Celebrating Davidson’s Music History: James Christian Pfohl

As October heads to a close, so too does Archives Month. The theme set this year by the Society of North Carolina Archivists was “Celebrating Archives: North Carolina Arts, Crafts, and Music Traditions,” and we’ve had events all month long to celebrate Davidson’s archival history in those three areas (such as a mandolin concert and an art exhibition focusing on pieces in the College’s collections from North Carolina artists). In that vein, the blog this week highlights one of the most seminal figures in the history of the Davidson College Music Department: James Christian Pfohl.

James Christian's Pfohl's faculty portrait, circa 1945.
James Christian’s Pfohl’s faculty portrait, circa 1945.

Student musical groups and organizations date back to the mid-1800s, with students forming the choir for religious services and more casual gatherings, including playing in the cupola of the Old Chambers Building. The first glee club was formally established on campus in 1890, a college orchestra appears in our archival records in 1892, and the glee club, chapel choir and a whistling club were all mentioned in the first issue of Quips & Cranks in 1895. Students (such as Alonzo Pool in 1892-93 [Class of 1893] and Daniel McGeachy in 1895-96 [Class of 1896]) or outside music instructors (Gertrude Williamson and Eulalia Cornelius, both in 1896-97, for example) were sometimes paid by the college to instruct non-credit-bearing courses.

By 1925, the demand from students for music instruction was such that the February 12th issue of The Davidsonian featured an article urging the administration to hire a music director:

“We find a student body of six hundred young men with latent musical tastes and talents that, would in time, if properly husbanded, make the musical standard of our church second to none, not even of the celebrated German communities. When the call was issued for candidates for the Glee Club this year, one-sixth of the entire student body were interested enough to appear for the trials. Every year the incoming freshman class brings in a wealth of talent along instrumental lines, but the case is usually that only the three or four best secure enough recognition to sustain them in their musical work, and by their senior year, their talent has all but atrophied with disuse.”

The cure for that atrophying of student musical talent would be to hire a musical director, who “would have charge of the musical organizations of the college, stimulate interest in things musical, and would train the students in the rudiments of music, both of singing and appreciation.” Perhaps in response, in 1927 the college hired Ernest J. Cullum as Director of Music and Associate Professor of the History and Appreciation of Fine Arts. The history of music and arts appreciation courses Cullum taught, the first offered for credit at Davidson, were listed through the history department. Cullum stayed on until 1931, when funding for the position was cut. During this time teachers from Charlotte and Mooresville were engaged to offer private lessons in piano, organ, wind, and string instruments, and students funded the hiring of Carol Baker from Charlotte to direct the Glee Club for several years in the mid-1920s.

When James Christian Pfohl (1912 – 1997) was hired by the college in 1933, he was a recent graduate of the University of Michigan (Bachelor’s of Music, organ) and would go on to earn a Master’s of Music (musicology) from that same university in 1939. Pfohl was instrumental in building the music program at Davidson – he began as the sole employee of the department, when he focused on developing student music organizations in addition to working as the college organist; as he put in a summary report in 1951, the year before he retired from Davidson, student groups were fundamental the establishment and growth of music program: “In many ways I feel that organizational work has been our most important, as it has been from these groups that the influence of music has spread on the campus and throughout the entire area.” Similarly, in his obituary (April 1, 1997), the Charlotte Observer exclaimed that “He was a musical zealot, a tireless builder of organizations such as the music departments at Davidson and Queens colleges, the Charlotte Symphony and Jacksonville Symphony orchestras and Brevard Music Center.”

"What Can You Do About It?" ran in The Davidsonian early in Phofl's tenure at Davidson - November 15, 1933.
“What Can You Do About It?” ran in The Davidsonian early in Phofl’s tenure at Davidson – November 15, 1933.

Pfohl was indeed a tireless builder – by his second year on the job, he had established the Davidson Concert Series, a new symphonic band, and a new symphony orchestra. According to Mary Beaty’s A History of Davidson College, then College President Walter Lee Lingle (Class of 1892, President 1929 – 1941) convinced the college’s Board of Trustees that music was an important part of maintaining Davidson’s academic profile: “This is done in many other high grade colleges… the great Educational Associations of America are stressing the importance of Music and Fine Art in colleges.”

