Nathan Hicks; Frank Proffitt; Jane Hicks Gentry; Hicks, Harmon and Ward Families

Hicks (Hix) Harmon (Harman) Ward and related families in Watuga County-  the Beech Mountain NC Area: Ben Hicks; Council Harmon; Jane Hicks Gentry; Nathan Hicks; Ray Hicks; Frank Proffitt; Edd Presnell

                                                Nathan Hicks circa 1935

The photo Nathan Hicks with his dulcimer c. 1935 from the frontis of "Beech Mountain Ballads" published by G. Shirmer in 1936. The mountain folk pronounced it "dul-ci-moor." This is probably my grandfather's dulcimer or another one just like it. It's a three string made circa early 1930s with the heart shaped cut-outs on the top. My father keeps it in the original bag with my grandfather's initials M.M. on it.

My grandfather Maurice Matteson used to play it in his ballad bagging concerts, so I figured I'd look at this dulcimer when I visited my folks during Christmas 2011. When my father pulled it out of the bag I could tell the strings were very old- I'd say sixty or seventy years old. The frets are very short and can only be used to play one string- which is the bass string!

I couldn't tune the strings up without fear of damaging the instrument so I tuned it to G (melody string) then the second string G unison with the top string G an octave higher. It worked.

So I tried playing it- first with my finger to fret the strings, then with an emory board stick and lastly with half of an wooden clothes pin. The clothes pin worked the best. I didn't have a pick but I got one from Bob Hitchcock, my brother-in-law. I figured why not play some of Nathan Hicks songs and record them at Bob's little home studio. Kara Pleasants, my niece, loves to sing and Zach, my nephew, played the violin.

So I wrote out a couple of Hicks songs in G for Zach and we practiced a bit then recorded them the next morning. They did a gr8 job, so did Bob making the recording.

Here's one ballad- Listen: George Colon (collected in 1933 from Nathan Hicks):

When my grandfather, Maurice Matteson, first traveled to Beech Mountain, NC in 1932 to collect ballads, it was like venturing into another world. Most of the area was not easily accessible by road [read my grandfather's article, Wanted, Mountain Music!]. Beech Mountain rises above Banner Elk and forms most of the northern border of Avery County. There he met Nathan Hicks and his family and collected ballads and songs from them. He also purchased a dulcimer made by Hicks. Several of the songs collected were published by G. Shirmer in his 1936 book "Beech Mountain Folk-Songs and Ballads," which he published with folk song collector Mellinger Henry. It was Henry who learned about Hicks in earlier hiking and collecting expeditions through the area. 

My father, Richard Matteson Sr. traveled with his father to Beech Mountain when he was just 4 1/2 years old. They came back 2 years later and my father still remembers wrestling with Ray Hicks and how the children "hid behind trees" so they could watch them unseen from a distance. This is my father's recollection(s):

"Dad and I left Banner Elk where we he and my mother and I had been staying and headed for a nearby mountain called Beech Mountain. Somewhere up there was an old Hicks relative. Dad was driving his car and as we followed the obvious trail the car scraped the center hump from time to time an finally scraped to a stop! We then walked the rest of the way on foot. My father carried a bag with him  When the really old and trashy looking house came into view, he told me to go and find someone to play with as he had to talk with the old "Grannie"  who lived there. I saw him greet the lady and then after a while he unwrapped  the bottle within and offered her a drink (bourbon). She gladly accepted  and they sang songs for almost an hour. He wrote down her words and   tunes and I tried to find the children who presumably lived there.

"After many minutes I spotted a movement behind a tree and then another and another. I didn't know what to do so I called out, "I can see you!"  One young guy emerged grinning. I called out again and another came out  but the first guy had again disappeared. So that was their game -"disapear"  So I played that too and did so until my dad called me to come as we were
going back to the car. No one spoke even once during that game!

"Also I stayed with the Hicks family up either that or another nearby mountain.  The boys my age and I played amidst the huge boulders on part of that mountain.   I believe that I stayed only one night sleeping on the floor with the kids.  Nathan
and his wife had a small bed which they used... I remember being cared for quite well!" [Richard Matteson Sr. 2011]


Excerpt from Wanted, Mountain Music! c. 1934 by Maurice Matteson:

Sinful to Flirt (Hicks)

Oh, they say it is sinful to flirt,
Oh, they say that my heart is made of stone;
Oh, they say to speak to him kindly,
Or else leave the poor boy alone.

Oh, they say he is only a boy,
But I am sure he is much older than me,
And if they would leave us alone,
I'm sure much happier we would be.

I remember the night when he said,
That he loved me far more than his life,
He kissed me and called me his pet,
And asked me to be his wife.

"Oh Willie," I said with a smile,
"I am sure that I'll have to say no."
He took my hand for a while,
And said, "Goodbye, I must go."

"Oh darling," I said, "I am sure,
Your heart is made of stone."
He took a white rose from my hair,
And left me standing there.

Next morning poor Willie was dead,
He was drowned in a pond by the mill.
In the pure blessed water so fair,
That flows from the banks of the hill.

His eyes were forever closed,
And damp was his bright golden hair,
And close to his pale lips he held,
The white rose he took from my hair.

Oh Willie, my darling come back,
I will ever be faithful to you;
Oh Willie, my darling come back,
I will ever be faithful and true.

This charming lyric was sung for me by Mr. Nathan Hicks, a sturdy mountaineer of Sugar Grove, Beech Mountain. He sang very simply, with no trace of embarrassment, his blue eyes sparkling with the unconscious zest of the true artist. The case of Mr. Hicks is an interesting one. Through Edward Tufts, a young boy of Banner Elk, I heard of Nathan Hicks and his reputation as a ballad singer and also a maker of mountain dulcimers, which in his mountain drawl becomes dul-ci-moor.

