In the 1920s, a genteel New England woman found her way to front porches and barns way up in Appalachian hollers. She wheedled and befriended and pestered the local folk until they shared their old-timey music, which she commenced to notate. Her purpose was the preservation of ballads that had changed little in the four or five generations since European settlers carried their music into the mountains.
Sound familiar? It is the story line of Maggie Greenwald’s movie Songcatcher — filmed near Weaverville and released in 2000.
And, by no coincidence, it is also the story line of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, located at the westernmost edge of Western North Carolina.
Eighty-five years ago, the role model for Greenwald’s protagonist, Olive Dame Campbell, and her intimate friend Marguerite Butler, traveled to Europe to study folk schools — and returned determined to found a similar center in Appalachia.
Their plan reached fruition in 1925, and eight decades later, the school continues its mission of preservation and education — inextricably interwoven with the music Olive loved.
Saving the heathens
As the 19th century wound down, educated Easterners commenced to fretting about the plight of uneducated mountain folk in the South. A consensus emerged that educational and social missions were necessary to lift hillbillies out of squalor and poverty.
In Asheville that sensibility resulted in the creation of Biltmore Industries in 1901, underwritten by George and Edith Vanderbilt and organized by two women, Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance. Initially the business harnessed local woodworking talent to carve objects for export. Soon they included the weaving of woolen homespun cloth which later became world-famous.
Several years later, John C. Campbell and his wife Olive Dame left Massachusetts and traveled through the southern mountains on a fact-finding survey of social conditions. While Olive collected Appalachian ballads and studied handicrafts, John talked to farmers about local agricultural practices. They hoped to improve the quality of life for backwater people as well as preserve regional folkways.
The Campbells had read of folkehojskoles (folk schools) in Denmark, schools for living that had reportedly transformed rural Danish life, and talked of starting such a school in Appalachia. Ten years later, the dream unrealized, John died. But his wife persevered.
On a visit to Brasstown, Butler discussed the idea with the local storekeeper, Fred O. Scroggs, who offered to ask his neighbors about possible support. When she returned a few weeks later, more than 200 people attended a meeting at a local church to offer help.
The school’s current folklorist, David A. Brose, told Xpress “There was a tremendous amount of community support. Just stunning. We have a whole series of 5-x-7 cards, and each one has a paragraph that starts out, ‘If the folk school comes here, I will pledge: …’
“People pledged $5 or $10 annually — and $10 was a lot of money in 1925. Some donated labor, building supplies or use of farm equipment. That’s how badly people in the community wanted it to be here.”
Campbell’s vision extended far beyond music, although music became and remains an essential part of the school’s tradition. “The longer I read about Mrs. Campbell, the more impressed I am,” Brose says. “She was a huge mover in the revival of folk crafts and a founding member of the Southern Highland [Craft] Guild.
“Songcatcher was loosely based on her work,” he continues. “It was not totally historical fact, but that was Mrs. Campbell.
“Maggie Greenwald and her husband, David Mansfield, who did the music for the film, were in my office for two weeks looking through all her letters and ballad collections,” Brose reveals. “Then they went back to New York to write the movie.”
Over the years, upward of 100,000 students have attended classes in everything from basketry to blacksmithing to woodworking, including carving, woodturning and instrument building. Traditional skills such as quilting, weaving, dyeing and pottery are taught alongside a diversity of others including kaleidoscope construction and photography. Classes are organized on a weekly or weekend basis, with a dozen or more subjects offered in each session. In recent years, about 6,500 students have attended classes annually.
Wake up singing, wind up dancing
Every day at the school begins with a Danish traditional Morning Song — a half hour of song and folklore before breakfast, which is served family-style in the campus dining hall. Classes follow, most taught in small studios with participation limited to a dozen students. The program is geared toward individual, hands-on learning, with students working at their own pace — and there are no grades awarded. Participation is emphasized over competition.
During the afternoon, students are encouraged to visit local shops or studios to experience the milieu of skilled artisans at work.
Evenings at the school are the time for songs and dance — for many attendees, this is the most memorable part of the week (see sidebar: “Flying out of the ’50s”). Friday nights, following a student exhibit featuring the week’s work, a concert marks the climax of the session — bluegrass, old-time and other musical forms are given full voice, with the community invited in to join students for the celebration.
Jan Davidson, director and chief storyteller at the school for the past 13 years, told Xpress, “The thing that I see every day is that by having people together in a noncompetitive place where [they] promise to treat each other nicely, it does a huge amount for people’s spirit and their ability to learn anything. That’s why this isn’t a craft school, it’s a folk school.”
He continues: “It has an underlying purpose to bring people together and to give people a look at the side of themselves that wants to be cooperative. In the process of doing that, people do incredible things.”
When he first went to work at the school, Davidson, a native of nearby Murphy, helped create a history center. He notes that neighbors donated 100 handmade chairs when the first assembly room opened, and that 75 are still in use. “The names of the donors or the makers were written on the back of the chairs in India ink. I’ve got chairs sittin’ in my office, one from my daddy’s family and my mother’s, that they gave to the school in 1927.”
Campbell Folk School has kept to its old ways from its hand-hewn beginning, through the strains of the Great Depression and World War II, the boom times of the post-war years, the cyber revolution and globalized trade — and somehow seems more relevant than ever. Preserving local culture and tried-and-true crafts appeals to generations who have grown up far from the land and even further from the mountains. Some have described this longing as a desire for “high-touch” experience in a high-tech world increasingly stripped of sensory variation. (We stare at small screens all day at work or school, multiple big screens at bars, restaurants, post offices, airports, banks — you name it –and return home to TV-VCR-DVD-Internet. Diversity writ small.)
If you know how to create something hand-made, there’s a good chance that bit of knowledge passed through the Campbell school at one time or another. And if there’s something you don’t know how to make, they probably have a class scheduled sometime soon. After 80 years, they have a good handle on what’s really important. And if it’s important, someone at the school can probably make a handle for it.
See www.folkschool.org or call (800) FOLK SCH or (828) 837-2775 for more information.
Flying out of the ’50s
“The dances,” exclaims Martha Chastain McKeon. “Oh, the dances!”
McKeon is remembering her experiences at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the mid-1950s. Born in Martin’s Creek, just five miles from the school, her life has stretched from hay wagons to jet planes. Today she lives in Asheville’s Vanderbilt Apartments, just 126 miles from the place she still calls home.