Joan Fenton and Documenting Southern Tall Tales

Audiotape of the North Carolina Folklore Broadcast Series found in the Joan Fenton Collection (FT-20015/909).

Joan Fenton was a folklorist and performer who earned a master’s degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The sound recordings in this collection include interviews, oral histories, songs, and tall tales from artists and musicians throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Louisiana. She also recorded a gospel group at an African American church service near Princeton, West Virginia. Those recordings include sermons and testimonies from members of the congregation. Thanks to our generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the audio items in the Fenton collection are available and streaming online from the finding aid.

Fenton wrote the thesis for her master’s on Howard Cotten, a black tall-tale teller from North Carolina. These recordings include songs, tales, and interviews with Mr. Cotten and others like Laura Lea, a quilter from Chatham County, NC and Cotton’s friend and cousin, Willie Brooks. In the interviews, Cotten sings and tells stories about hitchhiking, ghosts, possum hunting, talking dogs, seeing a train for the first time and more (FT-20015/890-908).  

White sheet of paper with typed interview and field notes.

Field notes and transcribed interview with Howard Cotten by Joan Fenton. Found in the field notes of the Joan Fenton Collection (Folder 5-6, FT890-908).

The above interview is streaming through the finding aid.

White sheet of paper containing type field notes and transcribed interview.

Field notes and transcribed interview with Howard Cotten by Joan Fenton. Found in the field notes of the Joan Fenton Collection (Folder 5-6, FT890-908).

Fenton was the editor and sound engineer on an episode of the UNC Folklore Broadcast featuring a recording of Howard Cotten and Willie Brooks telling tall tales or lies, as Fenton calls them in the introduction to the broadcast, along with blues songs and additional explanation and commentary in between songs and stories. 

Some of my favorite audio recordings in the collection are from the John Henry Folk Festival in 1978. She gathered many interviews from this festival with musicians and attendees. She asks questions about the folk festival, why people attend this specific festival, what the blues mean to them, the importance of gospel music at a festival such as the John Henry festival, and many others. The answers she gets to her questions are part of larger conversations that are still relevant today. Some of the folks interviewed include Sparky Rucker, Ron Wilkerson, Hazel Dickens, Phyllis Boren, The Badgett Sisters, and Pigmeat Jarrett.  

Audiocassette tape with handwritten label

Audiocassette tape of a Hazel Dickens and Phyllis Boyens interview at the John Henry Folk Festival in 1978. (FS-20015/1167)

Finally, Fenton took part in video documentation of blues musicians including videos of Willie Trice. Fenton is described as recording the videos. They are also accessible and streaming in the Southern Folklife Collection Moving Image Materials finding aid. (VOR-30002/110-111).  

Black and white shot of man sitting on couch, playing a guitar.

Willie Trice playing his guitar (VOR-30002/110).

Fenton resides in Charlottesville, VA where she owns 9 retail stores. She is one of the organizers of Blues Week at the Augusta Heritage Workshop in Elkins, WV.

First Impressions: Folk-Legacy Records

First Impressions banner featuring Folk-Legacy Records logo, an illustration of a green man encircled by branches

First Impressions” is an ongoing series on the “first records” of several independent record labels releasing folk, blues, bluegrass, country, and other vernacular musics. Drawing from records and other materials in the Southern Folklife Collection, the focus of this virtual exhibition is on the albums that started it all for these labels in the LP era.


THE ALBUM

LP cover, black and white, featuring close photograph of Frank Proffitt

Frank Proffitt, Frank Proffitt of Reese, North Carolina | FC-383

cover of booklet from Frank Proffitt record, features black and white photograph of Frank Proffitt holding a wooden banjoIn 1961, Sandy Paton recorded Frank Proffitt, a traditional singer, banjo and dulcimer player and instrument maker, in his home in Reese, North Carolina. 14 songs from that recording session were released on the 1962 Folkways album, Frank Proffitt Sings Folk Songs. Sandy Paton was a folk singer in his own right, having already released a well-reviewed album on Elektra Records in 1958, The Many Sides of Sandy Paton. In 1961, however, Paton and an old friend, Lee B. Haggerty, decided to start a record label in Huntington, Vermont. Paton had not been completely satisfied with the Folkways release of Frank Proffitt’s songs, and decided to release more material of his as the first LP on his new label, Folk-Legacy Records. This new album, Frank Proffitt of Reese, North Carolina, featured 17 songs, including the song preserved by Proffitt and made famous by the Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley.” Most of the songs are of unknown authorship and are credited as traditional, while 4 are credited to Proffitt and 4 more are ballads collected by Francis James Child in the late 19th century. This first Folk-Legacy release, with a stark black-and-white cover, simple packaging, and comprehensive liner notes, is emblematic of their early catalog. In 2001, the album was reissued as Folk-Legacy CD-1, and is now available on digital and streaming platforms.

Here is an excerpt from Track 8, the murder ballad “Tom Dooley”:

Also check out Track 9, “I’m Going Back to North Carolina”:


 THE ARTISt

business card, features small illustrations of banjo and dulcimer

Frank Proffitt business card (front). Included in a letter from Proffitt to Howie Mitchell, a folk revival musician and Appalachian dulcimer maker. More letters from Proffitt can be found in Folders 1-6, Howie Mitchell Papers (20538).

