A two-chord murder ballad from the hills of North Carolina

In 1958, the Kingston Trio scored a cheery hit with unlikely source material: “Tom Dooley,” a somewhat obscure traditional folk song. This classic murder ballad chronicles the 1866 death of one Laura Foster, in Wilkes County, North Carolina, and the capital punishment of her lover and assailant, Tom Dula—a story that received widespread national attention when it was published in newspapers such as The New York Times

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The arrangement here is based on an interpretation by the Bay Area singer-songwriter Maurice Tani, filmed recently at AG’s studio. It’s sort of a mash-up of the Kingston Trio hit, a recording by the country musician Bobby Bare, and various traditional versions—presented, of course, with campfire play in mind. 

In a typical reading of “Tom Dooley,” the song is played with just two chords—in this case, F and C7 (or the I and the V in the key of F major, for those of you who know a little music theory). Begin learning the song by making sure those chords are comfortably under your fingers, and feel free to use alternate shapes. Instead of a full first-fret barre, for instance, you could play the F chord by wrapping your thumb around the neck to fret the F on string 1 and using fingers 3, 4, 2, and 1 on strings 5, 4, 3, and 2, respectively. Try to be efficient when switching between F and C7—you may want to keep your third finger on the fifth-string C throughout, since that note is in both chords. 

As for the strumming pattern, Tani plays the song with a classic boom-chuck pattern—single bass notes on beats 1 and 3, and chords strums on 2 and 4—all with downstrokes. Though not indicated in the notation, he sometimes tosses in an upstroke strum between the beats. Doing the same will help promote a lively rendition.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.