A Ballad for You

by Sarah Viren

           Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
           Hang down your head and cry
           Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
           Poor boy, you’re bound to die

You were crying from your car seat and without thinking I began to sing you “Tom Dooley.” This crying out of loneliness was a new thing. For the first few months, you cried only for food, sleep, or if you were in pain. But recently you had begun to cry because you felt alone, or so we assumed. We were new parents then, we knew little about raising a baby girl, and everything we did was guesswork. Singing was always one of our best guesses. Marta sang you Spanish songs about cats on rooftops and I sang you folksongs from my childhood. I’m not sure why I chose “Tom Dooley” that day, but I did. And it worked. As soon as my voice disappeared in the song’s refrain, you stopped crying. I stopped singing, thinking you had fallen asleep, and you started crying again. I started singing again. You stopped. I could only remember the chorus then, so I fudged the verses. There was something about a mountain. And something else about Tennessee. And really it didn’t matter, because what you loved was the refrain. The swing of it. The dips and peaks. Tom Dooley hanging his head down to cry. We pulled into an empty spot at the grocery store, and Marta put you in your stroller while I sang on, facing you now so I could see you react. You beamed. It was pure delight. For months after that, “Tom Dooley” was the one sure way to calm you, no matter the circumstances, no matter the time of day, no matter the cause of your crying.

Only later did I realize Tom Dooley was a real person. His real name was Tom Dula and he was born in 1845 in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in the mountain-ranged part of the state, southeast of the Tennessee border. Dooley is a phonetic spelling. In that part of the country, Dula was pronounced Dooley. He was tall for the time, five-feet-nine or ten, and handsome with dark features. His widowed mother owned 4,000 acres of largely unfarmable land in the rocky foothills looking down on what is known as Happy Valley. They farmed corn in the foothills and ate cowpeas and sweet potatoes and drank coffee made from acorns or sassafras root. They brewed moonshine. But Tom almost never helped reap or sow. He drank and he slept with the local girls. Then, when he turned 17, he enlisted in the Confederacy and became his regiment’s drummer. He fought and drummed for a year, spent another year as a prisoner of war, and returned to Wilkes County, where he began sleeping with the local girls again, including one named Laura Foster.

After a week of singing you the “Tom Dooley” chorus on repeat, I found the rest of the lyrics online. There weren’t many: three short verses that in 1958 made stars out of three West Coast boys called the Kingston Trio. This was fifty-five years before you were born, ninety years after Tom Dula died. The single sold three million copies, so you weren’t the only one to love the song. It started with a DJ in Salt Lake City who got ahold of the album and liked “Tom Dooley” so much he played again and again on air. Soon his listeners were calling in to request it. So he told other DJs in Boston and Miami and they did the same. Their listeners were as crazy for the folk ballad as were the kids in Salt Lake City. I think of them sometimes, our fellow fans, when I sing the song to you. What is it that we love about “Tom Dooley”? Is it the surprising dip in the refrain? Or maybe the surprising violence in what, for me, has always been the hardest lyrics to sing: Met her on the mountain / there I took her life / Met her on the mountain / and I stabbed her with my knife.

The “her” in those lines was a woman named Laura Foster. She had big teeth with a space between the two front ones. She lived alone with her father, whose horse she took to meet Tom Dula late one night in May of 1866. She told a washerwoman she saw on the road, a friend of hers, that Tom Dula was going to marry her. When they found her three months later, she was wearing two dresses, one store-bought and one handmade, with a broach pinned at her chest holding the layers of fabric together. Her legs had been bent to fit a too-small grave. Her chest held a knife wound. Her body was so decomposed that her father could only identify her by her fine-toothed comb and recently mended shoes. I imagine him looking down in the North Caroline dirt and nodding slightly to indicate recognition: that’s her.


I was thirty-four when you were born. Marta had just turned thirty-seven. We were both finishing graduate school and I worried your arrival would upset the quiet pattern our lives had fallen into. Marta worried there would be something wrong with you. And in a way there was. You were breach, but no one realized that until Marta’s water had already broken, her labor begun. Within an hour, she was fully dilated and the faces of the nurses and doctors began to strain. There’s little time, they said, pulling paper masks down to cover their mouths. They put Marta—and you—on a gurney and rolled you both into the coldest of rooms while I followed asking questions no one would answer. I didn’t think: now I’m going to be a mother. I thought: I hope our baby girl is all right. And since then I’ve come to see how such thoughts are one in the same.

