Past Times

Folklorists preserved music from the threat of the 20th century

Anne Warner recorded Frank Proffitt, who helped to popularize the folk song “Tom Dooley.”
Anne Warner recorded Frank Proffitt, who helped to popularize the folk song “Tom Dooley.” Photo by Frank Warner

Bluegrass music may be alive and well in the streets of Raleigh, but there was a time when it was feared that traditional music was being lost. In 1947, writer Don Bishop wrote about efforts to preserve America’s folklore.

At the same time American folk music is coming into universal popularity, its advocates are running a race with time to record it for posterity before radio and other standardizing influences wipe out all its native authenticity, according to Frank M. Warner, formerly of Durham and Greensboro, N.C., a folk music authority.

Warner is the collector and professor for an album of traditional songs of the people of the Hudson River Valley, brought out last year by Disc Records and about to be reissued after scoring a resounding success.

He is also the musician who gave a Carnegie Hall audience something new in music in April of last year when he opened a program of folk songs with four Southern ballads, the last of which was joined in by 4,000 New Yorkers singing “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooly.”

That song first was recorded by Frank Proffitt of Reese, N.C., near Boone, for Mr. Warner several years ago. Tom Dooly (originally Doola) was a member of Zeb Vance’s cavalry who returned home near Statesville, N.C., from the war in 1866 to find that the girl he had left behind had been receiving attention from other young swains of the neighborhood. Dooly reacted violently, and one morning his sweetheart’s body was found on a hillside. Dooly headed for Tennessee, but a youth named Grayson, one of Dooly’s rivals, intercepted him near the boundary line, and Dooly was returned and subsequently hanged.

Burl Ives, Josh White, Susan Reed and other professionals are accomplishing much good in bringing the people’s songs back to popularity, Warner said.…

Folk song collecting and singing is an avocation with him, but it probably would occupy his full time if he permitted it.…

Folk music is the story of men sailing ships, plowing the earth, driving railroad spikes, fighting, loving, eating, drinking, and dying – stories simply told in the language of the people doing the living and dying. Mr. Warner and other folklorists recognize that, with the coming of radio and motion pictures to the back reaches of America, the people are changing their language to a pattern of similarity.

So the folklorists are making haste to record the songs of America. Warner and his wife have gone “into the field” from the Canadian border to the Carolinas, and from Cape Cod to the midwest. They locate the people who are likely to know the ballads of the region, win their confidence and respect and then ask them to sing their songs into a recording apparatus.

Warner does not deprecate the transition to modernity. “The Asheville, N.C., Folk Festival,” he said in giving an example, “demonstrates vividly the change that is occurring – a change from quaint traditional singing and dancing to a new, twentieth century ‘on the beam’ type of performance, with electric guitars, bull fiddles, and hot licks.”

The participants come from the coves of the North Carolina mountains, but many of them wear the clothes of Asheville or Battle Creek or New York. Or, sometimes, in an obvious break with their tradition, they adopt a stylized garb of the Texas cowpuncher. To Warner this is an inevitable – and generally not-undesirable – trend, a bow to the tempo of the times, and he sees no cause for alarm. But, as a folklorist, he is happy to know that the Library of Congress has more than 30,000 recorded folk songs or their variations – most of which preserve the pioneer flavor. The N&O Jan. 26, 1947

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