Acquisitions coordinator Todd Harvey shows off a Frank Proffitt banjo (AFC2018/008), a recent donation to the American Folklife Center.
This is a guest post by acquisitions coordinator Todd Harvey of the American Folklife Center.
Today the American Folklife Center accessioned an extraordinary, hand-crafted North Carolina banjo. The instrument was built in 1961 by Frank Proffitt, Sr., of western North Carolina, & given to the eminent folk musician & dancer Douglas Kennedy, of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. We proudly announce that Douglasâs grandson David has gifted the banjo to the Center.
Part of the Beech Mountain, North Carolina, community, Frank Proffitt married into the storied Hicks-Harmon family who settled in that region during the late 18th century. Their early 20th century repertoire of Anglo-American ballads & Jack Tales is represented plentifully in the Folklife Center archive: the Beech Mountain group recorded by collector Frank C. Brown and later Anne & Frank Warner; the Hot Springs group documented by Cecil Sharp & later recorded at the Library of Congress; & the Cades Cove, Tennessee, group recorded by Herbert Halpert. Throughout the late 20th century Ray Hicks & his family performed at the National Storytelling Festival, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, & that archive is now at the Center. The interested researcher can utilize AFC archival materials to compare versions of songs & stories from a single extended family over nearly a century.
As an example, The âTwo Sisters,â a European ballad of considerable age, is performed by singers from each of the family branches. That the family also made fine instruments adds poignancy to their variant of the ballad. The ballad narrative usually includes a jealous older sister pushing her younger sister into a river where she drowns. Her corpse drifts downstream and is plucked out at the mill pond. In most American variants the miller steals the dead girlâs rings and rightly hangs for it. British Isles variants & those sung by some of the Hicks-Harmon family aver that as the dead girl is pulled from the river by the miller, a harpist happens by & fashions a resonator from her breastbone, strings from her hair, & screws from her fingers. The resulting harp, âwhose sounds would melt a heart of stone,â exposes the murderess, the inanimate made animate in the form of an instrument.
From left, Frank Warner, Frank Proffitt, Sr., Douglas Kennedy, Pinewoods Camp, MA, 1961. Courtesy of Michael Kennedy
A different song of tragedy, however, brought Frank Proffitt to national attention. His version of a widely known murder ballad known asÂ âTom Doolyâ or âTom Dooley,â & based on the real-life trial & execution of Tom Dula in 1868, was heard, recorded, & performed by collector Frank Warner. You can hear Warnerâs recording of Frank Proffitt singing âTom Dooley,â with guitar accompaniment, at this link. Much has been written about this exemplar of transmission from local tradition into popular culture. The yawning gulf in culture between Frank Proffitt & the Kingston Trio, the latter for whom âTom Dooleyâ was a 1958 hit & career-maker, illustrates the breakneck transformation of mid-century American culture.
Frank Proffitt, Sr., business card, 1960s. Corporate subject files, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Frank Proffitt did not become rich from the royalties of the song that rang through him on its way to stardom. Proffitt was a master of the traditions he practiced and he did achieve fame during the early 1960s through appearances & recordings. He performed at the Newport Folk Festival & the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and appears on home recordings of enthusiasts who made the tripâNagra tape decks in handâto Pick Britches Valley to sit on Proffittâs porch just as they crowded the porches of North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell or Othar Turner of the north Mississippi Hill Country. Frank Proffitt was a full-on hero to those who knew from whence the music came & knew the real stuff when they heard it.
In the summer of 1961, during the final months of a thirty-seven-year directorship of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, Douglas Kennedy traveled to the United States. Kennedy & his wife Helen were featured teachers at the Pinewoods camp in Massachusetts. The Country Dancer (winter 1961, p.15) reported:
Naturally, Douglas & Helen Kennedy were special drawing cardsâ¦. Our special folk singer from North Carolina, Frank Proffitt, who charmed everyone during Folk Music Week with his songs, Banjo playing & making, and by his interest in all that went on, has a very special place in Pinewoods 1961. â¦ A happy moment was the presentation to Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy by the campers of a Banjo made by Frank.â
Anne Warner recording Frank Proffitt, Sr., Pick Britches Valley, NC, 1941. Anne & Frank Warner collection (AFC 1950/002), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Kennedy himself wrote about the encounter in English Dance & Song (25, no. 1, p.7):
Folk Music week brought a new influx, including Frank Warner, an American collector & singer, with a folk singer from N. Carolina, name of Frank Proffitt, who had his own versions of many ballads & examples of handmade banjos, guitars & dulcimers. Like our own country folk in England, Frank Proffitt, who bore himself with a relaxed dignity, was always ready to sing or wise-crack, or play tunes on his instruments. We were fortunate to be presented with one of Proffittâs handmade five-string banjos by the members of the folk music school.
Frank Proffittâs public career was brief, as he passed away in 1965. Two years earlier he was on the cover of Sing Out! (13, no.4), the most prominent American folk music journal. According to the cover photo caption, Frank represents âthe traditionalâ while Len Chandler, Bob Dylan, Peter La Farge, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, & Mark Spoelstra represent âthe new.â A profile included in the issue by Frank Warner recounts Warnerâs version of the âTom Dulaâ story and also Proffittâs many successes. He acknowledges Proffitt as an instrument maker and quotes him at length on that topic:
Â As a boy I am will recall going along with Dad to the woods to get the timber for banjo-making. He selected a tree by its appearance & sounding â¦ hitting a tree with a hammer or axe broadsided to tell by the sound if itâs straight grained.â¦ As I am am watched him shaping the wood for a banjo I’m learned to love the smell of the fresh shavings as they gathered on the floor of our cabinâ¦. When the strings was put on and the pegs turned & the musical notes began to fill the cabin, I’m 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, & some strings. (p.8)â
Here is the luthier speaking in reverent terms about a wooden instrument. His 1961 creation could be clinically described as five string, fretless, wide-rim, wooden pegged, sawn & carved of Juglans nigra, with a small head from the skin of Marmota monax. These are the distinctive physical characteristics of the Hicks-Proffitt banjos. More to the point, though, this instrument is made from a living thing by living hands & sounded by a person with the sole purpose of experiencing the joy & flow of musical performance. Musical instruments are sacred for many reasons & the banjo is no exception. Like the harp made from the drowned sister, they are animate, rendered inanimate, & then returned to life.
This banjo was handed down from Douglas Kennedy, to his son Peter Kennedy, & to his son Michael Kennedy. It was Michael who determined that, given the American Folklife Centerâs relationship to the Proffitt family & our central importance as a research center for American folk music, this Frank Proffitt, Sr. banjo should grace the collections of the Library of Congress.