Frank Proffitt was born in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee in 1913, and raised in Reese, a small town in Watauga County, North Carolina. Proffitt worked in a variety of trades throughout his life, including carpentry, factory work, and growing tobacco. As a carpenter, he became well-known for his handmade fretless banjos and dulcimers, but he was always locally known for his banjo-playing and singing. In the late 1930s, the folksong collectors Anne and Frank Warner met Proffitt through their search for a dulcimer builder. Among the songs that Frank Proffitt shared with the Warners was “Tom Dooley,” a ballad which had been passed through several generations of his family. The Warners in turn shared the song with Alan Lomax, who published it and several others in his book Folk Song USA in 1947. The Kingston Trio learned the song from one of the Warners’ recordings, and the version they sang became one of their first and biggest hits. Frank Proffitt continued to live and work in Reese, North Carolina, and only released two albums in his lifetime: one on Folkways Records and one on Folk-Legacy Records, both recorded by Sandy Paton. After these two releases in the early 1960s, Proffitt enjoyed even more attention in the ongoing folk revival, performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Frank Proffitt passed away in 1965 at the age of 52. In 1969, Folk-Legacy Records released an album of previously unreleased recordings of Proffitt as the Frank Proffitt Memorial Album.

As part of a radio program on record collectors, Billy Faier interviewed Frank and Anne Warner about their lives and work. In this clip from FT-20380/11368 in the Billy Faier Collection (20380), the Warners tell the story of how they first met Frank Proffitt at the home of dulcimer-maker Nathan Hicks in Beech Mountain, NC:

Frank Warner: When we crossed the divide, and looked down over on the 
side, there was this house sitting on the side of Beech Mountain and 
a lot of people around it. And we pulled up and they just gave us a 
tremendous reception.
Anne Warner: Everybody was sort of shy at first, including us.
Billy Faier: Yeah, first time you'd seen them.
FW: Yes! But there was old Frank Proffitt, the son in law of Nathan
(Hicks).
AW: Well we met him for the first time - when you say "old," it's
just in endearment, he was very young, he was about 27.
FW: But I mean, there he was, and uh, Nathan had got him to come over
- he came 25 miles to be with us, and brought his guitar.
AW: It was 25 miles by road or 10 on foot.
FW: Yeah, and he walked, that's right, he walked across carrying his 
guitar on his shoulder all the way across those mountains just to be 
with us, you know.
AW: I remember his - that - acute sense of humor he still has, and we 
had some binoculars, and later on to break the ice everybody was 
looking through these binoculars. Frank Proffitt said, "Well, I can 
see my corn field over there, but I don't see nobody hoeing in it.
All: [Laughter]

The Label & its founders

Black and white flyer featuring an illustration of Sandy Paton holding a guitar

Flyer announcing Sandy Paton as the manager of the Kroch’s & Brentano’s Record Department in Chicago. Folder 113 in the Archie Green Papers (20002).

By 1960, Sandy Paton was working a regular job as the manager of a record department in Chicago, where he focused primarily on stocking and selling folk music. Eventually, however, he and his wife Caroline decided to leave the city life for rural Huntington, Vermont. Soon after their move, they were visited by their friend Lee B. Haggerty, who suggested they start a record label with the rest of Sandy Paton’s unreleased field recordings. Haggerty had just received a sizable inheritance, which formed the foundation of Folk-Legacy Records along with Paton’s tapes of Frank Proffitt. Haggerty joined the Patons in Vermont, and they operated the label from a large barn near their home. Everyone was involved in the operation of the label, from making and purchasing recordings, designing record sleeves, writing liner notes and transcribing lyrics, placing ads in folk music publications, and taking the records on the road to festivals and conventions across the country. In 1967, they moved the label from its home in Vermont to Sharon, Connecticut. The label ultimately released around 150 recordings on LP, CD, and cassette over their more than 50 years of operation. Lee B. Haggerty passed away in 2000 and Sandy Paton passed away in 2009. As of this posting, Caroline Paton maintains the label, which survives primarily through its website.

covers of Folk-Legacy recording catalogs, including Folk-Legacy logos and photos of rustic backdrops

Assorted Folk-Legacy Records catalogs. Folder 396 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).

In 1991, Ronald Cohen interviewed Sandy and Caroline Paton in their home, and in this clip from that interview, FS-20239/7539 in the Ronald D. Cohen Collection (20239), Sandy Paton describes the humble origins of Folk-Legacy Records.

Sandy Paton: While I was there, I recorded a number of other people 
around Beech Mountain, and I was playing these tapes back home for this 
visitor, Lee Haggerty from Chicago. And he said, you know, what are you 
going to do with them? And I said, well, I might put them together and 
try to make another album for Folkways, and he said, why don't we put 
them out? I said well, it's cool, except, you know, I gotta make money. 
He had inherited some money from an uncle, and so we started Folk-
Legacy Records with his inheritance and my tapes, and produced - I 
called up Diane Hamilton [founder of Tradition Records, another 
prominent folk music label at the time] and asked her who made masters, 
and where did you get your records pressed, and who prints jackets, and 
so on.

