Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tom Dooley and Laura Foster, still pulling them in

We were packed into the living room of a home perched on the lower slope of one of those mountains surrounding Phoenix the other day, listening to a band called The Lion Sons singing and playing songs we had heard most of our lives.  Then Mike Marvin, the guitar player, paused and brought it all home.  Funny, wasn't it, he asked, that a woman who lived in the 1860s was still bringing us all together, time after time.
Tim Gorelanton, Mike Marvin and Josh Reynolds -- The Lion Sons

Everyone in the room knew who he meant, though it still took a moment to follow that line of reasoning, but he was absolutely right.  Had not Laura Foster died of stab wounds at the hand of Tom Dula in Wilkes County, N.C. in 1866, we probably wouldn't be going to considerable expense and effort to attend gatherings like the one in Phoenix all across the land -- and contemplating attending more of them next year.

But because Tom Dula (locally pronounced Dooley in the mid-19th century in Wilkes County) was accused, tried and convicted of Laura Foster's murder, and because someone wrote a song about Tom Dooley, and because a long time later an entertaining group called The Kingston Trio recorded a new arrangement of the song, and because that song went to the top of the charts, made the trio wealthy, and promoted a late 1950s folk music revival that still reverberates today, we join hundreds of other Kingston Trio fans in places like Alpharetta GA and Scottsdale AZ and maybe next year Astoria OR.

I know, I know.  Some folks chuckle at the idea of the Kingston Trio. It was, after all, the hottest musical group in the world for a few years, before the Beach Boys and the Beatles came along.  One story goes that the Beatles in their early years once opened for the Kingston Trio, but I don't know if that's true or not.   What many do not know is that the trio, in its current version, still tours with a couple of hundred concerts around the country each year.  One of its founders, Bob Shane, is still alive and performing his signature "Scotch and Soda," a great song that, another story goes, Frank Sinatra declined to record only because he could not do it as well as Bob Shane.  About the only person in the world I know who can sing it like Bob Shane is my buddy Wood Allen, who is a great singer and player.

Each year, about three dozen serious fans of the Kingston Trio pay about $4,200 each to attend the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ (after a week there in the Arizona heat, the former Party Doll Strickland has renamed it "Scorchdale").  During the week, the campers rehearse much of the day, and each night there's a new concert.  The group sings a number or two with the current trio of George Grove (a Wake Forest University grad from Hickory), Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty.  Each camper also plays songs with a newly formed trio made up of other campers, and each camper sings a solo with two of the Kingstons.  There's a lot of music on that stage at Scottsdale Resort.

I didn't go as a camper, but as a guest of Wood Allen and as a hanger-on, because the resort makes rooms available for, pun intended, a relative song, to anyone who wants to hang out with these folks. They jam late into the night with others who come to enjoy the music and make some, too, and with a group of Bloodliners,  the name for ardent fans of singer songwriter John Stewart, who played with the trio for years and who produced his own albums, one of which was called California Bloodlines.  Thus the Bloodliners, and these fans are pretty tight with Kingston Trio fans, so every gathering is an enthusiastic reunion of old friends from around the globe.  My friend Tom Craig is a Scot, but he makes the journey every year to see other old friends, including Tom O'Donnell, a West Virginian who has a home in Great Britain not far from the other Tom.   It's amazing to run into recent friends and old buddies who have been on the music circuit for years in amateur and professional appearances.

And it was amazing to hear The Lion Sons, two of whom are related to Nick Reynolds, the original Kingston Trio performer who played that smallish Martin Tenor Guitar and was a fan favorite for years until his death in 2008.  Nick's son Josh plays with the Sons, as does Nick's nephew Mike Marvin, who pointed out the connection between Laura Foster and hundreds of fans' reason for coming to these gatherings.  Also in the group is tall Tim Gorelangton, but a story of Mike and Josh grabbed me in the gut.  Nick had taken a teenaged Mike into his home to live when Josh was still a small boy.  Neither of them remember Nick singing in the Reynolds home, with one exception: When Nick put the boys to bed each night, he would sing Woody Guthrie's "Hobo's Lullaby" before they fell asleep.  It's a sweet song with a soft pace, and when they sang it for the crowd that hot sleeping afternoon in Phoenix, I'll wager there wasn't a totally dry eye in the house:

"....Go to sleep you weary hobo,
Let the towns go drifting by,
Feel the steel rails singing,
That's the Hobo's Lullaby......"