Olive Dame Campbell was born in Medford, Massachusetts. She grew up in an educated middle-class family and graduated from Tufts College in 1903. She met her husband, John C. Campbell, while on a trip to Scotland; they were married in 1907. After the Russell Sage Foundation awarded John a grant to survey the conditions of the Appalachian region, he and Olive traveled throughout the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, West Virginia, and North Carolina surveying social and economic conditions from 1908 to 1912. John passed away in 1919 after completing only the preface and one chapter of his projected study. Olive completed the project and published The Southern Highlander and His Homeland, under her husband’s name in 1921.
During her travels, Olive became one of the first people to systematically collect traditional folk songs and ballads. In 1916 she contacted English folk song collector Cecil Sharp when she heard he was in the United States. After a nine-week collecting trip, their collaboration resulted in the publication of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians in 1917. Of the 122 songs included in the collection, 39 had been collected by Olive before she met Sharp.
In 1922 Olive accepted an 18-month Scandinavian-American Foundation fellowship to study adult education in Scandinavian folk schools. When she returned to the United States in 1925, she established the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. She was also instrumental in establishing the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild, a mountain crafts marketing organization based in Asheville, North Carolina.