If you don’t recognize the words to the folksong as recorded by The Kingston Trio you have seriously misspent your life. A #1 hit in 1958, it sold 6 million copies, has been added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and been credited with starting the folk music revival of the early Sixties. That revival gave rise to people like Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and other staples of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. In turn, they led the way to the singer-songwriters like (brace yourselves) The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, John Denver, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrisette. Quite a legacy for one song recounting the true story of a post-Civil War murder.
Except it wasn’t true, or at least the song isn’t accurate. As a ballad it has the necessary elements – one murderer, one victim, one crime. Real life is so much messier, as I learned when I accidentally heard a pair of folksingers at the National Folk Festival in Richmond. They had a completely different take on the story, which involved multiple lovers, syphilis, and a corrupt sheriff. Not so easy to sing about in three minutes, but closer to the story the people of Wilkes County, NC, still remember. They’ll also correct another important aspect – the man’s name was Tom Dula, not Dooley.
Sharyn McCrumb has taken the seeds of that story, added important details from the trial transcripts, and reflected upon the human nature of the community affected by the murder. She has also given a central place to a formerly minor character who drives the tragedy forward. In doing so, she has not given us a traditional mystery but, as she calls it, a close parallel to Wuthering Heights. (She also tells us that careful readers will find echoes of Emily Bronte’s language – I don’t know enough to spot those. Sorry.)
Pauline Foster, a servant girl, becomes the new voice of the story, reciting a tale of love, jealousy, infidelity, and prejudice. The community is overshadowed by the intense poverty of Appalachia in the 1860s, and by the aftereffects of the Civil War. In that time of uncertainty and continued fear, she uses people’s emotions to manipulate them into conflict and confrontation. Since she herself is not afflicted by those emotions, she does not care about the consequences.
Interestingly, McCrumb intersperses Pauline’s narrative about events leading to the murder with the recollections of former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance, who defended Tom Dula in two trials. Like the people surrounding Tom and Pauline, Vance is scarred by the South’s loss of the Civil War, and is trying to rebuild his reputation by taking on the high profile case. The contrast between Vance, the ambitious mountain boy who grew to the halls of power, and the squalid lives of his former neighbors is especially telling, and in some ways Vance’s ambitions make him sound like Pauline. I wonder if he would be offended if he knew that the name of his defendant would live on even as his own receded into history.
This is neither a mystery nor infused with the sense of the supernatural that many of McCrumb’s other books have brought to readers. It does have that powerful sense of place that characterizes her Appalachian writing, and the clear-eyed view of the good and bad in the people who reside there. This atmospheric and character-driven book is a great complement to her other stories.
Check the WRL catalog for The Ballad of Tom Dooley