The Ray Alden Collection includes over 800 analog field recordings, studio recordings and video recordings as well as papers, documentation, photographs and born-digital materials including over 500 CDs and DVDs. The recordings feature primarily white old-time musicians, with a heavy presence of the Round Peak region of North Carolina and Galax, Virginia from the 1960s through the early 2000s. It also includes many recordings and documentation of younger generation old-time and bluegrass musicians from the 1970s through the early 2000s including the Horseflies, the Plank Road String Band, the Chicken Chokers, The Red Mules, the Agents of Terra, Bruce Molsky, Breakfast Special and the Johnson Mountain Boys. As a part of the larger New York folk music community, Alden became involved with the Seegers’ Great Hudson River Revival festival and recorded many of the live performances from the traditional music stage at the festival. These recordings feature a wide range of musical styles including blues, bluegrass, cajun, gospel, klezmer, son, old-time and more. Also included in this collection are recordings of live performances at New York City folk venues such as Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, Bernie Klay’s McBurney YMCA series and Loy Beaver’s home concerts. Other festivals appearing in the collection include the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, Galax Old Fiddlers Convention, Union Grove and the Berryville Bluegrass Festival.
Ray Alden grew up in an Italian-American household in New York City and was introduced to the banjo through Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Seeing Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins perform and jam at a show at Loy Beaver’s house in 1967 piqued his interest in older styles of playing, and especially the Round Peak styles. The following year, Alden took his first field recording trip to the Union Grove fiddlers convention, and later to visit old-time musicians Fred Cockerham, Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed. That was the beginning of 40 years of field recording and music making. From 1968 to 2009, Alden recorded old-time musicians including Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham, Earnest East, Rafe Brady, the Shelor family, the Kimble Family and Clyde Davenport. He also developed a unique banjo style, often sitting in with the musicians he recorded. He became a part of the younger generation of old-time musicians including Brad and Linda Leftwich, Bruce Molsky, Carol Elizabeth Jones, Gary Harrison, Paul Brown, James Leva, Jim Miller, Judy Hyman, Tara Nevins and others. Alden put the same time and care into documenting his peers as he did the older musicians. Many of these recordings resulted in the 1984 album “The Young Fogies”. When he wasn’t playing music or on a field recording trip, Alden taught high school math, designed speakers and painted mathematical-inspired pieces of art.
Alden started the Field Recorders’ Collective in 2004 as an avenue for collectors such as himself to release recordings, make them accessible to younger generations of players and provide royalty payments to the families of the musicians. The Field Recorders’ Collective has released hundreds of recordings and continues to be an important resource for the old-time music community. This collection includes many of the original recordings that have been released by the FRC.
Since Alden’s passing in 2009, the Field Recorders’ Collective has remained strong, with multiple new releases every year. It is an important resource within the old-time music community, providing access to previously unheard recordings. It is unique in its community-centered approach and its emphasis on community knowledge and learning. Some of the releases from the last few years feature music from Galax fiddler Luther Davis, Gaspésie fiddler Yvon Mimeault, West Virginia banjo player Walter Hensley, and Texas fiddler Teodar Jackson. The website includes articles and album notes related to releases and options to purchase digital copies or the physical CDs and DVDs. You can also stream or download the FRC catalog on bandcamp. You can follow the FRC on instagram, twitter,facebook, and YouTube for updates on new releases and related videos, photos and audio clips.
Some highlights from processing the collection, from a fiddler’s perspective.
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 tellsstories about hitchhiking, ghosts, possum hunting, talking dogs, seeing a train for the first time and more (FT-20015/890-908).
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.
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).
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” 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.
In 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”:
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
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
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.
THE LABEL & ITS FOUNDERS
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. [update: Caroline Paton passed away after this post was published. You can read her obituary here. The Folk-Legacy catalog was acquired by Smithsonian Folkways and can be found here.]
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
Limber jacks and dulcimers
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.
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.
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.