One evening about sunset, we decided to take a journey to see Mr. Hicks. Young Edward told me that since it was only a half mile off the main road we could get there in half an hour. I shall never forget the climb from McGill Gap where we turned off to ascend Beech Mountain. The road became gradually worse and as the shadows of the evening lengthened over the moun-
tainside, I became apprehensive about getting back before dark.

Edward and his companion assured us that it was only a few minutes ride further until we reached Woods Man Cove where Hicks was supposed to be living. Imagine our great consternation when we, after turning several more hairpin curves, discovered from a callow youth trudging in the evening dusk along the road that Hicks had moved.

I have observed that expeditions having been attempted and seemingly failed could be terminated in an about face and going home. Here was one case where this was not possible because the mountain road had become so narrow. We had climbed until there was a sheer drop of hundreds of feet on one side of the road with rocks and boulders ascending hundreds of feet on the other! My car was a long one and it was impossible to turn back.

The two boys and I held a consultation and decided we might as well go on to where Hicks had moved, "about a couple of miles further on." So we started ahead, I with great trepidation and the boys, quite accustomed to mountain roads and escapades of all kinds, urging me on. The road became more and more difficult to travel and the rocks over which we passed larger and larger. At this point dusk had turned into evening and it had become necessary to put on the car lights to see where we were going. Again I surely would have turned back if it had been possible to do so.

After rounding a curve, a view, such as I shall never forget, greeted our eyes. We had encircled the eastern end of Beech and had emerged on the north side where the final glow of the setting sun was roseately coloring the western clouds. Night itself emerged from the east over the range of mountain peaks, visible for miles to the north. The vastness of that majestic and breath-taking sight will always remain as one of my treasured memories.

At this juncture I refused to go farther and insisted that young Edward climb the mountain slope to a little lighted home several hundred yards up and inquire if we were anywhere near Nathan Hicks. By the time he returned night had descended but a ray of helpfulness was the young moon which made its appearance from behind us over the mountain top.

Edward informed us that Mr. Hicks was only a half a mile farther on. In case you don't believe a half a mile is a long ways, try any of the mountain half miles. It means up, and over, and around, and anything else you would like to add.

In the course of a half hour, we reached a stone barn built right at the side of the road and down the slope we saw a light glimmering. Again the boys were dispatched to see if this was Nathan's cottage. This proved to be the case and at last, after the perilous journey of an hour and a half, we glimpsed Mr. Hicks.

He very cordially invited us to stay and spend the night but I had entirely too much nerve strain to accept. After promising to come to Banner Elk and sing for me, he opened the barn doors (which might be a good one for Ripley) and believe it or not we backed the car into the barn and thus were able to turn around.

When he sang for me in Banner Elk, he accompanied himself on the dulcimer, a three-stringed fiddle-like instrument, which he tuned in octaves and a fifth. Upon this he created a remarkable accompaniment, at times pulsating with rhythm and at other times reflecting the pathos of the lyrics he was singing.

What he accomplished so simply is not so easy. I can testify that I have practiced the dulcimer for months and have not mastered this instrument.

Two other songs contributed by Nathan Hicks were Once I Knew a Little Girl and Away Out on the Mountain. [For the music and lyrics see Once I Knew a Little Girl page 34 and Away Out on the Mountain page 24 in my book, Appalachian Folk Songs for piano and voice- Mel Bay 1996.]


The older musical and storytelling styles that had died out in other areas were alive and well on Beech Mountain. They survived in several large families, particularly the Wards, Hickses, Harmons, and Presnells. We'll also look at Frank Proffitt, who married Nathan Hicks' daughter. 

There are several important recorded collections of musicians and storytellers from that area: The Warner Collection and the Folk Legacy's 2 CDs- The Traditional Music Of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, Volume 1 & 2. Ray Hicks continued and elaborated on the family tradition of storytelling and his telling of Jack tales is now legendary. The tales have been traced through the family from Jane Hicks Gentry (many of her Jack tales were published in 1925- see attached article) to her grandfather Council Harmon. There a recent book about Gentry (Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer Among Singers by Betty N. Smith), who is the singer Cecil Sharp collected many ballads from in 1916-1917.

Jack tales
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A collection of English folk tales centering around a character usually named "Jack," Jack tales are also popular in Appalachian folklore.[1]

The Jack in these tales is usually a weak character, sometimes a foolish one, but generally a kindly one. Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer are only two of the most popular Jack tales.

Richard Chase, an American Folklorist, collected in his book "The Jack Tales" many popular Appalachian Jack tales as told by descendents of Council Harmon. Council Harmon's grandfather, Cutliff Harmon, is known to very possibly be the one who originally brought the Jack tales to America.[2][3]

As pointed out by folklorist Herbert Halpert, the Appalachian Jack tales are an oral tradition as opposed to written, and like many Appalachian folksongs, trace back to sources in England.[4] For instance, where the English original would feature a king or other noble, the Appalachian Jack tale version would have a sheriff. Some stories feature Jack's brothers, Will and Tom. Some Jack tales feature themes that trace to Germanic folk tales.

