Frank Proffitt

b. 1913 / Bloomary, TN
d. November 24, 1965 / Vilas, NC

Author / Songwriter

Frank Proffitt, of Reese, North Carolina, with his homemade fretless banjo. He taught "Tom Dooley" to Frank Warner of New York City, who taught it to the rest of us. He also makes a limited number of this homemade style, for sale. -- SOURCE: "How To Play the 5-String Banjo" by Pete Seeger (3rd edition, 1961)
 

FRANK PROFFITT : Singer, guitarist, banjoist, instrument maker. Born Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, 1913; died Vilas, North Carolina, November 24, 1965.

The saga of the song "Tom Dooley" was a strange one - on record and in' fact. It became a hit for the Kingston Trio in the late/1950s, but not until several years later did the man who was responsible for the song emerge from the shadows of obscurity as one of the great folk artists of the century.

The song had been collected from Frank Proffitt in the late 1930s by folklorists Anne and Frank Warner. For thirty years they had played it and mentioned its origin in Frank's home in the Tennessee-North Carolina hills. But no one noticed the name Proffitt until it was almost too late for him to gain any rewards from the song.

The Proffitt family moved to the Cracker Neck section of the eastern Tennessee mountains - the Warners wrote in Sing Out! (Oct.- Nov. 1963, p. 7) - just after the Civil War from Wilkes County, North Carolina. When Frank was a boy, his family moved to Reese, North Carolina, a few miles below the Tennessee border. There Wiley Proffitt earned a living as a farmer, cooper, and tinker.

Young Frank grew up in an atmosphere of folk music. His father, his Aunt Nancy Prather, and his Uncle Noah often sang old songs of the hills. Frank's father also made banjos and passed his skills along to his son. The Warners quote some of Frank's reminiscences of this:

"As a boy I recall going along with Dad to the woods to get the timber for banjo-making. He selected a tree by its appearance and by sounding... hitting a tree with a hammer or axe broadsided to tell by the sound if it's straight grained . . . . When the strings were put on and the pegs turned and musical notes began to fill the cabin, I looked upon my father as the greatest man on earth for creating such a wonderful thing out of a piece of wood, a greasy skin, and some strings."

Young Frank helped his father run the farm. He managed to finish sixth grade in the rural school before he had to devote all his hours to the farm. He continued his deep interest in music and spent most of his few free hours singing or listening to songs. As he grew older, he took more and more part in local gatherings, trading songs with others from the region and playing the banjo. In 1922, he got his first store-bought instrument when he gathered enough premiums from selling goods of the Lee Manufacturing Company to trade them for a guitar.

In 1932, he married Bessie Hicks, daughter of another musical family of the area, and moved to his own farm in Pick Britches Valley. The years passed much as they had before. The Proffitts raised a family of their own, and farmed, and Frank played and sang whenever he could. In 1938, the Warners met Frank's in-laws while passing through the hill country. Nathan Hicks, in turn, introduced them to Frank. In the next few years, the Warners returned to record 120 of Frank's folk songs. One of these was a ballad about a tragedy involving two local people, Tom Dula and Laurie Foster. Other songs bore such titles as "Dan Doo" and "Moonshine."

The Warners' work was interrupted by World War II, but the relationship was resumed afterwards. The major change came after "Tom Dooley" became the nation's number one song. It began in 1960, with a story about Proffitt by J. C. Brown in The Carolina Farmer. The resulting furor resulted in an invitation for Frank to appear at the University of Chicago's first Folk Festival. Frank was one of the hits of the show. Soon after, Folkways issued the first LP of Frank Proffitt. Other invitations poured in, resulting in his first visit to New York and an appearance at the Country Dance Society's Folk Music Camp near Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

In 1962, the second Proffitt album, "Trifling Woman," was released on the Folk Legacy label. In the mid-1960s, Frank reaped well merited applause from audiences at concerts and festivals in many parts of the country. He was a featured performer at the 1964 and '65 Newport Folk Festivals.

Though his name had become famous in many parts of the world besides the U.S., Frank continued to spend most of his time on his beloved farm in North Carolina. In late 1965, after driving his wife 115 miles to a hospital in Charlotte for a needed foot operation, he returned home in seeming good health. He finished his dinner, lay down on his bed, and died in his sleep on November 24. His meaning to folk music lovers throughout the world was reflected in the many Frank Proffitt memorial concerts given during 1966.

-- Bio from Stambler and Landon, “Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969.

Songs Credited to Frank Proffitt Song Title
1. Tom Dooley (credited to Frank Warner, John A. Lomax and Allan Lomax)
2.  

 

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Last revised: February 23, 2006.