The John C. Campbell Folk School is a nontraditional place of learning in Brasstown, North Carolina, about 225 kilometers (140 miles) north of Georgia’s capital city of Atlanta.
The school was named in honor of John C. Campbell, an educator who worked and traveled extensively throughout the southern Appalachian region at the beginning of the 20th century. The school offers weeklong and weekend classes in traditions such as art, music, dancing, and cooking. The mission of the school, which teaches mostly adults, is to provide “experiences in non-competitive learning and community life that are joyful and enlivening.”
Founding a Folk School
The “folk school” movement started in Denmark in the mid-19th century. Although the word has no direct English translation, the Danish word folkehøjskole can mean “peasant university,” “people’s college,” or “folk high school.”
The folk school movement spread beyond Denmark, then beyond Europe. The idea of a noncompetitive school open to everyone intrigued many progressive educators, including the husband-and-wife team of Olive Dame and John C. Campbell.
The Campbells were working in southern Appalachia, collecting information on the health, education, and social and economic conditions of local communities.
They noticed that once people from southern Appalachia left for college, they tended not to come back. This was a contrast to places like Denmark. Farmers in Denmark had a solid basic education, and continued to learn best practices in farming—even if they never intended to get a college degree. The Campbells wanted something similar for their rural friends and colleagues in the United States.
"How shall we keep an enlightened, progressive, and contented farming population on the land?" Olive Dame Campbell asked.
The Campbells decided to start a folk school of their own. They intended to go to Denmark to study folk schools there, but World War I and, later, John’s illness and death prevented them from doing so.
Instead, Olive Dame Campbell went to Denmark with Marguerite Butler of Kentucky's Pine Mountain Settlement School. After being awarded fellowships from the American-Scandinavian Foundation in 1922, they spent 14 months riding bicycles from one Danish town to another, gathering ideas for a school of their own in the southern United States.
The women decided to establish their school in Brasstown.
"In selecting Brasstown, North Carolina,” Campbell wrote, “we believe we have found a region plainly possible of agricultural development, a natural center not too far from the railroad, and among a substantial, land-owning population who really desire it."
The John C. Campbell Folk School was established in December 1925, and the first classes were held two years later.
"The first folk school classes concentrated on subjects such as geography and sociology, things you would learn in a more traditional school—along with native folk art, music, dance, and crafts," says David Brose, folklorist at the John C. Campbell Folk School. "Today, the school no longer does the geography and sociology classes, but it still teaches in the folk school tradition. Folk schools place emphasis on the oral tradition. Almost all classes are taught word-of-mouth. It's a circular, cyclical kind of learning. In discussions, everyone has something to add."
The school also established cooperatives, emulating its Danish counterparts. Cooperatives are groups of individuals who agree to work together for a common purpose. In the school's case, that meant starting cooperatives of farmers and artisans.
One of the first cooperatives was the Brasstown Savings and Loan Association, a credit union. This was followed by a Farmer's Association and shortly after that, the Mountain Valley Creamery. The Southern Highland Handicraft Guild (now the Southern Highland Craft Guild) was formed in March 1930, influenced in part by the artist cooperatives Campbell and Butler saw while touring Scandinavia. A carving cooperative brought in much-needed extra income for farming families; the Brasstown Carvers is still in operation today.
Although the school still teaches classes in gardening and seed-saving, its focus gradually shifted away from agriculture.
"I first came to the John C. Campbell Folk School as a directionless college student," says former student Martha Owen. "At the time there wasn't much in the way of facilities here, but for me something clicked. The school honored and respected me."
Today, Owen is the school's resident artist in spinning, dyeing, knitting, and felt-making. Her two daughters, Emolyn and Annie Fain Liden, also teach at the school.
"I grew up sleeping on the stage under the piano," says Annie Liden, the school's dance and music coordinator.
As coordinator, Liden organizes the instructors who teach Appalachian square dancing and New England-style contra dancing. She has also taught weeklong classes in banjo playing and bookbinding for adults and children.
"The school is very community-oriented. Meals are all together, usually with a song before we eat,” Liden says. “The school is all about non-competitive adult education—it's not about grades."
"People come to the school because they want to learn, not because they have to," Owen echoes.
Not all the classes are tailored to beginners.
"Nancy Bush comes to the school once a year to teach Nordic hand coverings. This is highly specialized knitting from a world-class craftsperson. She travels all over the world—she was recently in Estonia—but she loves the school," Owen says.
Another former student of the school is the late writer David Rakoff.
"David introduced me to the concept of flow," says Jan Davidson, the school's director. "Flow, an idea put forth by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, says that a person is happiest when they forget everything else and are in a blissful state of pure concentration. Using two eyes and two hands in close proximity helps one to achieve flow."
After Rakoff's death in 2012, the John C. Campbell Folk School started the David Rakoff Scholarship Fund in his honor.
A Week unto Itself
Classes for adults at the John C. Campbell Folk School usually last a week. In the summer, the school opens its doors to “Littles”—students from the second through 12th grade.
"The thing about a week is that it's a week unto itself," Martha Owen says. "The people who take the class, even the weather, make the experience unique. After one week was over, a woman came up to me and said, 'It was so great to spend a week focusing on one thing,' and I said, ‘But you learned how to spin, and dye yarn, and felt wool—you learned to do a lot of things!’ But I knew what she meant. It feels good to take time to immerse yourself in one subject. We all hope we find the thing that winds us up and keeps us going."
"The school's motto is 'I Sing Behind the Plow,'” Davidson says. "Today, most of us don't stand behind a literal plow, but a virtual one, like a computer screen. The school has endured because it has stayed true to its mission. People are looking for something that is real and tangible. And there is a little escapism, sure, but we teach our students skills they can take with them. It's about knowing that in your daily life, you can have art, you can have joy."