Folk Singers & Murder Ballads With The Watauga Democrat

Watauga County, much like the rest of Appalachian American, has a rich history of old-time music and two of the most prominent musicians from the area were Doc Watson and Frank Proffitt. In these 1964 and 1965 issues of Boone’s Watauga Democrat, we have many articles celebrating their lives and achievements.

Photo of Doc Watson sitting down and playing guitar while his son stands behind him.
Doc Watson and Son, Merle
October 15, 1964

Arthel “Doc” Watson (March 3, 1923-May 19, 2012) hails from the small community of Deep Gap, which is about 10 miles east of Boone, and was one of nine children. Despite being blind since infancy, Watson learned to play a variety of instruments at a young age including guitar, banjo, harmonica, and fiddle. By the time of his death Doc had won an astounding seven Grammys but he didn’t release his first solo recording until 1964, at the age of 41. His eponymous debut includes a version of the song Frank Proffitt made famous, Tom Dooley (or Dula), and the two were both featured on the bill for the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.

Frank Proffitt was born June 1, 1913 and would pass away a year after his Newport encounter with Watson on November 24, 1965. Proffitt resided in the north-west portion of Watauga County in Reese, North Carolina and crafted his own instruments in addition to mastering them. In 1937, folklorists Anne and Frank Warner travelled to Western North Carolina, recorded Proffitt’s version of the murder ballad Tom Dula (story told in detail here by our own Sophie Hollis) and passed it on to Alan Lomax. This version would make it into Lomax’s book Folk Song U.S.A. and became a hit in 1958 when the Kingston Trio released a cover titled Tom Dooley. This would greatly increase Proffitt’s popularity as an American folk singer and he would even go on to represent North Carolina at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Photo of Frank Proffitt wearing a white collared shirt, playing banjo, and singing.
Frank Proffitt
September 24, 1964
Newspaper clipping detailing the Newport Folk Festival lineup which includes Frank Proffitt, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson.
September 24, 1964
Newspaper clipping announcing the death of Frank Proffitt and describing his legacy as a folk singer, primarily his telling of the "Tom Dula" ballad.
December 2, 1965

These issues of the Watauga Democrat were brought to us by the Watauga County Public Library. You can visit their site and learn about their many events here.

Discuss this Post

DigitalNC Blog Header Image


This blog is maintained by the staff of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center and features the latest news and highlights from the collections at DigitalNC, an online library of primary sources from organizations across North Carolina.

Social Media Policy

Search the Blog



Email subscribers can choose to receive a daily, weekly, or monthly email digest of news and features from the blog.

Newsletter Frequency
RSS Feed