Frank Proffitt Jr.
Article written by Jeff Warner for Sing Out! Magazine (Winter 2006) remembering the life of Frank Proffitt, Jr. Used with permission of author.
Frank Proffitt, Jr. of Todd, North Carolina, died suddenly on August 7th at the age of 58. Frank died too young, like his father Frank Sr., who died at 52 in 1965.
A few weeks after Frank Jr.'s passing, I was in Gloucester England, visiting with folklorist Peter Kennedy and his wife Beryl. I mentioned that I was giving a workshop at the Wadebridge, Cornwall Folk Festival, based on the songs that my parents, Anne and Frank Warner, had collected from, among others, Frank, Jr.'s father. Peter asked me if I would like to borrow his Frank Proffitt banjo for the festival. Only then did I remember that, indeed, he had one, and that I had been present when it was delivered to Peter's father in 1961. In a taped interview that summer, Frank Proffitt said "I have never felt more honored than to have my banjo go to England ... to have my banjo over there makes me feel a little closer to the land from which my people probably come." Now, I was about to play that same black walnut-groundhog skin banjo for a British audience. There was a circle of coincidence and joy forming, and I was honored and happy to be in it. I played the Proffitt banjo for Peter that day. It was transforming: the feeling was of playing better than I play.
Frank Proffitt, Jr. and I never felt the need to move beyond our fathers' music. We have spent our lives interpreting the songs our fathers sang and preserved. We played together several times both in the north and the south, the last time at Appalachian State University in 2001, with my brother Gerret. Over the years, I had the pleasure of introducing Frank to Smithsonian audiences and the honor of writing the introduction to his 1992 recording Kicking Up Dust. Gerret and I featured his dulcimer playing on our 2000 Apple-seed recording Nothing Seems Better to Me: The Music of Frank Proffitt and North Carolina.
Frank Proffitt, Sr. grew up on the North Carolina, Tennessee border. He and my father met in June of 1938, on Beech Mountain, N.C., and formed an important friendship that lasted almost 30 years--and a connection between the families that has lasted longer. That first day of their meeting, Proffitt sang "Tom Dooley" to Warner. Warner thought it a fine song, and sang it to Alan Lomax, who published it in his 1947 book Folk Song, U.S.A. The song finally made it to the consciousness of the burgeoning Kingston Trio, who recorded it in 1958. "Tom Dooley" became a commercial hit and a bellwether of the folk revival. Through that song, Frank Proffitt gained recognition as its source, as a preserver of song and as a maker of fretless mountain banjos.
In the early 1960s, Frank Warner took Frank Sr. to the Chicago Folk Festival, the World's Fair in New York and the Newport Folk Festival--and to Pinewoods folk music camp in Massachusetts. Frank Proffitt, Jr. and I grew up together, in different parts of the country, watching this phenomenon of a nation coming to respect and revere his father as a craftsman and source singer. It was at Pinewoods in 1961 that Frank Proffitt, Sr. gave his hand-crafted banjo to Douglas Kennedy, Director of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Until I had it in my hands in that Gloucester flat, I had not seen the banjo since.
Continuing the traditions of his father, Frank, Jr. preserved the songs, stories and folklife of Appalachian culture. A skilled instrumentalist on mountain dulcimer and fretless banjo, Frank was also a fine singer of ballads and songs, and a talented storyteller. Encouraged by George Holt of the North Carolina Arts Council, Frank joined a Visiting Artists Program, taking his family and community songs and stories to audiences all over the state. I think with delight of this mountain boy, able to offer his Scottish-American ballads and mountain dance tunes to the flatlander/ fishing folk of Dare County and the Piedmont students of Raleigh. Frank Proffitt, Jr. was in that program for many years. He sang, and told stories and traveled with his uncle, storyteller Ray Hicks, a National Heritage Fellowship Award winner. Frank, Jr. even got the chance to take his music to Scotland once: to sing Scottish songs--removed to a distant land since the 1760s--to a Scottish audience.
Frank Proffitt's epitaph is now his son's as well: "Going Cross the Mountain, Oh, Fare Thee Well." Well done, Frank. I'm glad you had a chance to do what you loved to do. I will miss your participation in the celebration of the old songs. But, they were there before us, and will continue afterwards.
Warner, Jeff. “Frank Proffitt, Jr.: 1946-2005,” Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine, Winter, 2006.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Sing Out Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group
Courtesy of Jeff Warner, www.jeffwarner.com
Full Name: Frank Proffitt Jr.
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