Frank Proffitt, Sr. (1913–1965)

Updated: March 04, 2016

Traditional singer and banjo player.

Born June 1, 1913, in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, Frank Proffitt Sr. moved with his family when a child to the Beaver Dam area of Watauga County, North Carolina. He left school after the sixth grade to work on the family farm. Best known as the source of the song “Tom Dooley,” Proffitt was a talented traditional singer and fretless banjo player.

In 1938 singer and folklorist Frank Warner and his wife, Anne, met Proffitt during a song-collecting trip. The first number Proffitt performed for them, “Tom Dooley,” was the first he remembered hearing his father, Noah, play on the banjo, as well as the first song he himself learned to play. The song’s lyrics told the story of Tom Dula (pronounced “Duley”) from Wilkes County, North Carolina, who had murdered Laura Foster in 1866. Proffitt’s grandmother, Ade- line Pardue, who knew both Dula and Foster, passed the song down through the family. Frank Warner performed the song in programs and taught it to folklorist Alan Lomax, who included it in his 1947 book, Folksong U.S.A. In 1958 the Kingston Trio recorded “Tom Dooley” for Capitol Records. That group’s version eventually sold several million copies and is credited with expanding public interest in American folk music. Controversy soon arose over the song’s copyright. In 1962 an out-of-court settlement divided royalties among Warner, Lomax, and Proffitt—long after the song’s popularity had peaked. Nevertheless, the success of “Tom Dooley” drew attention to Proffitt’s music. Before his death on November 24, 1965, he performed at folk festivals around the country and recorded three albums of traditional songs and ballads. His son Frank Proffitt Jr. continued to perform much of that repertoire before his death in 2007

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Frank Proffitt, Sr.