Frank Proffitt and Tom Dula

by

from http://www.unctv.org

In 1958, a new song called “Tom Dooley” meant a national hit for the Kingston Trio. For Frank Noah Proffitt, it meant that part of his heritage had suddenly been launched into national fame. Born to Wiley Proffitt and Rebecca Creed Proffitt on June 1, 1913, in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, Frank moved to and grew up in Pick Britches, now known as Mountain Dale, at the foot of Stone Mountain in Watauga County. He learned how to make banjos and dulcimers from his father.

Wiley Proffitt was not the only family member who taught young Frank folk songs and instrument-making. Frank learned traditional folk songs from his aunt, Nancy Prather, and from his father-in-law, Nathan Hicks, who also made dulcimers. His grandmother, Adeline Perdue, who lived in Wilkes County during the Tom Dula trial, taught Frank “Tom Dula.” According to family legend, she saw Tom riding in a coffin, and as he strolled down the street to his hanging, he sang a song–the same song she taught her grandchildren.

As a family man, Frank made his living growing tobacco and strawberries and making instruments as his father and father-in-law had done. One day in 1937 a couple from New York named Warner visited them to buy one of Nathan Hicks’ dulcimers. The man, Frank Warner, was particularly interested in learning Appalachian folk songs, and Nathan sang some of the ones he knew. The next year, when Frank Proffitt was visiting his father-in-law, Frank and Anne Warner returned, and Proffitt sang “Tom Dula” for them.

“His eyes sparkled as I sing Tom Dooley to him and told him of my Grandmaw Proffitt knowing Tom and Laura. I walked on air for days after they left,” Frank said about Frank Warner’s visit.

The Warners used one of the first battery operated recorders to capture the songs Frank sang for them.

What happened after that visit sparked the eventual recording that made the Kingston Trio famous.

Surprised that others were interested in the folk songs he had grown up with, Frank Proffitt decided to try to collect as many songs as he could. He sent a book of songs to Warner, who modified several of them and performed them himself.

Shortly after that, in 1947, Warner shared “Tom Dula” with Alan Lomax, a professor at New York University, who published it in his collection titled “Folk Songs USA.”

In 1958, the Kingston Trio heard the song almost by accident, adapted it, and added it to their stage act. They renamed the song “Tom Dooley” and recorded it for their album that year. Frank Proffitt heard the Kingston Trio perform the song on the Ed Sullivan show and was completely surprised.

Eventually Proffitt and Warner filed a joint lawsuit for legal claim to “Tom Dooley.” Three years later, they began receiving royalties.

Frank Proffitt agreed to accompany Warner to performances in the early 1960s. Proffitt received numerous invitations to perform around the country, with Warner’s encouragement. He also participated in workshops in Chicago and at a camp in Massachussetts.

In 1962 Folkways Records and Service Corp. recorded him, and Folk-Legacy Records, Inc. released Frank Proffitt, of Reese, North Carolina as their first album.

Even with the hundreds of invitations and the travel, Frank Proffitt’s first priority was always his farmwork. In fact, he eventually refused to sing for free. In fact, he sang the songs for people not out of a motive for personal gain, but to give tribute to the people who had taught him the songs. He said the songs helped him remember his older family members and even picture them.

Frank never let his fame prompt him to move out of Watauga County. On November 1, 1965, he drove his wife, Bessie to a hospital in Charlotte for surgery and returned home. Later that evening, he died, at age 52.

The Kingston Trio’s rendition of the song made the legend of Tom Dula a national fascination. Because Frank Proffitt sang the song for the Warners, and the Warners gave it to Alan Lomax, the Kingston Trio launched an old country folk ballad about a century-old murder in a small, rural county into immortality

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One Response to “Frank Proffitt and Tom Dula”

  1. Richard Matteson Says:

    Who owns a folk song anyway? Tom Dula was recorded 30 years earlier so Proffitt legally had no rights on the song. It’s not clear that Kingston Trio got the song from Lomax. I own one of Nathan Hicks dulcimers- and that dulicmer is the reason Warner went down to see Hicks.

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