In 2000, the film Songcatcher introduced audiences to Lily Penleric, a musicologist who visits Appalachia and falls in love with the music of the mountains. The film garnered positive reviews from critics. However, many viewers do not know about the real researchers and educators who inspired this movie. Even fewer know about the John C. Campbell Folk School that these folklorists built.
Olive Dame Campbell, a ballad researcher who inspired the character of Penleric, created the John C. Campbell Folk School in 1925 to honor her late husband. John, like Olive, spent years interviewing Appalachian artisans and collecting oral histories. Olive researched Scots-Irish ballads in Appalachia, and John advocated for educational reform in rural towns.
One of the school’s first programs was a partnership with woodcarvers from Brasstown, North Carolina. When Olive visited the Fred O. Scroggs’ general store, she noticed that many shoppers would sit together, socializing and whittling. Olive encouraged community members to study carpentry and carving at her school. Some of these students used their new woodworking skills to provide extra income for their families, while others handcrafted heirlooms to pass down to their children or grandchildren.
Today, students who attend the folk school can study skills such as blacksmithing, weaving, pottery, cooking, and other traditions that have marked Appalachian life for generations. Many students choose to take courses to reconnect with their heritage and revive the skills they can no longer learn from their ancestors. Other scholars and artists visit the school to connect with the Blue Ridge landscape.
Through their advocacy and scholarship, Olive and John helped preserve Appalachian traditions. Their work inspired a major motion picture, but their influence resonates in the strumming of banjos at jam sessions in Brasstown.
The school strives to keep folk art alive in the modern age through programs such as the Junior Appalachian Musicians and intergenerational workshops that bring together people of all ages. Almost a century later, the couple’s legacy and their passion for Appalachian crafts live on at the John C. Campbell Folk School.
Know Before You Go
The folk school is located near the border of Cherokee territory. Before visiting, consider learning more about Cherokee traditions, Cherokee policies, and the indigenous history near Brasstown. Some helpful resources include Sheyahshe Littledave's article "'Our DNA is of this land': The Cherokee quest to reclaim stolen territory."
When enjoying the natural scenery around the school, be conscious to avoid private property and follow wildlife stewardship guidelines.