There is a perspective switch in “Tom Dooley” that complicated its singing. We begin in third person, with me singing to Tom Dooley, telling him to hang down his head, then telling him to cry, and finally telling him he’s bound to die. But as we shift into each verse, the voice switches from third to first person. And suddenly it is Tom Dooley singing his story from his perspective. And in turn, I sing to you as if I were Tom Dooley. I push you in your stroller through the empty streets of our West Texas neighborhood, the boughs bare from winter and gleaming against the clean blue sky, and sing a story of how I had murdered Laura Foster and then tried—but failed—to escape, turned over to the law by a man named Colonel James Grayson. This time tomorrow / reckon where I’ll be / Hadn’t been for Grayson / I’da been in Tennessee.. I look down at you while I sing and you smile up at me so fiercely I can’t stop. I would do anything to make you not cry.

How can I describe what it is like to listen to you cry? I could write a wail for pages, but you would only skim over the sound I recreate. So try this: imagine you are tied to a beach chair in the sun at the pitch of summer in Florida and left there for days as the gulls circle overhead, the waves lap, and your skin fries. Or this: you are watching an animal be slaughtered. The animal is a calf and you stare as it is hooked and hung upside down, as it yowls with the approach of the blade. You want to do something, but you cannot. You sing.

After I have been singing “Tom Dooley” to you for a month or so, Marta suggests we change the lyrics. The violence is what worries her. So instead of the first verse, we try, Met her on the mountain / there I made her my wife. And instead of, Stabbed her with my knife, I sing, Loved her all my life. But the shift sucks the drama from the song without improving the message. Because what bothers me is not the violence, but the narrative arc: the way Tom Dooley is a poor boy and Laura Foster remains nameless. Marrying her off instead of killing her doesn’t change that. Besides, “Made her my wife” falls one beat too many. The words cramp up, our meddling obvious. And so after a few tries, I switch back. Not that you notice the difference. The parts you like best are still the swing up on the words hang down and the slow descent that comes with bound to die.


When I was a little girl, my mom also calmed me with an old song: “We Love You Conrad,” from the musical Bye, Bye Birdie. It was originally a show tune about how a town full of girls loved a visiting pop star named Conrad, who was modeled after Elvis, but my mom made it into a lullaby. Instead of singing to Conrad, though, she sang to me and instead of singing in the collective, she made it individual. I love you Sarah / Oh Yes I do / I Love You Sarah / And I’ll be True / When You’re Not With Me / I’m Blue / Oh Sarah, I Love You. It’s still sappy, I know, but when you’re as young as you are, what matters most is that someone is singing to you. The content is secondary. At least that’s what I tell myself when I worry I shouldn’t sing you the story of a “poor boy” who murdered his girlfriend.

If we had rewritten “Tom Dooley,” of course, we wouldn’t have been the first ones. The song is a ballad and ballads began as anonymous poems that changed as they travelled and were told and retold, sang and resang. There were romantic ballads and tragic ballads, and then there was the murder ballad: the true crime show of the era. “The Knoxville Girl” is a ballad adapted from an Irish story about a man who beat his girlfriend to death. “Pretty Polly” has roots in the tale of a British ship’s carpenter who stabbed and then buried his lover after he realized she was pregnant. No one is sure who wrote the first ballad of Tom Dula, though in some legends, it was Tom himself as he awaited trail. And in a way this would make sense. Because even in the earliest recorded versions of the ballad—though they may mention Laura Foster by name and some even call her “Poor Laura”—Tom Dooley is always our protagonist and it is his death, not Laura’s, that we are prompted to grieve.

To fall back asleep some nights, after you have woken us with your crying, after we have given you milk and sang to you and put you back to bed, Marta watches crime shows. I used to tease her about this. Later I complained. But she says crime shows put her to sleep because they are rote. Their predictability is soothing. Like a lullaby. Often they open with the body of a dead woman. She is usually white and young and sometime she is blond, though we only glimpse her for a moment. Sometimes she is bloodied. Sometimes we learn she was raped, and even if she wasn’t raped, she is often naked. Her body is still enough to contain the mystery. And as viewers, we are meant to hold her in our minds as that mystery unravels. She never speaks, but without her we know there would be no story to tell. And so we are grateful to her in the same moment that we dismiss her. We need her unknowability, we depend on her silence.