External links
List of Jack tales at
Jack tales at

Suggested Reading
William Bernard McCarthy, Cheryl Oxford and Joseph Daniel Sobol, Jack in Two Worlds: Contemporary North American Tales and Their Tellers, University of North Carolina Press (1994), ISBN-13: 978-0807821350
Julia Taylor Ebel, Orville Hicks: Mountain Stories, Mountain Roots, Parkway Publishers (2005), ISBN-13: 978-1933251028

1.^ Journey Through Fantasy Literature: A Resource Guide for Teachers. Vol. I. Ed. Roberta T. Herrin. 1988–89.
2.^ Betty N. Smith, Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer Among Singers, University Press of Kentucky (1998), ISBN-13: 978-0813109367 , page 15.
3.^ Julia Taylor Ebel and Orville Hicks, Orville Hicks: Mountain Stories, Mountain Roots, University Press of Kentucky (1998), ISBN-13: 978-0813109367, page 11.
4.^ Richard Chase, ed., The Jack Tales, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1943, ISBN: 0-395-06694-8. "Told by R. M. Ward and his kindred in the Beech Mountain section of Western North Carolina and by other descendants of Council Harmon (1803-1896) elsewhere in The Southern Mountains; with three tales from Wise County, Virginia. Set down from these sources and edited by Richard Chase; with an appendix compiled by Herbert Halpert; and illustrated by Berkeley Williams, Jr."


 The Hicks Family
From McKinney and Teaster (Tester) site
The history of the Hicks family, sometimes spelled Hix, has been intertwined with the Teaster family since at least around 1825. Sometime close to this date, Nellie Teaster, the daughter of Samuel Teaster (1) married Harmon Hicks. Harmon was the son of Samuel Hicks and the grandson of David Hicks, one of Watauga’s first European settlers. This was the first of many marriages between these two families. In the remote mountain area, potential marriage partners were scarce and marriage between cousins was common. The last Teaster/Hicks marriage in Ransom’s (2) line was between his father Harmon and his mother, Susie Hicks.

The complete story of our relatives on the Hicks side is told in the book "The Hicks Family of Western North Carolina (Watauga River Lines)". It traces and describes the Hicks family since before they came to America. This book is the story of pioneers, Indian fighters, farmers and strong women. (See Section on Family Related Books.)

The first of our Hicks ancestors to come to America was Samuel Hicks. He came to Virginia as an indentured servant on May 25, 1637 and settled on the lower Rappahonnock River close to Potomac. He was brought over from England, probably from London by Peter and Margaret Rey. They got 100 acres, known as a headright, for bringing him and one other person.
Samuel finished his indenture and moved to Gloucester County , just north of the York river. There is no record of his marriage or names of his children. The names of his children are reconstructed from names of his grandchildren. (From "Hicks Book " - page 386).

A person usually became an indentured servant in order to obtain their passage from Europe to America. The indenture was a formal contract between the owner , or person with the money, and the servant. The relationship during the indenture was somewhat similar to slavery. The owner had to furnish the servant with "adequate" food and lodging. For doing this, he had almost total control of the time and labor of the servant. Some indentured servants were almost like apprentices and learned a trade. Others were just used for hard farm labor or as household servants.

However, at the end of an agreed upon period that might vary from four to seven years, the servant became free of the indenture. In addition to becoming a free person the servant was usually given 50 acres of land, some food, some clothing and various tools necessary for making a living. Many people in the pre Revolutionary War era came to this country as an indentured servant.

The Samuel Hicks who came to Virginia in 1637 was Ransom’s (2) great great great great great great (six greats) grandfather. Samuel Hicks came to Virginia 229 years before  Ransom (2) was born in North Carolina in 1866. Samuel Hicks was also the great grandfather of David Hicks, one of the first European settlers of the Watauga area.


Story Tellers and Singers
Several members of the Hicks family have become famous for their talents in story telling, singing, playing musical instruments and as preservers of traditional mountain songs and stories. A number of books have been written about these individuals and their family traditions. These books are described in the "Family Related Book" section of this story.

One family member , Council Harmon, son of Sabra Hicks and Andrew Harmon, is credited by historians as being the main individual responsible for passing on the "Jack Tales" from the old English versions of the middle ages. One familiar example of these tales is the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk". Council Harmon married Nancy Elizabeth Teaster, one of Samuel’s (1) daughters.

Another family member, Jane Hicks Gentry, is credited with being one of the people most responsible for remembering and saving a large number of medieval English folks songs including the now well known "Froggie Went A - Courting". This song was originally known as "The Frog and the Mouse." Jane’s story is told in the book "Appalachian Medley." Jane was Ransom’s(2)  second cousin.

Still another family member, Frank Proffitt, is credited with saving and adding to the old mountain folk song that became the "Ballad of Tom Dooley". This song was based on a real story about a man named Tom Dula. The name Dula was pronounced Dooley in the mountains. Dula was hanged in Wilkes County, North Carolina in the late 1800’s. Frank Proffitt heard the song sung by his father and grandmother. The Kingston Trio recorded the song in the 1960’s and it became world famous. Frank’s story is told in the books "The Last Chivaree" and "Jack in Two Worlds."

And still another family member, Ray Hicks, is a renowned teller of folk tales and has won many story telling competitions. Ray is a featured performer at the yearly National Story Telling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. A recent news article about that festival described him:

Ray Hicks is probably the most famous of that breed (mountain storyteller). Since 1951, he has been publicly passing along Appalachian tales. He dresses in overalls and still lives in the same house in which he was born. Someone said that being introduced to Mr. Hicks is like meeting Rip van Winkle.

According to storyteller Jim Mays, "Ray has been studied by scholars who believe that his particular dialect is closest to the Elizabethan English that we still have among living people. Appreciating a performance by the man who's hailed as the patriarch of storytelling, the large crowd hangs onto every word - most stretched into several syllables (hee-ut for hit, kee-ud for kid, way-lll for well). They roar delightedly at a tale about outsmarting a city slicker."

