Frank Noah Proffitt (June 1, 1913 – November 24, 1965) was an Appalachian old time banjoist who helped popularize the song “Tom Dooley” and was a key figure in inspiring musicians of the 1960s and 1970s to play the 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. He was known for his carpentry skill; Proffitt’s fretless banjos and dulcimers were homemade.
“Tom Dooley” might never have become a household name outside of Northwest North Carolina had it not been for Frank Proffitt. A musician and songwriter, Proffitt made several contributions to American folk music through performances and recordings, most notably the version of “Tom Dooley” that inspired the Kingston Trio’s popular recording in 1958.
The song “Tom Dooley” is based on a real murder which occurred shortly after the end of The Civil War. The story centered on a love “quadrangle” involving Tom Dula (which became Dooley) and three women with whom he was romantically linked.
In 1866, Laura Foster was murdered. Confederate veteran Tom Dula, Foster’s lover and the father of her unborn child, was convicted of her murder and hanged May 1, 1868. Foster had been stabbed to death with a large knife, and the brutality of the attack partly accounted for the widespread publicity the murder and subsequent trial received.
Anne Foster Melton, Laura’s cousin, had been Dula’s lover from the time he was twelve and until he left for the Civil War – even after Anne married an older man named James Melton. When Dula returned, he became a lover again to both Anne, then Laura, then their cousin Pauline Foster. It was Pauline’s comments that led to the discovery of Foster’s body and accusations against both Tom and Anne. Anne was subsequently acquitted in a separate trial, based on Dula’s word that she had nothing to do with the killing. Dula’s enigmatic statement on the gallows that he had not harmed Foster but still deserved his punishment led to press speculation that Melton was the actual killer and that Dula simply covered for her.
Proffitt learned much of his repertoire from his parents, other family members, and the Beech Mountain community where old ballads, tunes, and stories were a regular part of life. Beech Mountain was one of the areas where Cecil Sharp collected material for his important publications of ballads and folk songs. Several other song collectors came to the area with similar goals in mind. Collectors Frank and Anne Warner traveled to Beech Mountain in 1937 and met Frank Proffitt, among others. The Warners recorded Proffitt singing “Tom Dooley” and several other ballads, folk songs, and tunes on the banjo and dulcimer. Alan Lomax published “Tom Dula” in Folk Song USA, and eventually included it in his Folk Songs of North America. It was through a Lomax publication that the Kingston Trio found the song.