Limber jacks and dulcimers

Sandy Paton holding a dulcimer while sitting by a tree, advertisement for "Appalachian Dulcimers"

Flyer for Appalachian dulcimers sold by the Patons, featuring Caroline Paton with two of the dulcimers. NF-1529 in the SFC Artist Name Files (30005).

Operating a record label of any size is a costly venture, but operating a relatively niche, small label like Folk-Legacy was rarely profitable. In part to supplement their income, the Patons sold other items alongside their recordings, both through mail-order and from a table at conventions and festivals. Several accounts describe Sandy Paton as always carrying one of his Limber Jacks, a small, wooden dancing toy the Patons sold for many years. Recognizing a market for the beautiful instruments made by craftsmen like Frank Proffitt, the Patons also sold hand-crafted “Appalachian” dulcimers from their headquarters in Connecticut.

 

 

Flyer for limber jack toys, featuring picture of the toy and picture of the Paton family around a toy

Flyer for the wooden Limber Jack toys sold by the Patons, featuring the entire Paton family crowded around one of the toys. Folder 113 in the Archie Green Papers (20002).


NUMBER TROUBLE

LP cover, features black and white photograph of Sandy and Caroline Paton singing outside

Sandy and Caroline Paton, Sandy and Caroline Paton | FC-8319 | Note the call number in the upper right hand corner of the record sleeve: “EGO-30.”

In discovering the first LP released by a given record label, one challenge can be deciphering the numbering system used by the label. Sometimes the process is simple – early catalogs and the records themselves say “#1” or “1001,” or the liner notes explain that this is the first album released by the label. However, it can also be more complicated – sometimes multiple lines of recordings (i.e. a 400 and 600 “series”) are released simultaneously, labels have several releases prepared before their launch, or numbering systems change throughout the years. Folk-Legacy’s initial numbering system includes four “number 1s,” each with a different prefix: Frank Proffitt is FSA-1, while there is also an FTA-1, FSI-1, and FSE-1. Based on catalogs and various reviews, these prefixes could be loosely translated as: FSA = Folk Songs – Authentic, FTA = Folk Tales – Authentic, FSI = Folk Songs – Interpreters, and FSE = Folk Songs – England. Folk-Legacy continued to use these prefixes in creative (if sometimes confusing) ways throughout their catalog. For example, when Sandy and Caroline Paton released their first album on Folk-Legacy as performers, Sandy and Caroline Paton, they changed the prefix to “EGO” to acknowledge what was required to release an album of your own music on your own record label.

black and white record catalog with photos of LPs and Folk-Legacy logo

Folk-Legacy’s first record catalog. Note that each record is advertised at $4.98, and there are three #1 records. Folder 396 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).


SHOW ME MORE!

There are an abundance of materials related to Folk-Legacy Records, Frank Proffitt, and other independent record labels in the Southern Folklife Collection, as well as an extensive portion of the Folk-Legacy catalog on LP and CD. Check out a few other items of interest below or search the collection yourself.

front and back cover of Little Sandy Review magazine, photo of Leadbelly on front, photo of cowboy throwing another man on back

An early advertisement on the back cover of The Little Sandy Review proclaims “FOLK-LEGACY IS HERE!” The Little Sandy Review, Vol. 1 no. 21, front and back cover.

front and back cover of folk music magazine, front features Frank Proffitt illustration, back features ad

Frank Proffitt features on the front cover of The Little Sandy Review while another Folk-Legacy ad appears on the back. The Little Sandy Review, Vol. 1 no. 22, front and back cover. Frank Proffitt illustration by George Armstrong, the same artist who designed Folk-Legacy’s iconic Green Man logo.

pencil sketch of a record cover layout with type-written text

This excerpt from a 1962 letter from Sandy Paton to folklorist D.K. Wilgus includes a sketch of the basic Folk-Legacy record layout, which would remain largely unchanged for most of the Folk-legacy catalog. Folder 313 in the D.K. Wilgus Papers (20003).

cut-out illustration of a dulcimer, banjo, and other string instrument featuring descriptions by Frank Proffitt

Frank Proffitt business card (reverse). Included in a letter from Proffitt to Howie Mitchell, a folk revival musician and Appalachian dulcimer maker. More letters from Proffitt can be found in Folders 1-6, Howie Mitchell Papers (20538).

text describing the Folk-Legacy logo, back of a recording catalog

The Folk-Legacy logo, featuring the “Green Man” is explained on the reverse of a 1984 Folk-Legacy Catalog. The artwork by George Armstrong, Caroline Paton explains, is meant to be “an ancient pre-Christian vegetation god, a symbol of the rebirth of nature after its apparent death in winter.” Folder 396 in the SFC Discographical Files (30014).

LP cover featuring three photographs of Sandy Paton in different outfits against a black background

Sandy Paton, The Many Sides of Sandy Paton | FC-4568