Ray is shown in the introduction to the TV program "Appalachian Stories" series. This show is produced by the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee and is often seen on the Travel Channel. Ray’s story is also told in the books "The Last Chivaree" and "Jack in Two Worlds."


Cutliff Harman (son of George Hermann and Mary Margaret Wiley) was born 1748 in In PA or Rowan Co.,(now Randolph Co.), NC, and died February 1838 in Ashe Cty., (Now Watauga Cty.), NC. He married (1) Susanna (Susan) Fouts on Bet. 1772 - 1774 in Rowan Co., NC, daughter of John Michael Pfautz, Sr. and Katarina Varner. He married (2) Mary Elizabeth Parker on December 28, 1817 in Ashe Co., NC.

 Notes for Cutliff Harman:
Name may have been anglicized from "Gottlieb Hermann"
6/1798- Sold his 60 acres on the Unwharrie River and moved to Wilkes Co., NC
Bought a 522 acres farm on Cove Creek from James Gwyn

More About Cutliff Harman and Susanna (Susan) Fouts:
Marriage: Bet. 1772 - 1774, Rowan Co., NC.

More About Cutliff Harman and Mary Elizabeth Parker:
Marriage: December 28, 1817, Ashe Co., NC.

Children of Cutliff Harman and Susanna (Susan) Fouts are:
Mathias Harman, b. Abt. 1774, Rowan Co., NC, d. March 19, 1856, IN.
Mary Harman, b. Abt. 1775, Rowan Co., NC, d. 1855, Valle Crucis, Watauga Co., NC.
Catherine Harman, b. Abt. 1780, d., Careyville, Campbell Co., TN.
Nancy Harman, b. 1781, Rowan Co., NC, d. July 31, 1856, Watauga County, N.C..
Elizabeth Harman, b. Abt. 1782, Rowan Co., NC, d. Bet. 1821 - 1823, Old Harmon Cemetery, Sugar Grove, Cove Creek Twp., Watauga Cty, NC.

Andrew Harman, b. February 05, 1789, Rowan Co., NC, d. March 16, 1814, Ashe Cty., (Now Watauga Cty.), NC.
Susan(nah) E. Harman, b. March 05, 1791, Rowan Co., NC, d. July 15, 1868, Watauga County, N.C..
+Eli Harmon, b. April 05, 1793, Ashe Cty., (Now Watauga Cty.), NC, d. June 30, 1828.
Rachel Harman, b. Abt. 1796, Ashe Cty., (Now Watauga Cty.), NC, d. Aft. 1870.
Rebecca Harman, b. Bet. June 20 - July 20, 1798, Ashe Cty., (Now Watauga Cty.), NC, d. Bet. April 05 - May 04, 1864, Taylorville, Christian Co., IL.

Andrew Harman (b. February 05, 1789, d. March 16, 1814)
Andrew Harman (son of Cutliff Harman and Susanna (Susan) Fouts) was born February 05, 1789 in Rowan Co., NC, and died March 16, 1814 in Ashe Cty., (Now Watauga Cty.), NC. He married Sabra Hicks.

 Notes for Andrew Harman:
Killed by a falling tree

More About Andrew Harman:
Burial: Old Harmon Cemetery, Sugar Grove, Cove Creek Twp., Watauga Cty, NC.
T H E    S I N G E R S
(The Hicks & the Proffits, Beech Mountain, N.C. 1938)

THESE RECORDINGS, MADE in the middle of the last century, contain the sound of two and three centuries ago. The recordings were made during tiny bits of vacation time by two people with two full-time jobs and two full-time boys. Of the singers, the oldest was born just after the Civil War, and the youngest a year after the bombing at Hiroshima. That youngest singer, Frank Proffitt, Jr., is still kicking up dust in his home country. Almost all the others are gone. Marilynne Robinson has said of the past, "By definition it is all we know about surely its complexities should be scrupulously preserved." Here preserved is the complex sound of our ancestors, a sound to which we should harken. 

IT WAS HAPPENSTANCE  that led the Warners to Beech Mountain [the introduction was made by my grandfather]. They knew a little about the music: Frank had done some singing for lectures by Dr. Frank C. Brown at Duke University in the 1920s. Anne knew the music through Frank and through friends in Greenwich Village. In 1938 they saw a dulcimer on a wall in New York City and ordered one. The maker, Nathan Hicks wrote back, "I can't send it... Postage and glue and nails cost me money and times are so hard and my wife is sick most of the time and we have ten childern and times are so hard I can't get much money."  The Warners sent a little money and Nathan wrote again, "I will have the dulcimer finish in a few days... Hope it will please you... we are in Det so much as I kneed money so bad... We all war shore glad to hear that you war going to send some clothing... as it is very coole on this mountain." Frank was a career YMCA executive and naturally responded. Clothes were sent and, a few months later, the car packed with boxes of clothes and food, Frank's guitar and Anne's notebooks, they set off to visit strangers, unaware that they were about to become song collectors.

THE WARNER COLLECTION is a document, most specifically, of families. For example, all of the singers that Anne and Frank recorded over decades in northwestern North Carolina were either in attendance that June day on Beech Mountain or were related to someone who was. A single afternoon cemented decades of friendships. The Warners had no sociology, no anthropology, no musicology, no training at all for collecting; but they had what was needed. As Tim Eriksen said in the notes to the first CD of this set, "Something like love radiated from the recordings... I've come to the conclusion that the Warners really, really, listened." Although there was always so little time, the singers never sound rushed. They sound as if they were friends come to visit. Tim believes that such ease can be heard.

