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. (more…)