Monday, March 30, 2015

Twin fiddling: Tom Dooley and Gilliam Grayson

Tom Dula
HAPPY VALLEY, N.C.
     In the Kingston Trio's 1958 classic Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley, poor Tom sits on death row and laments, "Hadn't-a-been for Grayson, I'd-a-been in Tennessee."
     James Grayson was a former Union colonel who caught the rebel Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley) and turned him in for the murder of Laura Foster. Neither Grayson nor Dula was directly involved in Stoneman's Raid, but they are entangled in the story nevertheless. 
     Dula was in a Yankee prison on Wednesday, March 29, 1865, when Gen. Alvan Gillem led two of Stoneman's three cavalry brigades down Happy Valley through the Wilkes County settlements where Dula and Foster were raised. Dula had been captured 19 days earlier, fighting against Sherman in the Battle of Wyse's Creek, near Kinston, N.C. 
     Grayson might-a-been in Stoneman's Raid along with his friend Gillem, except that he had resigned from the Thirteenth Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry for health reasons.
     The drama that tied them all together was a promiscuous relationship involving Tom, Laura, her distant cousins Perline Foster and Anne Foster Melton, and who knows whom else. Anne was married, In fact, Tom had been in the same Yankee prison with Anne's husband, James Melton. But that didn’t stop Tom from sleeping with her or the others as soon as he was released from prison and returned home to Happy Valley. 
     In addition to the inherent jealousies, they soon were dealing with the fact that all four had syphilis, which they called "the pock." Then on May 25, 1866, Laura disappeared.
Col. James Grayson
     People suspected Tom, of course, and he fled into the mountains. In July, calling himself Tom Hall, he sought work at Col. Grayson's farm in the Trade community near the North Carolina-Tennessee border, 15 miles northwest of Boone. Tom needed money to replace his worn-out boots—which is intriguing, because his cobbler back home was none other than Anne's poor husband James.
     No sooner had Tom moved on than a posse arrived from Wilkes County seeking Dula. When Grayson realized that Hall was actually Dula, he hunted him down, finding Dula with blistered feet from his new boots. Grayson tied up Tom, brought him back to the Wilkes County jail, and collected $62 for bounty or expenses. 
     After Laura's body was found in a shallow grave Sept. 1, Tom was tried twice for murder. He was convicted and hanged May 1, 1868 in Statesville. 
     The courthouse records are filled with lurid details that can lead to a number of conclusions. 
     The Kingston Trio called it "the eternal triangle," implying a rivalry between Grayson, 33, and Dula, 21, for the charms of Miss Foster, 22. (That seems unlikely for several reasons, including the fact that Grayson lived 50 miles away.) 
     The Wilkes County Playmakers portray Laura, Anne, and Perline all vying for Tom.
     Were Anne and/or Perline involved in the murder? Was Tom covering for Anne? Did Anne manipulate or betray Tom? Was Laura pregnant when she died? Were Tom and Laura planning to elope? Was Tom trying to "do in" whoever gave him the pock (as witnesses testified in court)? For that matter, could it have been one of Stoneman's raiders who brought the pock into Happy Valley? The Foster cousins already had quite a reputation, and one of Gillem's soldiers commented in his journal about the flirtatious young ladies of Happy Valley.
Gillam Grayson (right) and Henry Whittier (rear)
 with the Greer sisters of Boone NC in 1927.
     Even if Grayson never laid eyes on Anne or Laura, there is a good reason he is named in the song.
     Col. Grayson and Gen. Gillem were both members of the Tennessee legislature, and Grayson had such admiration for Gillem that he named his son Alvan Gillem "A.G." Grayson. So did the colonel's brother, Benjamin, a Union private who named his boy Gilliam Banmon "G.B." Grayson. The cousins grew up hearing the legend of Tom Dula.
     G.B. Grayson (1887-1930) was blinded as a child by staring at the sun glaring off the snow. He discovered a gift for music and became an accomplished fiddler, much like Dula.
     In 1927, Grayson teamed up with guitarist Henry Whittier, and in 1929 they went to Memphis to make the very first recording of Tom Dooley. According to music historian Peter Curry, this was one of the most important recordings of the 20th century
     Grayson and Whittier sang it with a different melody and several stanzas you didn't hear from the Kingston Trio. But they did record the signature line: "Hadn't-a-been for Grayson, I'd-a-been in Tennessee." Click here to listen to Grayson and Whittier's song.

Doc Watson, 1964
Doc Watson's version of the story

      When Doc Watson recorded Tom Dooley on his debut album in 1964, he included the following insights on the album liner notes. Doc said that his great-grandmother was with Anne Melton when she died at age 31, haunted by visions of the flames of hell.
     Much of Doc's story sounds like folklore rather than history. In particular, Grayson was not the sheriff and was never married to Anne Melton.
     On the other hand, Doc is always worth listening to.
     In the 1860s, when this story takes place, my great-grandparents were neighbors of Tom Dooley's family, and my grandparents, when they were just children, knew Tom's parents. As the story goes, Tom Dooley was not guilty of the murder of Laura Foster, although he was an accomplice in covering up the crime. Instead of the "eternal triangle" mentioned in the Kingston Trio's version, it was a quadrangle sort of thing. There were two men and two women involved in the whole affair. Mr. Grayson, the sheriff, had courted both Miss Laura Foster and Miss Annie Melton, as had Tom Dooley. Almost everyone around affirmed that Annie Melton had stuck the knife in Miss Laura's ribs and then hit her over the head. Tom Dooley, however, actually buried the girl, making himself an accomplice. Annie Melton was with Tom at Laura's burial, so she, too, was strongly suspected and was jailed. While in jail she bragged and told everyone that her neck was too pretty to put a rope around and that they'd never hang her. Of course, they never did.
     Sheriff Grayson had quite a crush on Annie Melton, and he later married her. Near the end of her life Annie became very ill, and on her deathbed she called her husband in and told him something that seemed to really crush his spirit and reason for living. What Miss Annie told her husband was what she had told the neighborhood women—that she had actually murdered Laura Foster and had let Tom Dooley go to the gallows without saying one word on his behalf. Grayson was so upset that he took his remaining family and moved completely out of this part of North Carolina and went over the edge of Tennessee, which was just being settled.
     The murder of Laura Foster happened just at the end of the Civil War, and Tom Dooley, I believe, had been a hero during the war. Dooley was the kind of guy who grows up very quickly; at the age of fourteen, he was the size of a grown man. He went into the Civil War lying about his age and came back a hero. He was an unthinkably good old-time fiddler, and many people think that the original version, which I learned from my grandmother, has such a lilting, happy-sounding tune because the composer had tried his or her best to get into the song a little of Tom Dooley's personality as a fiddler.
     Doc Watson's lyrics were closer to the 1929 Grayson and Whittier version than to the 1958 Kingston Trio hit. Click here to listen to Doc.
     Here are the lyrics for the three versions: 

NEXT: Where Stoneman could have been stopped

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