HAD TIMES BEEN better for Nathan and Rena Hicks (b. ca. 1900, 1905), they might never have met the Warners. It was Nathan's troubled letters that pulled the Warners south and Rena's letters later were often full of woes. Once she wrote that she was pregnant again and never felt well except when she was pregnant- but then couldn't work much. Not long thereafter she wrote that she had had a hemorrhage; and there was worse news: "They fix my Baby all Redy for Bureal Heare and our Preacher took it war a little girl I had been sick so long till it coulden live." Then, in 1945, Nathan died, and a few years later, youngest son Jack drowned. "I will haft to stand it some way But it hard to Bear to give up a young youth," she wrote. Rena loved the old ballads. Surely those songs provided-somewhere between prophesy and precaution-a fierce, unpredictable future of uncompromising sorrow and loss. If the charmed Sweet Willie could die, what hope could there be for the unprotected? There was powerful consolation in the ballads for singers. As victims and survivors, they could feel themselves embraced in the company of the sorrowful. In the worst of times-a whole crop lost-Nathan carried his dulcimer to his son-in-law's house to play music and forget. As Rena said, "to play the misery out of his soul."

THAT SON-IN-LAW WAS Frank Proffitt, married to the Hicks' oldest daughter, Bessie. Frank seemed to have had a keener-than-usual interest in history and in the history of the old songs. He was twenty-five when he met the Warners and music was already central to his life. The meeting awakened a passion for the old music and was the beginning of a deep and abiding friendship between the Proffitts and the Warners and between the Franks in particular. The Warners saved two hundred fifty of Frank Proffitt's letters and probably wrote as many themselves. [These letters are in Duke University Library, Special Collections.] Frank Proffitt sang the Warners a hundred songs over the years. A few he wrote himself, some he learned while working jobs away from home-for the TVA, WPA and, for a time, an Ohio spark plug factory-but  he felt closest to the oldest songs, songs he had learned from his father, Wiley, and aunt, Nancy Prather; songs that connected him to his past.

IN 1951, WHEN the Warners were able to go back to the mountains for the first time since the war, they discovered that the Depression hadn't ended in Appalachia: Frank had gone away to work again-this time building roads-and he'd sold his guitar and given up music. The Warners knew that only the worst of times could make Frank stop singing-and they had. A small song about a local murder changed everything. Frank Proffitt once wrote, "My earlyest memory was of waking up on a wintry morning and hearing my father picking the Tom Dooly song in a slow mournful way." The first song Frank Proffitt remembered was the third song he taught the Warners; the Warners remembered it as well as they could (they had no recording machine then); Frank Warner sang it to Alan Lomax who included it in Folk Song U.S.A. Then The Kingston Trio learned it from that book, adapted it to pop tastes and sold millions of copies. Long before a legal settlement brought some royalties to his family, Frank Proffitt's association with the song began to be noticed. First there was an article in the North Carolina Farmer. Then the Warners were able to take Frank to the Chicago Folk Festival. His strong performance there was unforgettable for many. Sandy Paton was there that night and soon went to visit Frank to record Frank's singing for Folkways. Later there were two LPs more for Sandy's own
Folk-Legacy Records. By 1962, Frank had done solo tours to Chicago and the South. He went to the famed Newport, Asheville and National Folk Festivals; twice went to Pinewoods Camp in Massachusetts and in 1964, represented North Carolina at New York's World's Fair. He once appeared with Doc Watson. Earl Scruggs came to visit. In 1965 he performed solo for 1500 people and shared the bill with the Jordanaires. There were cover articles in Sing Out! and The Little Sandy Review and then stories in Time and Life.

FRANK BEGAN MAKING  fretless banjos and dulcimers and selling them across the country. One of those banjos resides at the Smithsonian and another at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When Time magazine mentioned Frank in a cover story on James Taylor in 1970, it was as if Frank's lined face and fretless banjo had become the model for the country's sense of Appalachia. When he first heard the Kingston Trio, Frank was sure that they were making fun of him and his people. Five years later he had become known on two continents and had become an ambassador for his people. His unhurried, sometimes introspective performances, his reserve and his quiet, dry humor toppled old stereotypes. When Frank Proffitt died-at age 52-the New York Times devoted a six-inch, double column story for the news.

WHEN FRANK DIED, Frank Proffitt, Jr. was nineteen years old. In early 1965, Frank Sr. wrote, "Frank Jr. is coming along so well with his music I am considering including him in some of my programs." In May he took son Frank off to Berea College. He wrote of his pride in his son, "Frank was a smash in his versatility in dulcimer playing... Fit to bust is mild.-If [he] starts cutting too deeply into my prestige I suppose I'll have to find some way to take him down a few notches! Ha." Frank, Jr. was devastated by the death of his father-but was already a good dulcimer player. He began learning his father's songs, polishing his banjo playing and has worked hard to keep alive the music that his father preserved. When Frank Jr. was twenty-two he, in his turn, performed at the Newport Folk Festival. While his father made relatively few trips out of the mountains, Frank, Jr. has
played all across the country, from Massachusetts to southern California and Texas. Frank, Sr. had probably never imagined going to Scotland, but Frank Jr. toured there in 1995. How pleased and proud his father would be to hear that his son had returned home to "the world of old castles... of those who used the sword." Frank Jr., has for years worked with the North Carolina Arts Council doing performances and in-school residencies. He has a recording, Kicking Up Dust on Cloudlands Records (P.O. Box 278, Mountain City, TN 37683). Frank lives in Todd, North Carolina. Work is soon to begin on a documentary film project about him.

