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No ordinary banjo

close-up of a man holding a banjo in front of a bookshelf

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, and given to the eminent folk musician and dancer Douglas Kennedy, of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. We proudly announce that Douglas’s 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 and Jack Tales is represented plentifully in the Folklife Center archive: the Beech Mountain group recorded by collector Frank C. Brown and later Anne and Frank Warner; the Hot Springs group documented by Cecil Sharp and later recorded at the Library of Congress; and the Cades Cove, Tennessee, group recorded by Herbert Halpert. Throughout the late 20th century Ray Hicks and his family performed at the National Storytelling Festival, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and that archive is now at the Center. The interested researcher can utilize AFC archival materials to compare versions of songs and stories from a single extended family over nearly a century.

As an example, The “Two Sisters,” 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 girl’s rings and rightly hangs for it. British Isles variants and 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 and fashions a resonator from her breastbone, strings from her hair, and screws from her fingers. The resulting harp, “whose sounds would melt a heart of stone,” exposes the murderess, the inanimate made animate in the form of an instrument.

three men sitting, the man in the middle holds a banjo

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 as “Tom Dooly” or “Tom Dooley,” and based on the real-life trial and execution of Tom Dula in 1868, was heard, recorded, and performed by collector Frank Warner. You can hear Warner’s recording of Frank Proffitt singing “Tom Dooley,” 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 and the Kingston Trio, the latter for whom “Tom Dooley” was a 1958 hit and career-maker, illustrates the breakneck transformation of mid-century American culture.

yellow and black business card with name and picture of folk instruments

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 and recordings. He performed at the Newport Folk Festival and the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and appears on home recordings of enthusiasts who made the trip—Nagra tape decks in hand—to Pick Britches Valley to sit on Proffitt’s 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 and 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 and Song Society, Douglas Kennedy traveled to the United States. Kennedy and his wife Helen were featured teachers at the Pinewoods camp in Massachusetts. The Country Dancer (winter 1961, p.15) reported:

Naturally, Douglas and Helen Kennedy were special drawing cards…. Our special folk singer from North Carolina, Frank Proffitt, who charmed everyone during Folk Music Week with his songs, Banjo playing and making, and by his interest in all that went on, has a very special place in Pinewoods 1961. … A happy moment was the presentation to Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy by the campers of a Banjo made by Frank.”

woman recording a man playing guitar while sitting on front porch steps

Anne Warner recording Frank Proffitt, Sr., Pick Britches Valley, NC, 1941. Anne and Frank Warner collection (AFC 1950/002), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Kennedy himself wrote about the encounter in English Dance and Song (25, no. 1, p.7):

Folk Music week brought a new influx, including Frank Warner, an American collector and singer, with a folk singer from N. Carolina, name of Frank Proffitt, who had his own versions of many ballads and examples of handmade banjos, guitars and 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 Proffitt’s handmade five-string banjos by the members of the folk music school.

Frank Proffitt’s 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 “the traditional” while Len Chandler, Bob Dylan, Peter La Farge, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Mark Spoelstra represent “the new.” A profile included in the issue by Frank Warner recounts Warner’s version of the “Tom Dula” story and also Proffitt’s many successes. He acknowledges Proffitt as an instrument maker and quotes him at length on that topic:

 As a boy I recall going along with Dad to the woods to get the timber for banjo-making. He selected a tree by its appearance and sounding … hitting a tree with a hammer or axe broadsided to tell by the sound if it’s straight grained.… As I watched him shaping the wood for a banjo I learned to love the smell of the fresh shavings as they gathered on the floor of our cabin…. When the strings was put on and the pegs turned and the musical notes began to fill the cabin, I 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, and some strings. (p.8)”

A close-up of a hand-crafted banjo built in 1961 by instrument maker Frank Proffitt.

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 and 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 and sounded by a person with the sole purpose of experiencing the joy and flow of musical performance. Musical instruments are sacred for many reasons and the banjo is no exception. Like the harp made from the drowned sister, they are animate, rendered inanimate, and then returned to life.

This banjo was handed down from Douglas Kennedy, to his son Peter Kennedy, and to his son Michael Kennedy. It was Michael who determined that, given the American Folklife Center’s relationship to the Proffitt family and 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.

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