How the Film Throws Light on Tom Davenport’s Own Work | Folkstreams

How the Film Throws Light on Tom Davenport’s Own Work

How the Film Throws Light on Tom Davenport’s Own Work

Tom Davenport has earned a place in the history of serious work with folklore. He was one of the filmmakers who in the 1970s made pioneering documentaries about American vernacular culture. Tom’s films “Born for Hard Luck,” “Being a Joines,” “A Singing Stream,” and “A Tree Accurst” are among the best. He has shot ten others related in varying ways to folklore, and as I write is at work on another. His were also among the first documentaries to break with the convention of scripted narration. Tom recognized that the people he filmed were the experts on their own lives and skills and wanted to let them speak for themselves. From the first, Tom also insisted that documentaries should absorb scholarly insights without becoming academic. He conveyed meaning and gained emotional depth by using symbols or juxtaposing scenes or unfolding a story line. A byword in his studio was, “Let’s save this fact for the book.” And for a number of his films his collaborators created background essays with the additional information and at least once produced a book. Moreover, the Folkstreams website—Tom’s invention—gives younger generations continued access to early films that increasingly accrue value as historical documents. A number of documentaries would have been, in fact, irrecoverably lost but for his efforts to find them for Folkstreams.

Tom made a further contribution to folklore because of his love of folktales. He delighted in hearing them when he was a child. He relishes telling them to youngsters in the schools his children and grandchildren have attended. And at a time when American cinematic adaptations of folktales seemed the preserve of the Disney cartoon, Tom pioneered filming them with human actors. He made eleven fairytale films, calling this series “From the Brothers Grimm” but setting the old familiar tales in the rural South, using a rich mix of mountain hollows and medicine shows and families with social pretentions. [1] For “Ashpet” (his verson of “Cinderella”) he even presented the fairy godmother as a black wise woman who makes love potions and uses riddles and an animal tale to teach lessons. He chose North Carolina storyteller Louise Anderson to play the role. [2]

What led Davenport to work in such a variety of ways with folklore? Tom gives credit for it partly to his parents, Elizabeth and Robert Davenport. His mother, he says, was one of many children in a family of Hungarian immigrants who settled in South Bend, Indiana. English was not their language in the home. As a small child Elizabeth had visions of the Virgin Mary, and her parents hoped she would become a nun. But Tom did not absorb Hungarian lore from her. He never even met any member of her family. She wanted to escape their immigrant “small factory-worker life” and ran away from home when she was fifteen. Although she did not finish high school, she found and loved the English classics—Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters—but to Tom she read the classic fairy tales.

Tom’s father, Robert Davenport, influenced him differently. He had grown up in Norfolk, Nebraska, as a very good athlete, an Eagle Scout, and the son of a shoe-store owner. An early intellectual influence on him was the tent-show mix of education, religion, politics, and entertainment offered to small-town audiences on the Chautauqua circuit. Tom says that Robert’s family would take a cow and camp near the tents on the outskirts of town so they could watch all the presentations. Robert even took a summer job driving the Chautauqua trucks and helping set up the tents—and memorized favorite declamations. Robert’s mother, Tom says, also “raised him to march in the streets singing ‘Dry up, Nebraska’ for the Temperance Movement.” After high school Robert, thinking to be a Christian missionary, entered the Central YMCA College in Chicago and spent a year during which he also swam under William Bachrach, who was coaching Johnny Weissmueller. Then Robert transferred to the University of Nebraska for a pre-med program, probably to become a medical missionary. At the University he ran track and joined a fraternity and an honor society. He graduated in 1929 but in a few months found himself in the Great Depression, which was to give a different focus to his ethical bent.

Taking a job with the Studebaker Corporation in South Bend, Robert met his future wife Elizabeth Nemeth. They married in the mid-1930s and moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Department of Agriculture. He had already in South Bend come under the influence of an older man with strong progressive ideas, and in Washington he was an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal. After Tom’s birth in 1939 Robert Davenport helped form and was president of Tauxemont Cooperative Houses [3], outside Alexandria, where another co-op member, architect Alexander Knowlton, designed a “simple, modern, affordable” house to “coexist in harmony with the natural, wooded setting” and to symbolize the equality of the members. Robert Davenport also was elected president of the Washington Book Shop, a left-leaning cooperative. [4] One photograph taken there shows Tom as a toddler in his mother’s arms when Eleanor Roosevelt visited the bookshop. Tom and his mother were also painted by another member of their circle, the left-wing artist Pele deLappe. [5] Tom says, “My dad was never a member of the Communist Party but many of the people in that organization were.” The Bookshop hosted performances by people like Lead Belly, Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, and the Seegers. On her part, Elizabeth Davenport regarded Guthrie as “just drunk all the time and completely rude.” For Tom, however, a key influence seems to have been that the Davenports had 78-rpm recordings of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie and others. Tom says, “I loved to play these records and sing. I just thought they were fascinating.”

At about the time when he was discovering these recordings, another family development was to put him in closer touch with traditional culture. His father on the heels of his Tauxemont experiment worked with architect Charles M. Goodman (designer of the Washington National Airport) and landscape architect Dan Kiley to create Hollin Hills, an early post-WW II planned community that brought modern architecture to northern Virginia and won many awards. [6] Its success enabled Davenport to buy land he named Hollin Farm in Fauquier County, Virginia, on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here Tom himself began to become aware of contrasting layers of American society.