Maybe murder ballads may not be fit lullabies, then, but lullabies are not happy songs either, even if they are meant to rock you to sleep. A famous Gaelic lullaby sings of famine. The world’s first recorded lullaby, from ancient Babylonia, warns the baby that she must stop crying or the demon woken by her screams will eat her up. Then there is “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” which ends with the baby falling to her death when the bough breaks. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca collected lullabies and, in a 1920 lecture, asks why we have “reserved the most potent songs of blood to lull [our] children to sleep?” He concludes that lullabies are less about the baby than about the parent who sings them: singing a lullaby allows the mother to vent her sorrow and rage and fear at the same time that she sings her baby to sleep.


For a long time I wanted you to be a boy. It was easier for me to imagine raising a boy and so I was disappointed when the sonogram technician told us you were a girl, even though I tried not to be. Later, Marta needed another sonogram and I asked the technician to make sure you were really a girl. When she said yes, I gave up. You were small and red and screamed like a rattle when you were born, and I cried behind my paper facemask and glasses and kept touching your tiny curled hand while the nurses scrubbed you clean under the heating lamp. I only thought about your gender then in as much as I thought about you as a person. The doctors and nurses and medical students came to see us in the days that followed and they all called you “baby” until they asked or we told them that you were a girl. People gifted us pink things. They called you pretty. I hated them for that, but I accepted what they gave us without a word. Over time, I softened to the idea. I could see advantages. But, even now there are moments when I wish without wanting to wish that you weren’t a girl. I wish this for you now more than I wish it for me. I know I need to stop. I was a girl once and it hasn’t ruined me. But I know, if I am being honest, that it made things harder.

In one book about the Tom Dula legend, an amateur historian writes that Laura Foster was “a young woman of shaded reputation” before adding later that, “Tom Dula was a victim of civil and political conditions of his time.” Another book calls Laura “raunchy.” A newspaper reporter at the time of Tom Dula’s death described her as “beautiful, but frail,” and by frail he meant weak of character. When Laura’s father realized she had disappeared in the night with his horse, he told neighbors he didn’t care what happened to her, he just wanted his horse back. It is now thought that Tom Dula killed Laura Foster because he believed she had given him The Pox, what we call syphilis. Laura was known for having “round heals,” which means she was easily tipped over, which means she slept with a lot of men. Today we would call her a slut. There have always been names like that for women. In an Amazon review of a fictionalized version of the Tom Dula story, a reader writes, “I know that many folks from the area have taken offense to the portrayal of Laura Foster as less than the virginal victim of a crime of passion. But in this case, she was what she was.” In other words, she deserved to die.

Two months before you were born, a CNN anchor covering the Steubenville rape case confessed on air that it had been “incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures—star football players, very good students—literally watch as they believed their lives fell apart.” The anchor, Poppy Harlow, was talking about the rape convictions of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. The two high school students had undressed one of their classmates while she was passed-out drunk, taken pictures of her with their cell phones, stuck their fingers inside of her, and later showed all their friends. Then, when you were five months old, the Italian version of Vogue released a series of cover photos meant to make terrorizing women look sexy. In each picture a woman is crouching in fear, is covered in blood, is dead, but is also sleek and fashionably dressed, while a man somewhere on the edge of the frame stalks her. Joan Didion said once that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. But how we tell them also orders our lives.

In the end, the real Tom Dula never cried. The sheriff erected the gallows from pine beams in an oil field near the train depot and the town closed its taverns for the day of the hanging. When Tom arrived in a cart carrying his coffin and was given the chance to address the nearly thousand people gathered to watch him die, he spoke for an hour. He told the story of his childhood, his family, his military career, he cursed God and those he claimed had lied at his trial, and he talked about the nation and its recent dissolution and reunification. At 2:24 p.m. Tom Dula stood on the cart with the noose around his neck and waited for the wheels to move. This time tomorrow / Reckon where I’ll be / Down in some lonesome valley /Hangin’ from a white oak tree. Tom Dula died on May 1, the same day you were born. I don’t know what this means or why it feels like justice to me. I would invent a world of perfect stories for you if I could. A world stuffed full of harmless, powerful songs. But I am complicit, too; I know this. I would do anything to make you not cry.

SARAH VIREN’s poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in or are forthcoming from AGNI, Guernica, the Colorado Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Normal School, and others. The Pinch literary journal awarded her its 2014 Creative Nonfiction Prize and Ploughshares Solos will publish her translation of the Argentine novel Cordoba Skies in spring 2016. Read more of her work at sarahviren.wordpress.com.