ROBY MONROE HICKS was an uncle of Nathan and Rena. He was born in 1882. His grand-parents were born in a Tennessee that was still Cherokee Indian territory. He recalled learning most of his songs from his mother who had learned the songs from her father, born about 1820. Roby learned them on cold winternights sitting with his mother in the six-feet long kitchen fireplace. Roby and his wife Buna Vista Hicks (b. 1888) were only a generation removed from both Indian Wars and the Civil War. They were full of stories of scalpings and narrow escapes, of relatives hidden under floors and water troughs to evade the Home Guard or invading Yankees. Buna Hicks was a remarkable singer. Her singing seemed clear and bright enough to be heard across the valley. She played one of Roby's fiddles, a viola-sized, dug-out instrument with back and sides made from a single piece of wood and the top nailed on. Mrs. Hicks occasionally sang outside of the mountains (she was at the Asheville Folk Festival at which Frank Proffitt had appeared). She married Roby when she was thirteen and had eleven children. One of their sons, Stanley Hicks, would eventually be a recipient of the National Folk Heritage Award, as would story teller Ray Hicks, son of Rena and Nathan. Another of Buna and Roby's sons was Linzy Hicks born a year or two before Stanley. In 1959 Linzy was ordained in the Missionary Baptist Church but long before that he had stopped singing any songs not contained in the hymnal and would slip out of the room when other kinds of songs were sung.

LEE MONROE PRESNELL (b. 1876) was a minister, too. By the time the Warners met him he was retired from forty-two years in the Primitive BaptistChurch. Mr. Presnell was possessed of a graceful courtliness as old as his style of singing. He learned his singing from two great local legendary sources: his grandfather, Council Harmon, credited with bringing much music to the area, and John Calvin Yonce, called "Lie-Hue," who wandered the mountains, working and staying where he could, and leaving songs behind. Mr. Presnell complained of the quality of his own performances. Often he would end a song by saying, "I am getting old so I can't sing good," or "I can't get it up high enough."  (Roby Monroe Hicks once said, "My voice is shattered.") He complained ten years later when Sandy Paton recorded him for Folk Legacy's two-record set Beech Mountain, North Carolina, and he might have complained in 1938 too. Whatever his reservations about his voice, he was a remarkable singer. The apparent idiosyncrasies of his style were probably learned from yet older singers and his singing may be the last example of a style now lost. Tim Eriksen has said that style is "the particular way a singer tightens the join between singer and song." In Lee Monroe Presnell, one can find the perfect dovetailed join. Mr. Presnell often began and ended songs in conversation, lending an air of casualness, but in the singing he seems to inspect and address every detail of text and tune and then, with techniques for which he had no name, ornaments the singing, directing the listener's attention away from the singing to the song.

FRANK WARNER'S MOTHER, Mabel Preston Warner, took Anne and Frank to Crab Tree Creek, near Raleigh, North Carolina, to visit the then seventy-three year old Rebecca King Jones. They became instant friends. Frank took a photo of Ms. King's front room:  There is a 1939 calendar on the wall, a cover of a Country Gentlewoman magazine, a large map of North America, samples of needlepoint and hooked mats, a parlor woodstove, a mantle full of tonic and medicine bottles and, at the center of it all, a cheery Rebecca King Jones, dressed in a calico dress and bonnet. Miss Jones lived alone, tended her cows and chickens and raised almost all her food. She was born, she said, "the year the Yankees come through". Much local lore survived and died with her. "I've seen old wizards pass my home right often," she said. There was a remedy for everything: "To cure dropsy, soak nine cut nails in a pint of apple vinegar and pint of black molasses." Rebecca King Jones did not seem to know great numbers of songs but was one of the very best singers in the collection. The Warners visited Crab Tree Creek as often as they could, but one day they went to visit and found her house empty and were never able to discover her whereabouts.

WHEN FRANK WARNER was a young man he used to go fishing at Nag's Head on North Carolina's Outer Banks. There he met Sue Thomas, then working as a cook at a fisherman's boardinghouse. Years later Anne took a photograph of Frank and Sue, a white man and a black woman trading songs on the porch of the inn. Such a scene could not have been common in the Carolinas of that time. Frank knew Sue Thomas for fifteen years before recording her in 1941. Her songs may be heard on the first CD in this set, Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still.  Sue Thomas' son, J.B. Sutton was at that session and recorded a few songs too, blues-based songs that some in Sue Thomas' congregation might have frowned upon.

IN THE SUMMER of 1940, the Warners tracked down Charles K. "Tink" Tillett (b. ca. 1875), a Duke classmate's uncle who had earlier been recorded by Dr. Frank C. Brown. They heard some grand old singing and accordion playing but, because they were rushing home at the end of a too-short vacation, there was only a single afternoon to spend. Tink's wife, Eleazar Tillett, wrote in the spring of the next year that her husband had died and that she had had to rent out most of the house but "I would be glad to have you visit us. And if I can assist you with your work I assure you it will be a pleasure." The Warners did visit again, of course, and discovered to their surprise and delight that Mrs. Tillett knew Tink's songs and her sister, Martha Ethridge, knew songs, too. They met neighbors and friends and heard rare songs long ago shipwrecked on that narrow spit of sand. For decades members of the Tilletts sent along bits of songs that had been remembered from the singing of Tink and Eleazar, and the families have stayed in touch since.

ON THE WAY to see Mrs. Tillett in 1941, the Warners spent another Saturday night on the Outer Banks in Mann's Harbor at C.W. Mann's impressive house. At a hastily organized evening sing, many neighbors stopped in. The son of the family, Curt Mann, sang a few songs that Anne Warner later said were " new and raw and unpalatable as the local East Lake booze", but in church the next morning Curt lead the congregation in singing and Frank sang some of Curt's more polite songs for decades.

