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
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, http://www.caltech.edu/news/developmental-biologist-eric-h-davidson-passes-away-47772.