Piedmont Folkways started with an “Indoor Outdoor” drama, The Tom Dooley Project, Love, Lies and Murder, a presentation that focused on the events leading up to the historic trial of Tom Dooley for the 1866 murder of Laura Foster. The presentation includes selected scenes from the play “Tom Dooley a Wilkes County Legend” written by Karen Reynolds, adapted, with her permission, and performed in Statesville. The drama, in two acts, presents Tom’s story starting in Wilkes county with the murder, his entanglement with Anne Melton, and how his story ended in Statesville with his public hanging on May 1868 for the murder of Laura Foster, a murder he may or may have committed. His attorney in Statesville was Zebulon Vance and he was convicted on circumstantial evidence.
Times were hard in Wilkes county during the turbulent aftermath of the Civil War. People were stretched to their limits,; in Tom’s case, his childhood sweetheart, Ann Foster Melton, was married to another man. Ann was planning to stay married and continue seeing Tom. Ann and Tom had been together from an early age and nothing, not the war, not her marriage had kept them apart until Tom took up with Laura Foster to make Ann jealous. In traditional versions of the story, Laura was expecting Tom’s baby and Tom said he would marry her. They were going to meet at the Old Bates Place and elope. Then Laura disappeared. Months later she was found in a shallow grave, stabbed through the heart. Tom and Ann were already in jail in Wilkesboro
A great deal of controversy surrounded the case at the time. National publicity from newspapers like The New York Times sensationalized the story. Many oral traditions were passed down regarding the occurrences surrounding the murder. Tom Dooley’s story becomes a folk legend. A poem written by Thomas Land shortly after Tom’s death, became a murder ballad. Recorded first in 1929 by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whittier, Frank Proffitt recorded the song in 1940 for song hunters Frank and Ann Warner. The ballad was passed along and became a hit for the Kingston Trio in 1958, reportedly selling more than six million copies. This recording is credited as starting the 1960’s Folk Revival. Tom Dooley, once again, became a household name. The definitive version of the song is Doc Watson’s recording.
The Tom Dooley Project was successfully presented and produced by Piedmont Folkways and sponsored by WAME Radio, 92.9FM/550AM Real Country, Statesville’s local, hometown station for three years. All performances feature live music to help tell Tom’s story. The music includes bluegrass, traditional Appalachian folk music, Piedmont blues, and gospel performed before and as part of the play. Wicker and Jones and Third Creek Bluegrass provided the music.
When COVID hit and we had to cancel The Tom Dooley Project, we started the Piedmont Folkways Wednesday Show to keep everyone’s spirits up and provide a weekly music option during the pandemic. We’ll be celebrating 3 years of the show this May and have plans to bring The Tom Dooley Project back.