Folk singer Janis Ian establishes Pearl Foundation scholarship at Warren Wilson College and pens the song “Swannanoa”

Janis Ian takes time to visit newborn piglets at the Warren Wilson College Farm. Photo: Kyle McCurry/Warren Wilson College


Long before Billy Edd Wheeler co-wrote “Jackson,” the song made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, he was reading poems by Robert Frost and working toward a degree at Warren Wilson College. No matter how much success Wheeler enjoyed, he never forgot his alma mater. That was evident when a fellow musician emailed him in 2009.

“I was talking with Billy Edd one day and mentioned that my wife and I had just established a scholarship at another school. He suggested that we [endow] our next one at Warren Wilson,” said Janis Ian, a multi-Grammy Award-winning musician known for the hit songs “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen.”

Ian and her wife, Patricia Snyder, took the recommendation seriously and realized Wheeler was right. Through the Pearl Foundation, which was formed to honor Ian’s mother, the College became one of four institutions to offer the scholarship. While the money arrived despite the couple never visiting the campus, they soon made a trip to Swannanoa.

Swannanoa had no personal meaning to Ian, but she said it conjured feelings of “mystery.” To this day, numerous inhabitants offer different tales about the origins of the College’s hometown’s name. The most accurate definition, according to Warren Wilson archaeologist David Moore, comes from James Mooney. He claimed in his 1900 book, “Myths of the Cherokee,” that it meant “Suwali trail” and evolved from the Cherokee word “Suwa’lĭ-nunna’ hi.”

The name continued to make itself known during Ian’s first visit to the campus. She met Jim Magill, director of The Swannanoa Gathering, the College’s summer folk arts program, and he invited her to teach and participate in the program.

“A week out of my life at that point when I was on tour doing one-nighters, especially in the summer, was not easy,” Ian said. “I think it waited a couple of years, and then he convinced me.”

Since its inception in 1991, The Swannanoa Gathering has grown into a series of weeklong summer music workshops in everything from fiddle to clogging to storytelling. Over the years, it has attracted more than 18,000 musicians, including internationally recognized instructors, students from around the world and numerous concert-goers.

When Ian arrived for her first summer experience, she found something she needed. “It had all the spirit I’d been missing when I worked with groups – the kind of thing that you just don’t see anywhere anymore,” Ian said.

In 2012, Ian accepted an invitation to speak at the College’s commencement ceremony.

“From my vantage point, time and energy are precious commodities,” she told the crowd gathered on the Sunderland Residence Hall lawn. “I don’t remember the last time I was bored because I can’t remember the last time I had time to be bored. For me, money buys the time to do what I care about, not what’s expected of me.”

“It was a happy accident. I had the idea and wrote down a first verse. Then I promptly went to New York and forgot about it. A little while back I was going through some old song notes, and I came across the verse,” she said.

Realizing the summer of 2016 was The Swannanoa Gathering’s 25th anniversary and that the lyrics she wrote three years earlier formed the foundation of “a really good song,” Ian decided to finish the tune.

“It was hard to write because with that kind of song you have to be really careful not to insert yourself. It can’t be about you, and yet it has to be about you. It has to be about your own longing to return,” she said.

Each lyric was crafted based on Ian’s experiences living, learning and working at Warren Wilson College through The Swannanoa Gathering. “The song says, ‘I’m longing for my home so far away,’ because there are a lot of people here who consider the Gathering their real home. And then, ‘I will carry you within me from the cradle to the grave.’ You hope, as a teacher, that it has that level of impact,” Ian added.

She debuted the song, aptly named “Swannanoa,” at the beginning of The Swannanoa Gathering’s contemporary folk week in July. Her concert hall was the College’s Morris’ Pavilion with a campus academic building as the backdrop.

The building was named for former dean Henry Jensen, who arrived in Swannanoa in 1933 with a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He could have left after a few years, but he stayed and became a fabled figure in College history. He called the area a “botanist’s paradise” and created the foundation for many of the applied learning programs that continue to make up Warren Wilson’s educational model. Little did Ian know, Jensen was also mentor to, and a significant influence on, Billy Edd Wheeler.

Jensen penned Warren Wilson College’s “Alma Mater” in 1942. Ian only heard it once shortly after her 2012 commencement speech, and it was likely drowned out by the cheers of newly minted alumni. Nevertheless, to some, “Swannanoa” sounds like a sequel – evolving from its origins in The Swannanoa Gathering to represent the College as a whole.

“This is a wonderful place. This is an oasis,” Ian said. Keeping that thought in mind, she concluded the latest creation in her legendary career.

“When I sang what I thought would be the ending, ‘Swannanoa, I’ll be home to stay,’ it felt almost right. But adding ‘Oh my darling, I’ll be home to stay’ to wrap it up, accomplished everything I’d set out to do. Because people don’t think of this as a place, they think of it as a home. It’s very personal, and saying ‘darling’ drives that home.”

In July, “Swannanoa” was recorded by UNC-TV as Ian performed at The Swannanoa Gathering concert, which the network intends to air on its North Carolina Channel later this year. In the meantime, Ian has made a rudimentary version, which she sang into her cellphone, available for free download at

For more information about the Pearl Foundation Scholarship at Warren Wilson College, visit

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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