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Jan 14, 2021 - 3:29:49 AM
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Players Union Member



40912 posts since 3/7/2006
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For a long time I have thought that Frank Proffitt was the first to record the song, but I discovered that Grayson and Whitter recorded it in 1929: 

And the poem/lyrics was written rather soon after the hanging in 1868.

Jan 14, 2021 - 4:35:17 AM
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161 posts since 4/8/2019

Yes, it was a significant local event that was embodied in song, much like other ballads that were composed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Banks of the Ohio, Rose Connolly, Willie Moore, Wreck of the Old '97, etc. ). These songs were made and sung as news items that preserved an event and contained a moral or "teachable moment" for young people. Today, we have 24-hour "news" outlets that tend to make every outrage or tragedy nothing more than a fleeting moment as it is instantly replaced with the next breaking news.

As for the Dula story, when I first began pursuing my interest in old hillbilly music, I worked in a small-town grocery that had regular customers with charge accounts that were kept in a battered metal box under the checkout counter. One of the regulars was a man named Everett Dula, a quiet genial man, probably born around 1900, who had a back condition that caused him to stoop forward. I knew he was originally from North Carolina and at some point I mustered up the courage and asked him whether he was related to the Dulas referenced in the famous song. He quietly said he was, he was cousins with the immediate family. I was young but polite enough to not mention the irony that Everett was afflicted with a physical condition that caused him to hang down his own head.

Jan 14, 2021 - 4:38:29 AM
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Bill H


1530 posts since 11/7/2010

I recall first hearing this tune on the radio in the late 1950s done by The Kingston Trio. It was quite popular and a big hit for them I believe. None of us then had ever heard of Frank Proffitt. I wonder if the song was a hit for either Proffitt or Grasyon and Whitter back when they did it.

Jan 14, 2021 - 5:19:32 AM
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1599 posts since 7/4/2009
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Originally posted by Bill H

I recall first hearing this tune on the radio in the late 1950s done by The Kingston Trio. It was quite popular and a big hit for them I believe. None of us then had ever heard of Frank Proffitt. I wonder if the song was a hit for either Proffitt or Grasyon and Whitter back when they did it.

Proffitt was not a professional or commercial musician and never had anything resembling a hit; I don't think the Kingston Trio even acknowledged him as their source (via Frank Warner). I don't even think he recorded until around the time the Trio came out with their version or maybe just before or after - someone who knows for sure please correct me if I'm wrong.

Proffitt wrote to Billy Faier after seeing the Trio performing the song on TV, mentioning their "clowning and hip-swinging" and that their performance made him feel "sorty [sic] sick" and "like he had lost a loved one." He also mentioned going outside to cry afterwards.

Proffitt learned the song from his aunt, who learned it from her mother, who had known both Tom Dula and Laura Foster. GB Grayson (the Grayson in Grayson & Whitter) was probably related to the Grayson from the song. I thought Doc Watson sang the G&W version, but it's slightly different (Watson was also only a few generations removed from the principle characters of the event).

Edited by - UncleClawhammer on 01/14/2021 05:21:46

Jan 14, 2021 - 5:27:11 AM
Players Union Member



1560 posts since 8/8/2012

I never heard that version before. You learn something every day.

Jan 14, 2021 - 5:33:37 AM
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7143 posts since 11/4/2005

Matthew wrote: "GB Grayson (the Grayson in Grayson & Whitter) was probably related to the Grayson from the song."

According to Wikipedia:

"While G.B.'s family was poor, the Graysons were a fairly prominent family in the mountains along the northern Tennessee-North Carolina border. G.B.'s uncle, James Grayson (1833–1901), was a Union Army officer who helped organize an anti-Confederate uprising in Carter County, Tennessee at the outbreak of the American Civil War and later aided in the capture of legendary North Carolina fugitive Tom Dula.[4] G.B. and Henry Whitter were the first to record the folk song Tom Dooley— based on the capture of Dula— in 1929."

