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Eric H. Davidson audio recordings

Davidson, Eric H., 1937-2015  Search this
Galyean, Cullen  Search this
Harrison, Bobby  Search this
Jarrell, Tommy, 1901-1985  Search this
Joines, Polly  Search this
Neaves, Glen  Search this
Smith, Glen (Banjo player)  Search this
Spencer, Ed  Search this
Ward, Wade  Search this
73 Sound tape reels
Collection descriptions
Archival materials
Sound tape reels
This collection contains 73 open reel tapes, made by Eric H. Davidson between 1958-1984, featuring the traditional music of Southern Appalachia.
Scope and Contents:
The Eric H. Davidson audio recordings consists of 73 open reel tapes dating from 1958-1984, featuring field recordings made by Davidson and his colleagues (including Caleb Ellicott Finch, Paul Newman, Lyn Davidson, and Jane Rigg) featuring the traditional music of Southern Appalachia. The recordings were collected primarily in Grayson and Carroll counties in Southwestern Virginia, and adjacent counties in North Carolina.
The Eric H. Davidson audio recordings are arranged in chronological order. Each open reel tape was assigned a unique number by Eric Davidson.
Biographical / Historical:
Eric H. Davidson was born in 1937, in New York City. He was primarily known as a pioneering developmental biologist, who revolutionized the research of and theoretical framework behind "the gene regulatory networks that perform complex biological processes, such as the transformation of a single-celled egg into a complex organism. His work helped to reveal how the DNA sequences inherited in the genome are used to initiate and drive forward the sequence of steps that result in development." (1)

Davidson's work in biology began at the age of 16, when he began conducting research with cell physiologist L. V. Heilbrunn, a family friend, at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He began as a dish washer at the MBL, but was informed by Heilbrunn that he was also expected to have a research project. This project resulted in a published abstract in the Biological Bulletin on clotting in sand dollars.

Davidson earned his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1958 and his doctorate from Rockefeller University in 1963. After working as a postdoctoral researcher and faculty member at Rockefeller, he moved to Caltech, where he would spend the rest of his career, beginning as a visiting assistant professor. He was named Norman Chandler Professor of Cell Biology in 1982 and remained there until his death.

His interest in old time music arose at nearly the same time as his interest in biology. His father, a well-known abstract painter, and mother were connected to several people who were hired to do research for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the late 1930's and 40's. At 14, he began to play the 5-string banjo after being introduced to the instrument through his exposure to recordings of Southern Appalachian music recorded as a part of the WPA, held at the Library of Congress.

In college, he played music in cafes. He also got a hold of the log of WPA recordings that were so influential to him. He began to stick pins in maps wherever the recordings were made, and began to notice that most of the pins were clustered in two counties in Southwestern Virginia--Grayson and Carroll counties--and adjacent counties in North Carolina.

In 1956, he began to take trips down to these areas during breaks from school to record musicians that had learned songs and skills through oral tradition, as opposed to the radio or records. He continued to go every year for many years, until the last person he knew had learned by oral tradition passed away. He formed close relationships with many notable musicians during these trips, including Wade Ward (from whom he learned the clawhammer banjo playing technique), Tommy Jarrell, Paul Joines, Glen Neaves, Vester Jones, Ed Spencer, Glen Smith, Cullen Galyean, and Bobby Harrison. He often recorded with his longtime collaborators Caleb Ellicott Finch, Paul Newman, Lyn Davidson, and Jane Rigg. Many of these recordings were released by Moses Asch as Folkways Records albums, produced by Davidson and his collaborators between 1962-1986.

Davidson was interested in the personal, musical, structural, traditional, and historical aspects of Southern Appalachian music. His fieldwork style was to continue to record a musician until they got tired or he'd run out of tape. Then he'd come back the next day, and the next year, and the year after that, until he had recorded everything that musician knew. This gave his work the characteristic of what he described as, borrowing from his scientific background, a longitudinal study. He was able to observe changes in the musical tradition of the region: the transition of traditional ballad singing from a cappella to string band accompaniment, the incorporation of the guitar into the string band ensemble, and the shift from clawhammer to three-finger banjo picking. In an oral history interview with Davidson conducted by the Ralph Rinzler Folklife and Collections in 2015, Davidson said that in his research, he could see how "ballads combine and recombine like genetic organisms in biology."

Davidson was also an accomplished banjo musician in his own right. He formed the Iron Mountain String Band together with Caleb Finch (fiddle), and Peggy Haine (guitar), releasing an album (FA 2473) on Folkways Records in 1973 consisting of songs and tunes learned from his many recording trips into Grayson and Carroll counties.

Eric Davidson died on September 1, 2015 at the age of 78.

1. "Developmental Biologist Eric H. Davidson Passes Away," Caltech News, September 4, 2015, accessed January 5, 2016,
Please note that some language in this collection is culturally insensitive or offensive to viewers. It is presented as it exists in the original material for the benefit of research and the historical record. The material reflects the culture and context in which it was created and not the views of the Smithsonian Institution.
Shared Stewardship of Collections:
The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage acknowledges and respects the right of artists, performers, Folklife Festival participants, community-based scholars, and knowledge-keepers to collaboratively steward representations of themselves and their intangible cultural heritage in media produced, curated, and distributed by the Center. Making this collection accessible to the public is an ongoing process grounded in the Center's commitment to connecting living people and cultures to the materials this collection represents. To view the Center's full shared stewardship policy, which defines our protocols for addressing collections-related inquiries and concerns, please visit
Related Materials:
An oral history with Eric H. Davidson was conducted by the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections on April 26, 2015. Both the video and transcript is available for researchers. Contact archives staff for information.
Donated by Eric H. Davidson.
Access to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections is by appointment only. Visit our website for more information on scheduling a visit or making a digitization request. Researchers interested in accessing born-digital records or audiovisual recordings in this collection must use access copies.
Permission to publish materials from the collection must be requested from the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. Please visit our website to learn more about submitting a request. The Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections make no guarantees concerning copyright or other intellectual property restrictions. Other usage conditions may apply; please see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use for more information.
Fiddle tunes -- Appalachian Region, Southern  Search this
Folk music -- Appalachian Region, Southern  Search this
Banjo music -- Appalachian Region, Southern  Search this
Music -- Appalachian Region, Southern  Search this
Old-time music -- Appalachian Region, Southern  Search this
Eric H. Davidson audio recordings, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
Eric H. Davidson audio recordings, 1958-1985. Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
See more items in:
Eric H. Davidson audio recordings
Archival Repository:
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Dailey Appointed NASM Director

Dailey, John R  Search this
Engen, Donald Davenport 1924-  Search this
National Air and Space Museum  Search this
National Aeronautics and Space Administration  Search this
United States Marine Corps  Search this
Washington (D.C.)
January 1, 2000
Museum directors  Search this
Appointments  Search this
Data Source:
Smithsonian Archives - History Div

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