ON ANOTHER SATURDAY, the Warners stopped in at the Elliott Cafe in Suffolk, Virginia. Two young waiters there introduced the Warners to Joe Henry Johnson. Mr. Johnson was quite ill-he  had had a stroke-and the Warners stayed only as long as Mr. Johnson had strength. Because of his stroke it is hard to hear his tunes and hard to imagine how he might have sounded in his prime but, when Joe Johnson died, the Suffolk News-Herald published a two page obituary. The town is "The Peanut Capital of the World." Joe Henry Johnson was famous there because, for forty years, he had sold peanuts on the street, using an energetic street cry to sell peanuts to the people who sold peanuts.

ON THE WARNER'S  1959 trip to the North Carolina mountains they recorded another relative of the families. Homer Cornett was the brother of the husband of Frank Proffitt's sister. Frank Warner was quite good at getting people to sing who weren't sure they wanted to. Mr. Cornett sang two songs that afternoon and both songs are prized parts of the Warner collection. Frank Proffitt, Jr. recently told us that Homer Cornett is now seventy years old and that some family members have never known him to sing or play the guitar.

-Jeff Davis 

Folk Legacy

The Traditional Music Of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, Volume 1: The Older Ballads And Sacred Songs Songs
1 Awake, Awake, My Old True Lover   
 2 Sir Lionel (Child 18)   
 3 Five Nights Drunk (Child 274)   
 4 Sweet Soldier Boy   
 5 House Carpenter, The (Child 243)    
 6 William Hall   
 7 Two Sisters, The (Child 10)    
 8 Day Is Past and Gone * (From different album)
 9 Farmer's Curst Wife, The (Child 278)   
 10 Johnny, Oh, Johnny   
 11 Johnny Doyle
 12 Jealous Brothers   
 13 Young Beham (Child 53)
 14 Pretty Crowing Chicken (Child 248)   
 15 George Collins (Child 85) See All 7   
 16 Where The Sun Will Never Go Down See All 4   
 17 Fathers, Now Our Meeting Is Over


The Traditional Music Of Beech Mountain, North Carolina Vol. II - The Later Songs And Hymns
1. Precious Memories
2. I Went To See My Suzie 
3. Johnson Boys
4. Courting Case
5. Baldheaded End of the Broom 
6. More Pretty Girls Than One
7. Roger's Gray Mare 
8. Soldier John 
9. Cripple Creek
10. The Soldier and the Lady  
11. Old Virginny 
12. Where the Soul of Man Never Dies 
13. Tobacco Union 
14. In Dublin City 
15. Three Dulcimer Numbers
16. Fly Around, My Pretty Little Miss 
17. Little Maggie [Sung With Banjo] 
18. Little Maggie 
19. I'm Going That Way 
20. Going Away Tomorrow
21. Look Up, Look Down That Old Railroad 
22. Angel Band 
23. Amazing Grace 

Traditional Music of Beech Mountain
Song Notes

1. Hard Time Traveling Here Below. Frank Proffitt
2.Sometimes I'm in this Country. Lee Monroe Presnell
3. Cousin Sally Brown. Tab Ward
4. Going Away Tomorrow. Buna Hicks


Frank Proffitt was one of the only commercially recorded musician stied to the Beech area. Born in the Laurel Bloomery community of Tennessee in 1913, Proffitt moved to Watauga County with his family when he was young. He raised tobacco and did carpentry work in the Beaver Dam area.  Frank and his father Wiley also made fretless wooden "mountain" style banjos and dulcimers during the winter. Proffitt played dulcimer, banjo and the guitar and wrote many songs about life in his community during the Depression, which added to the sacred and secular songs, ballads and dance tunes in his growing repertoire . He learned most of his music from his family: his father, his mother and his wife's people, the Hicks family. In 1938 Nathan Hicks, his father-in-law and one of many prolific musicians from that family introduced him to Frank and Anne Warner, a young couple traveling through the area recording traditional music. One of those early  recordings, the murder ballad Tom Dooley inspired the Kingston Trio and helped spark the Folk Revival of the the 1960s. It also made him a national celebrity. He toured around the country and released several records before his untimely death in 1965.
Hard Time Time Traveling Here Below is a Baptist hymn that can be heard on the "Frank Proffitt Memorial Record" released on the Folk-Legacy label.

Lee Monroe Presnell was born in 1876. He was an elder in the Primitive Baptist Church like many other members of his family. The unaccompanied singing style of that church influenced and was influenced by secular singing traditions in the community. (More on that later) "Uncle Monroe" as he was often called, was a source of older songs and stories to aspiring musicians in the younger generation, having learned from two almost mythical figures, his grandfather Council Harmon, and Lie-Hue Younce, (there are many different spellings such as Liehew Yants) an itinerant resident of the community who allegedly hated work but was tolerated because of his musical and storytelling talents. Lie-Hue returned every few years with a gun, a dog, a taste for liquor and more songs picked up on his travels.

Presnell learned Sometimes I'm in this Country from his father. It contains a floating verse found in several ballads and songs but the melody and second verse seem to be unique to him, at least on record. It can be heard on "Nothing Seems The Same" The Second Volume of the Frank and Anne Warner Collection being reissued from Appleseed Records.

Tab Ward was born on Spice Creek in 1903. He began developing his "double-knock" style of banjo playing when he was 12 and was known as one of the best banjo players in the area. Throughout his life he was a farmer and craftsman. At one point he hung up his instruments and stopped playing for over thirty years. Around the age of 57 he rekindled his interest in music and began producing fiddles, mountain banjos and dulcimers with his son and grandson out of his home in the Watauga River Valley.