In addition to his work building new organizations and initiatives, Pfohl also maintained the work of the Glee Club, football band, and ROTC band. He also organized broadcasts of the Symphonic Band over Charlotte radio station WBT. As evidence on this growth and interest, additional music faculty were hired – by 1935, Warren Babock, Moreland Cunningham (Class of 1935), Franklin Riker, and Louise Nelson Pfohl were also working in the department.

Another one of Pfohl’s major initiatives began in the summer of 1936, when he established a summer music camp for boys at Davidson, inspired by his experience as a scholarship student at the Interlochen Arts Camp as a youth. The music camp Phofl began still continues today – it was held at Davidson until 1943, when it spend one season headquartered at Queens College in Charlotte. In 1944, Pfohl moved the camp to Brevard, NC., and in in 1955, the camp and its programs were renamed the Brevard Music Center.

A postcard showing Pfhol leading the summer camp band in 1936.
A postcard showing Pfohl leading the summer camp band in 1936.

By 1938, Pfohl had made another lasting contribution to Davidson: he provided lyrical arrangement for “All Hail! O Davidson!,” the college’s alma mater. The words were written by George M. Maxwell (Class of 1896) on the occasion of the college’s centennial in 1937; originally intended as a fight song, Phofl envisioned the song as more of a hymn. By 1952, “All Hail! O Davidson!” began being printed in commencement programs. The lyrics have been changed a few times since 1938, most recently by committee in 1996, to reflect coeducation.

Sheet music for "All Hail! O Davidson!" (image from a 2010 entry on the song in Davidson Daybook).
Sheet music for “All Hail! O Davidson!” (image from a 2010 entry on the song in Davidson Daybook).

On May 25, 1943, the faculty voted that: “Credit will be given for Applied Music within such limitations as the Curriculum Committee may prescribe, provided that, so far as concerns requirements for graduation, there be allowed a maximum of 30 hours credit in Music, of which 12 may be Applied Music.” This expansion of credit-bearing courses was a boon for the department, and Pfohl was elected a full professor of music by the Board of Trustees in 1946, replacing his previous position as “Director.”

A Davidson Symphonic Band Christmas card, circa 1940s.
A Davidson Symphonic Band Christmas card, circa 1940s.

In 1949, Pfohl began working as the conductor and music director for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Three years later, he resigned his position at Davidson in 1952 in order to conduct the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra (while simultaneously remaining in his position with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra until 1957, and continuing to lead summer camps at the Brevard Music Center until 1967). In 1959, he began music directing for an educational TV program in the Jacksonville area, The Magic of Music. In 1961, Pfohl left his post with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, and went on to direct the York (PA) Symphony Orchestra and Reston Little (VA) Symphony. His accomplishments included conducting four performances at the White House, establishing the Mint Museum Chamber Orchestra (1944 – 1961) and serving as inspiration and sounding board for the founders of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He retired to Jacksonville in 1983, where he remained until his death in 1997. Pfohl was survived by his second wife, Carolyn Day Pfohl (his first wife, fellow Davidson and Queens College faculty member Louise Nelson Pfohl passed away in 1968), and three children: James Christian Pfohl, Jr., David Pfohl, and Alice Pfohl Knowles.

The cover of
The cover of J.C. Pfohl’s 1933-1934 scrapbook, covering the first year he began working at Davidson.

The music department has flourished since James Christian Pfohl’s time at Davidson – currently, students can major or minor in the subject, with a vastly expanded curriculum led by faculty and artist associates. Pfohl’s legacy of establishing student organizations and gaining credit for applied music left a strong base for future generations of faculty and students to build upon, and his family recently donated several scrapbooks assembled by Pfohl during his time at Davidson and beyond. Come into the archives to see more about music history at Davidson in the 1930s through 1950s!

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