Jan 14, 2021 - 6:23:11 AM
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R Buck


2894 posts since 9/5/2006

After they mined the song from Frank Proffitt, he continued to live in poverty, farming and making banjos and dulcimers. The song became a hit in 1959 and the Proffitts were living in near third world conditions on Beech Mountain, a beautiful but unforgiving locale. He never got rich from that song and died relatively young. This is from Wikipedia:

Frank Noah Proffitt (June 1, 1913 – November 24, 1965) was an Appalachian old time banjoist who preserved the song "Tom Dooley" in the form we know it today and was a key figure in inspiring musicians of the 1960s and 1970s to play the traditional five-string banjo.

He was born in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee and was raised in the Reese area of Watauga County, North Carolina where he worked in a variety of jobs and lived on a farm with his wife and six children. He grew tobacco, worked as a carpenter, and in a spark plug factory.[1] He was known for his skills as a carpenter and luthier; Proffitt's fretless banjos and dulcimers were homemade.[1][2]

In 1937, Frank Proffitt met folksong collectors Anne and Frank Warner. Frank Warner was searching for a dulcimer builder and thus began a 30-year friendship and song swapping. Warner collected his songs and shared them with Alan Lomax, who included many, including the ballad "Tom Dooley" that Warner had learned from Proffitt, in his book, Folksong U.S.A.. Proffitt had learned the song from his aunt Nancy Prather, who had in turn learnt it from her mother Edy Adeline (Pardue) Proffitt, who had known both Dula (locally pronounced "Dooley") and Laura Foster. The Kingston Trio learned "Tom Dooley" from a recording by Warner, and were eventually required by court judgement to acknowledge their debt to Proffitt and pay him royalties for the use of the song.[2]

Proffitt recorded "Tom Dooley" and other ballad songs in 1961, on the album Frank Proffitt Sings Folk Songs, edited by Warner and issued by Folkways Records. A second set of Proffitt's recordings, Frank Proffitt of Reece NC: Traditional Songs and Ballads of Appalachia, was released in 1962,[2] and Proffitt performed at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.[3] He also performed at the 1964 New York World's Fair, and recorded several more tracks released on the compilation album High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina.[2]

Proffitt died in 1965, aged 52. The Frank Proffitt Memorial Album was released by Folk Legacy Records in 1969, followed by a tribute album, Nothing Seems Better To Me: The Music of Frank Proffitt and North Carolina, was issued in 2000.[2]

Jan 21, 2021 - 2:20:35 PM

1334 posts since 11/15/2010

The whole story of "Tom Dooley" and the copyright for it is an odd tale. R Buck has most of it in his post above.  Frank Warner, a folk song collector, learned the song from Frank Proffitt in the 1930s, and taught it to Alan Lomax, another folk song collector. Lomax included it in his 1947 collection of folk songs called Folk Song USA. Lomax copyrighted it in his and Warner's name, and  Warner recorded it on an album a few years later. When it became a big hit for the Kingston Trio in 1958, Trio member Dave Guard claimed the copyrigh because he apparently thought it was in the public domain. Lomax and Warner sued, and the litigation was settled out of court in their favor. Although not part of the settlement, Warner voluntarily agreed to split his half of the royalties with Proffitt and his family. 

What's odd is that when Lomax and Warner copyrighted the song, they left Proffitt out of it.  What's also interesting is that of the original people involved (Proffitt, Warner and Lomax), none claimed to have written the song. 

No one is quite sure how the Kingston Trio got the song. One story (told by Trio member Dave Guard) is that they heard a singer perform it at an open-mike in San Francisco in 1957. A more likely version is that they either saw it in Lomax's book (that's what Trio member Bob Shane said) or heard Warner's record. 

In any event, the litigation was settled, and Lomax and Warner were awarded the royalties. Warner did the right thing and split those royalties with Proffitt and his family. 

Proffitt and Tom Dooley

As for hip-swinging performance by the Kingston Trio, judge for yourself in this clip from a TV performance in 1958. Looks pretty sedate to me. 

Kingston Trio 1958

Edited by - Joe Connor on 01/21/2021 14:27:27

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