Cousin Sally Brown is a traditional dance tune. It is taken from an independent release by Tab and local store owner and toymaker Jack Guy under the name Beech Creek Ramblers, which has not yet been reissued.

Buna Vista Hicks or Buny as she was sometimes called sang and played the fiddle, dulcimer, and banjo. She was one of several women string musicians in the area, something not very common for the time. Her unwavering and memorable voice and her playing style are fine examples of the older styles on the Beech recorded first by the Warners in the 1930s. She was born a Presnell (she is Lee Monroe's niece) on Egg Knob in 1888. She married Roby Monroe Hicks another fine banjo and dulcimer player, and raised 11 children, including the singers Linzy and Hattie (Presnell) and Folk Heritage Award winner Stanley Hicks. Buna lived for almost a century, inspiring generations of musicians. The furthest she ventured from the mountain was a trip to Asheville NC to perform at a folk festival.

Going Away Tomorrow can be traced to several ballad variants. It is usually the story of a woman going into battle dressed as a man. This version has a somewhat different narrative structure which may or may not be intentional. The Civil War was a very bloody and complicated time in Northwestern North Carolina and East Tennessee. Many families were divided or were turned against each other as people went across the mountains to the east to join the confederates or the west to join federal forces. There was one famous case of a husband and wife enlisting together in what is now Avery County. Throughout the war the Blalocks served on both sides and collected a pension from each after the war was over. After the recording, Buna tells of her mother who lived through that violent time, teaching her the human side of a war that like many others , is often glorified. The song can be found on "The Traditional Music of Beech Mountain", collected by Sandy Paton and released by Folk-Legacy Records.

Like Stanley Hicks, Edd Presnell was born into a musical family. Legend says that once night a stranger stopped by the home of Eli and America Presnell in 1885, asking for lodging. That evening, the stranger pulled a dulcimer out of his baggage and began to play it. Eli was so impressed that he asked permission to trace the instrument.

The couple would inspire another branch of the Presnell family to raise a dulcimer maker and player, Edd. Edd made his first dulcimer in 1936, after he married Nettie Hicks, daughter of dulcimer-maker Ben Hicks. In fact, Edd learned much about making dulcimers from his father-in-law. Edd and Nettie received the prestigious Brown Hudson Folklore Award in 1974 for dulcimer-making and woodcarving.

Descendants of Council Harmon/Ballads, Jack Tales, Dulcimers
by Banjimer » Wed Oct 17, 2007 5:40 pm

With things being a little slow in the History of Dulcimers and Songs discussion threads, I thought I'd throw out another URL for interested folks to take a look at:

The above URL will take you to a fairly extensive family history of the descendants of Cutliff Harmon, including Council Harmon and two of his daughters, Rebecca Harmon and Emily (Emoline) Harmon. Council Harmon, of course, was the source of numerous Jack Tales passed down through several generations. Rebecca Harmon and Emoline Harmon were sisters whose offspring were prime tradition bearers.

First, Rebecca Harmon. She would marry Samuel Hicks, and together they would pass on storytelling and ballad singing traditions. Their sons, John Benjamin (Ben) Hicks, Andrew Jackson (Andy) Hicks, James Brownlow (Brownlow) Hicks, and Roby Monroe (Roby) Hicks are credited by many as being among the first dulcimer makers and players in Watauga County, NC. They are thought to have made and played dulcimers sometime around the end of the 19th century (1890's or so). Much of this information was gathered by Ralph Lee Smith and Lucy Margaret Long. Most of us are familiar with Ralph's work. Lucy Long's work is documented in her dissertation, and she includes much more detail regarding the dulcimer tradition in Watauga County. Her dissertation is available online through UMI.

Emoline Harmon was married twice, both times to members of the extended Hicks family. Her second marriage was to Ransom Merritt Hicks, and it was this marriage that produced one of Cecil Sharp's most prolific ballad singing contributors, Jane Hicks Gentry. Jane Hicks Gentry contributed over 60 ballads to the collection of Cecil Sharp. However, she also served as a source of a number of Jack Tales dating to her grandfather, Council Harmon, and beyond. Jane Hicks Gentry's life is recorded in two excellent books, Betty Smith's "Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer Among Singers" and Jacqueline Burgin Painter's "An Appalachian Medley: Hot Springs and the Gentry Family, Vol. I". Betty Smith's book gives a pretty clear indication of at least part of the repertoire common to the extended Hicks family of Western North Carolina. I say "part of" because Cecil Sharp pretty much limited his collecting efforts to old English ballads. Hymns and other songs played locally were not recorded in Sharp's books.

Anyone looking for a good source for traditional repertoire should give Betty Smith's book a look. Also, the ballads found in Cecil Sharp's "English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians" (the source of the tunes included in Betty Smith's book) make great dulcimer material. There is plenty of material for those looking for something traditional to play in Dorian or Aeolian modes.

The URL, cited above, provides the genealogical links between the Watauga County Hicks family and the Madison County Hicks/Gentry family. The books provide all the details necessary to locating some traditional material for playing on the dulcimer.

For clarity's sake, I am not saying that Jane Hicks Gentry played the dulcimer. As far as I know, she sang all of her ballads unaccompanied. What I am trying to say (imply) is that her first cousins in Watauga County likely knew much of the same material she provided to Cecil Sharp. If they were anything like most musicians I know, they may have tried accompanying these same ballads with fiddles, banjos, guitars, and dulcimers. The evidence we do have (particularly Anne and Frank Warner's book and recordings) seems to support the assumption that at least some of these ballads were indeed accompanied by musical instruments, including our beloved dulcimer.