From Tom Dula to Tom Dooley – 50 years…

Visiting a bluegrass discussion list this week (“BGRASS-L, U. of KY>) reminded me that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Kingston Trio’s hit Tom Dooley on Capitol Records.  Many use this event to mark the beginning of the so-called “Folk Revival”, but that actually goes back to at least another 25 years or so.

At any rate, the original song, Tom Dula, about a civil war veteran who murders for love, has long been claimed to be written by the grandfather of singer and instrument maker Frank Proffitt, who lived near a tiny town, Reese, NC. that doesn’t even exist any longer.  Frank farmed tobacco and built mountain dulcimers and fretless five-string banjos out of maple he often cut himself from the hills surrounding his farmland.

Frank Proffitt, 1962, Peter Feldmann, photo

Frank Proffitt, 1962, Peter Feldmann, photo

While I was working in Chicago at the Field Museum in 1962, Frank came up north for a 4-day visit and a concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I got to spend these four days with him, taking him on tours and learning a little about the way he picked banjo, guitar, and dulcimer.  Frank was a very gracious guest and especially enjoyed the Field Museum’s huge collection of wild animal skins from around the world, house in two large rooms on the 4th floor of the building, far away from the general public.  There was even a rinocerous skin, folded into a bale-sized lump and stiffend to woodlike hardness from the time it was contributed to the museum by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.  Frank talked about using groundhog skin for his banjo heads, saying it was pretty good but that cat skin was by far the best — though his wife refused to let him use it!  Anyways, the story goes that Tom Dula, recorded by Proffitt via collector Frank Warner, was found by the Trio and used as a basis for their hit.  Alan Lomax also published the song in his “Folksongs of North America”.

Frank Proffitt & Flemming Brown, Chicago, 1962

Frank Proffitt & Flemming Brown, Chicago, 1962

Funny, fifty years doesn’t really seem like so long ago . . .

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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5 Responses to From Tom Dula to Tom Dooley – 50 years…

  1. Joel Shimberg says:

    We shouldn’t forget that, like so many other classic songs, TD was first recorded by Grayson & Whitter, about 75 years ago.

  2. tipper says:

    Interesting post. Amazing how much influence Tom Dooley has had on music-how popular it was and is.

  3. Pete says:

    From an iquiry re. Frank Proffitt and clawhammer banjo style:

    Yes, I did know Frank and spent several days with him. Besides
    banjo, Frank also played “mountain” dulcimer and guitar.

    I never saw Frank play in the clawhammer style. He used what I
    would call a “thumb-lead” style: the thumb would play the melody on
    a single string (usually the 4th – 2nd), then the thumb would brush
    down across the strings in a light chord, then the thumb hit the
    thumb or 5th string. I am sure at least some of his recordings must
    still be available, so sit down and _listen_ to what he is doing.
    Try Folk Legacy records, Sandy Patton, or Smithsonian-Folkways for
    a start.

    What is fascinating to me is, this style of banjo playing is very
    close to how Maybelle Carter (who began as a banjo player) used on
    guitar, except that she used her finger(s) to make the brush chord
    and hit the 1st string on the way up instead of a banjo thumb string.

    If you check out my instruction CDs at, you
    will see CD packages for both clawhammer banjo and Carter style guitar.

  4. jodevries1 says:

    Dear Mr Feldman,
    Please forgive me, but I’m working on a book about the history of the banjo with Bob Carlin and I noticed the image you have posted above of Frank Proffitt and Flemming Brown – would you be able to tell me where this image originally comes from as I’d love to try and license it for us in Bob’s book?
    With kind regards,

    • Joanna,

      Thanks for your comment and interest in the photo. I took that photo, early in 1962 when I lived in Chicago and spent a fair amount of time at the Old Town School. An article of mine on the school was published in _Sing Out!_ magazine that same year. Please contact me at my regular email address: [ ] and give me some idea re. your book. If you wish to use the photo, I can provide a hi-res scan directly from the original 35mm negative.

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