Sometimes genuine traditional songs that have languished for years, known only to a relatively small group of people, suddenly break out on the strength of a commercial recording that suddenly becomes a hit.
One of the most dramatic examples of these is Goodnight, Irene, which the folk singing group The Weavers made into a national best-seller in 1950. For years before, it had been used by legendary bluesman Lead Belly as his theme song. It had in fact been one of the first songs he sang for John Lomax when the latter first met him in Angola Penitentiary in 1933. Lead Belly had in turn learned it from his Uncle Terrill from west Texas in about 1908, but its ultimate origin seems to have been at the hands of a black Cincinnati songwriter of the late 1880's named Gussie Davis. Davis was also known for favorites like "Maple on the Hill" and "In the Baggage Coach Ahead."
A similar fate befell Woody Guthrie's masterpiece This Land Is Y0ur Land. He seems to have first recorded it for the small Asch label in New York in 1944. It was also spread to the wider public through a hit recording by The Weavers, and then again at the height of the folk revival in a 1963 record by the New Christy Minstrels.
One of the best-known murder ballads, Tom Dooley, also rippled around in the backwaters of American folk music until it was suddenly spread nationwide by a huge hit recording in 1958. This song has an unusually clear pedigree; it was based on a historical incident that occurred in North Carolina in 1866, just a year after the Civil War. A handsome young soldier named Tom Dula returned from the war to resume dating his girl friend Laura Foster. Something went wrong, though, and when Foster's body was found stabbed through the heart, the posse went after Tom. When he was caught and hanged, in 1868, the story attracted nationwide attention.
At least three ballads sprang up about the murder and hanging, and one of them had the famous refrain, "Hang Down your head Tom Dooley." One of the relatives of the men in the possee that captured him, G.B. Grayson, a fine fiddler and singer, made a commercial record of the song for The Victor talking Machine Company in 1930. It should have been a hit, but the Depression was starting and it only sold a couple thousand copies. But this recording helped keep the song alive and later generations of folksong collectors found it and continued singing it. Then, in August 1957, a new young singing group called The Kingston Trio heard the song at a Purple Onion club in San Franscisco and decided it was perfect for their new Capitol single. It was, and it set off a national fad for Tom Dooley that even included a Hollywood movie featuring a young Michael Landon.
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