On November 17, 1958, the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” hits #1 on the Billboard pop chart.
While they might not have wanted to acknowledge it, the fans of 1960s protest folk probably owed the very existence of the movement to three guys in crew cuts and candy-striped shirts who honed their act not in freight cars or in Greenwich Village cafes, but in the fraternities and sororities of Stanford University in the mid-1950s. In their music as in their physical appearance, the Kingston Trio betrayed little discomfort with the sociopolitical status quo of the 1950s. Yet without the enormous profits that their music generated for Capitol Records, it is impossible to imagine major-label recording contracts ever being given to some of those who would challenge that status quo in the decade to come. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, for instance, may have owed their musical and political development to forerunners like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but they probably owed their commercial viability to the Kingston Trio, who introduced the astonishingly fresh sound of a 100-year-old folk song into the American pop mainstream of 1958.
The song “Tom Dooley” was probably first sung sometime after May 1, 1868, when a North Carolina man named Tom Dula was hanged to death for the murder of his fiancée, Laura Foster. Thanks to extensive coverage in major newspapers like The New York Times, the trial of Mr. Dula made him something of a national cause celebre, and he proclaimed his innocence of the murder even as he stood on the gallows. It is not clear when or by whom the mournful murder ballad based on his story was written, but it was resurrected by the Kingston Trio in the late 1950s after hearing a fellow folk singer perform it in an audition at San Francisco’s Purple Onion club.
The Kingston Trio’s version of “Tom Dooley” focused more on moody Appalachian atmospherics than on the graphic details of the love quadrangle found in the original, but that trade-off, combined with the Trio’s banjo-backed harmonies, made “Tom Dooley” into the mammoth hit that launched their massively successful career. And the Kingston Trio’s success, in turn, made it possible for a more political brand of folk music to move into the popular mainstream—and into the DNA of rock and roll—in the years that followed.