Tom describes the section of Virginia to which they moved as having "farm owners and land owners and their tenant farmers." Making the neighborhood even more complicated, in the area around Delaplane, where the Davenports created Hollin Farm, the other land owners were from "really old Virginia families" that claimed descent from John Marshall, the wealthy and powerful Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. They had "a very strict class system, and they employed a lot of black workers, especially down around Markham." This section, Tom says, “was all cattle and crops and orchard." Fifteen miles to the north and east, although "considered the same neighborhood," lay "a different world." The big landowners there—the such as the Mellons, Duponts, and Whitneys—came from the North and always bought land around Upperville and Middleburg. They were fox hunters and kept horses. The workers on the Whitney’s Llangollen estate were not blacks but mountain whites. Many Upperville people sent their children to private schools, not to local public schools. From both sections of the county the other children—mostly from working-class families—were bussed to a school in the small town of Marshall and to Taylor, a black high school built in 1952 in Warrenton.

When the Davenports moved to Delaplane, Tom attended school in Marshall for nearly four years. His family had been living in Tauxemount, a “progressive commuity,” where probably fifty percent of the people were Jews “who had moved in with the New Deal—intellectuals, physicists, social scientists, all college educated.” Tom says, “Now I was in this rural community, which was a real surprise.” He had been going to public schools in Alexandria, so for his first day in the seventh grade, his mother dressed him in short pants. “All the boys thought that was the weirdest thing in the world.” In the country school the boys seemed to like to do two things, play marbles and fight. Tom recalls that “two or three of those bigger boys would come over and just pummel me, and I would just sit there and take it, and I thought, God, these guys are just terrible. But toward the end of the year, I grew up fast and realized I was stronger than these guys, and then I beat up a couple of those guys, and that all stopped. It was very much a pecking order.”

Tom recalls that he would ride the school bus to Upperville, where Jerry Payne had come on another bus, and they rode together to the high school in Marshall. They repeated the rides going home. This is where they met. Jerry, Tom says, was “a very popular person” in the school—“well known because he got to play football and track, and he was a really good ball player.” Because Jerry was so interested in science, his nickname was Osmosis. “Most of them didn’t know what osmosis meant, but they thought that was a great word.” They were not jealous of him, Tom says, because Jerry “was not the kind of person that you would be jealous of or dislike at all. They just thought he was a little bit strange because he was an intellectual and interested in all these birds and everything. I think a lot of people admired him. I felt I was chosen by him, in a way, as a friend.”

By Tom’s account, this opened another world to him. Jerry’s parents were among the whites working and living on “Llangollen” near Upperville where John Hay “Jock” Whitney had bought 2,200 acres in 1930 as a gift to his bride Mary Elizabeth “Liz” Altemus. Whitney, a businessman with a hand in many ventures, including films and philanthropy, was one of the ten wealthiest men in the United States, a collector of the arts, beautiful women, horses, and homes (he had at least nine of the latter). Liz Whitney retained Llangollen after their divorce in 1940, raising race horses and entertaining friends from Hollywood. Tom says, “When I knew Jerry, the place was kind of magical. There were so many people living on this farm in the tenant houses that you could have ball games up there with just the kids our age. “Jerry and I would go back and forth to each other’s places,” Tom says. “Jerry’s family was almost like, I guess you would say, a frontier family. Everyone had 22’s. We could go hunting, and Jerry’s father was an excellent hunter. I remember going rabbit hunting with Jerry’s father, and we didn’t hunt with dogs. He would just walk around—and Jerry was like that too—and just look in a briar patch. He would see the rabbit sitting in there, still. A rabbit is very hard to see when it is sitting like that, still. And of course he would shoot it. . . . Jerry has this saying, “We were hunters, gatherers. That was our economy.” This friendship with Jerry Payne was to deeply influence Tom Davenport’s life.


1. See Tom Davenport’s essay “Behind the Scenes” on the fairy tales.

See also Davenport Film & From the Brothers Grimm.

2. Louise Anderson (1921-1994) received a North Carolina Heritage Award from the state Arts Council in 1993. The text of her award citation is posted on the Arts Council’s website.

3. For an account of Tauxemont see Marcia Glod’s article “Not All Fancy, But Much of Historic Value” printed in the Washington Post in 2007.

4. The Washington Bookshop was established in 1938.

5. Phyllis (Pele) de Lappe (1916-2007), artist, journalist, and rights activist. For accounts of her life see obituaries by Jonathan Curiel

and Judith Scherr.

6. An illustrated and informative Hollin Hills website includes Marion Tiger’s Hollin Hills: A History into the Fourth Decade compiled from diverse sources.

7. John Hay “Jock” Whitney (1904-1982), from Maine. He was a U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, financier, movie producer, soldier, philanthropist, and collector of art. In 1930 he bought 2,200 acres of Llangollen as a wedding present for his bride, Pennsylvania socialite Mary Elizabeth “Liz” Altemus. They divorced in 1940. One of the ten wealthiest men in the U.S., he had a subsequent wife, was “romantically linked” with many other women, and had at least nine other homes in America and Europe.