Jan Davidson, executive director of the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown from 1992 to 2016, is a native of nearby Murphy, North Carolina. A musician and a writer, Jan has a Ph.D. in folklore and museum studies.
Jan Davidson: I Really Wanted to Get a Banjo
I’m from Murphy, North Carolina. My folks have been there since the 1840s. Back then they were farmers in the valley between Murphy and Andrews, but the last few generations have been town people. One of my granddaddies was a storekeeper, and my other granddaddy was a salesman for a wholesale company. I grew up in downtown Murphy in an old house that was built by my grandmother’s father, my great-granddaddy Robert Alexander Akin. He was a Confederate captain, and then after the war he was a schoolteacher.
That house has always been in our family. When I was a kid, there was a church on one side of it and a funeral home next to that, and then on the other side and across the street were filling stations. Those were the musical centers in towns like Murphy. In fact, there were four filling stations within an easy walk of our house, and they all played music. People came and played different types of music in each one. It was just great. It was good music.
My dad, who’s still living—he’s a hundred years old—was the Veteran’s Affairs officer for six counties here in western North Carolina. He helped people get their GI Bill benefits and so forth. He went to those counties every week, and in the summertime I’d go with him. I saw a lot of this whole end of the state, and I heard a lot of music. My dad knew I liked that.
When I first started listening in the 1950s, most of the guys tried to play like Flatt and Scruggs, but there were still a few old people around who did something that was obviously different from bluegrass. Once, I remember my father said he was going to see an old guy who had a banjo, a World War I vet named Caleb Mashburn. He’d had some health troubles, and his banjo didn’t have but about three strings on it, so I took him some new strings and he started playing things like “Mamma’s Darling Child,” which most people call “Soldier’s Joy” using a two-finger style. I worried a number of elderly people back then, asking them to play for me. I never saw clawhammer played around here. Nobody around here did it that I know of. The way they played the banjo here was up-picking, like Pete Seeger’s strum, which he learned from Aunt Samantha Bumgarner, who used to play a lot around Murphy.
When I was about thirteen, my daddy took me to Asheville to see a music show, and Frank Proffitt was in it. I really liked him. So I wrote him a fan letter, the only one I ever wrote in my life. And he answered it. I told him I really wanted to get a banjo just like he was playing. “I’m gonna get a job,” I wrote. I was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to get a banjo. [Laughs.] So I did, I worked at the Cherokee Scout newspaper folding papers, and then when I was fourteen I went to work at WC VP (Western Carolina Vacation Playground) as a DJ. The guy who’d been doing the job had gone off to college, so I became the early-morning DJ. So I had to get up at four in the morning. We signed on at five. A thousand watts! It was me and the farmers and the milkman and the cops. The yawn patrol. So I did that for a while, and then Frank Proffitt sent me a banjo. He said, “It’s got a crack in it, but you can have it if you’ll pay the shipping.” I’ve still got it. Then the guy who did the afternoon show went off to college, too, so I got that job, a teen show playing rock and roll records. I’d do the early-morning bluegrass show, go to school, and then do the afternoon rock and roll show.
While I worked at that radio station we had people like the Osborne Brothers come through here. Jim and Jesse were real popular, and they came here all the time. During that time I was playing commercial music on the radio and we’d change formats every couple of hours. Rock and roll, bluegrass, country—and live music, especially on the weekends. Church music. Whole congregations from places like Hanging Dog would come in the studio and sing and have preaching. Sometimes the station would sponsor music shows at the gym, and those bands would come into the studio and play live. I worked there from 1962 to 1966. Then I went off to Chapel Hill.
I first came here to the Folk School as a small child at Christmastime. They had a great Christmas event here with a big tree and all that. That’s the first thing I remember about coming here. Then we’d come up in the summertime and eat lunch here. The food was great. They always had homemade bread and fresh vegetables, so I remember that pretty well.
I first took a class here when I was in high school—wood carving. Then, later, when I was in college and I’d come home to Murphy, I’d go up to Brasstown and find the other college kids I knew who’d come home from school at the folk school dances. I always liked to see what was happening here.
During the late seventies the school started to get into local music more than it had before. There had never been a total connection between local music and the Folk School until the late seventies. I got hired to play the guitar here for a clogging event around then, and I’ve been involved with the Folk School ever since.
I’m really happy that there’s this richness at the folk school in such a rural area. We have great concerts here; we have dances once or twice a week, a great classical concert series, jams on Sunday afternoon, and often more jams on Tuesday nights. What I like best about all this is that it’s accessible to everybody and local people feel comfortable with coming here and participating. That’s what I like to see.
Jerry Jackson has served as director of the John C. Campbell Folk School since 2017. For more information visit their website.
The essay was reprinted from Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina Guidebook, published by the North Carolina Arts Council in partnership with UNC Press.