both men are accomplished instrumentalists — Jerry plays an acoustic guitar while Ray plays both guitar and mandolin — they prefer instrumental accompaniment that complements rather than competes with the lyrics. “The gospel, to us, is more important than anything--the message,” says Jerry.
Their desire to spread a gospel message to their audience kept the Wilson Brothers from crossing over to perform other types of music. “Here everybody knows you,” Ray explains. “Say you go on a Friday night and you sing country music and then Sunday morning you’re singing gospel songs in church. It just won’t mix that way. You lose all your influence you might have on people.”
Several of their children and grandchildren sing and play instruments, “So it’s going on down,” muses Jerry. “They’re picking it up.”
“I think that it’s the truest music there is. It has a good melody and it has a good message,” Ray says of their bluegrass influenced gospel music. “We’re sincere in what we do. We do it first for the Lord and then we hope the people enjoy it.”