WFDD Triad Arts 88.5

postcards from the swamp

I can’t get that Nanci Griffith song out of my head. The one with the line, “Cause when you can’t find a friend, you still got the radio.” A great tune to hum on this dreary rainy day, listening to a story on WFDD Triad Arts about Postcards. Talking about it last week with the station’s assistant producer Bethany Chafin was one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had in a long time. She’s got the presence of an angel feather, and she listens like a good friend. I’m looking forward to hearing more of her stories.

You can listen to the story she produced on Postcards from the Swamp here, at WFDD. And thanks again, Bethany.

The final postcard | 6 of 6

postcards from the swamp
Floating underwater in a saltwater pool.

Floating underwater in a saltwater pool.

CHAPTER SEVEN

No stamp necessary.

I floated on my back in a saltwater pool in my favorite Nordstrom dress. My friend Harvey and I had spent the afternoon at a friend’s house taking pictures for the album. The house and pool sat on the highest point of the property, a country estate in Davidson County with a long gravel driveway and landscaped gardens—265 miles east of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Harvey holds a camera, sitting atop a painter's ladder in the shallow end of a saltwater pool.

Harvey holds a camera, sitting atop a painter’s ladder in the shallow end of a saltwater pool.

Golden hour was underway. Harvey sat atop a painter’s ladder we had set up in the shallow end of the pool. I slipped along under the A-frame ladder, trying to stay in frame. I looked up at Harvey, holding the camera, clicking away as I plunged under.

Coming up for air, floating there, I tried to quiet the cold quivers of a saltwater swim in early May. I thought about Moses Grandy. I thought about the swamp. I tried not to think about what my mom would think about me swimming in my favorite Nordstrom dress. And I thought about her—my lady of Lake Drummond, smoking cigars and setting off fireworks.

I took a picture of that moment in my mind and sent it back to myself, via virtual postcard. Sent it back to that girl with the overdue library books googling for water. I would have hung it on my fridge like a postcard from a friend with its joyful, jotted note, “Wish you here.” Adventures to come.

I took a breath, went under and thought, “Finally. Found a free place to swim.”

Download the album, “Postcards from the Swamp.”

See Monkeywhale’s photos from the CD release at Triad Stage.

Girl, Where’d Your Church Clothes Go? | 5 of 6

postcards from the swamp
Searching for the James Adams Floating Theater by rented kayak in Merchants Mill Pond.

Searching for the James Adams Floating Theater by rented kayak in Merchants Mill Pond.

CHAPTER SIX

Girl, Where’d Your Church Clothes Go?

In 1913, the Great Dismal Swamp saw the grand opening of the James Adams Floating Theater. It was one of the last active showboats in America, a tradition born in the southern United States where rivers, not railroads, brought the goods to town. Founded by a circus aerialist, the theater company and crew inspired the great American novel—“Showboat.” The novel inspired the musical and the epic ballad, “Ol’ Man River.”

Edna Ferber spent time on the James doing research for her book, "Showboat."

Edna Ferber spent time on the James doing research for her book, “Showboat.”

In 1924, the idea of a floating theater caught the attention of pulitzer prize winning novelist, Edna Ferber. A former newspaper writer in Wisconsin, Ferber found the James and hitched a ride south, and narrowly missed the boat. Cast and crew were headed for Elizabeth City, North Carolina to dock for the winter.

Edna came back the next spring to Bath, North Carolina where she boarded, worked and lived on the boat, taking tickets for shows.

“The players rehearsed in the daytime and performed and night. This arrangement amused Edna, for it was a source of constant feud between the actors and the tugboat crew. The players—with music, talk, and laughter—often kept the crew awake at night. The crew, in turn, was loud with daily activity that disrupted the morning sleep of the bleary eyed actors,” via NC Historic Sites.

When possible, Ferber spent time interviewing the theater owner and lead actor Charles Hunter. When the company’s original owners retired, they passed the business on to Hunter, a friend and former circus colleague. Hunter was generous with his time, talking, as Ferber filled her notebooks. She eventually collected her notes, said goodbye to the James, and sailed for Europe in 1925. She landed in Cote Basque, a tiny fishing port town in the south of France where she wrote the book, “Showboat.” It published in 1926.

James Adams Floating Theater docked in Elizabeth City, NC

James Adams Floating Theater docked in Elizabeth City, NC

“After this close brush with fame, the Floating Theater changed her name to Show Boat and startled the natives of the Tidewater when she appeared with a rakish coat of scarlet paint, like a dowager, just out of a beauty parlor. Her nightly audience became more sophisticated, with a liberal sprinkling of city folks who thought the Show Boat ‘a quaint adventure.’ Pillars of the church reserved seats close to the orchestra, feeling no qualms of conscience,” via Showboat on the Bay, Floating Theater, by Miriam Haynie

During its run, the James sank and recovered four times: in 1920, 1927, 1929 it hit a stump in the swamp, and again in 1938.

Among the melodramas at the theater were stories that would “shed a tear but you leave smiling.” The stories were the 1920s version of the sitcom. Themes were family friendly—dealing mostly with maternal oppression, love disollusion, and desert.

I tried to track down some of those old plays and couldn’t find any (I really didn’t try that hard). I wanted to write a little mini-melodrama myself, something that captured the innocence that the swamp had, still has, and one Bland Simpson wrote about in his memoir, “The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Memoir.”

The song, the fifth in the series, “Where’d Your Church Clothes Go?” tries to capture that spirit of the James in a short story about a girl who loses her Sunday dress every time she goes out to play in the swamp. Turns out the stiff dresses and crinoline skirts made the perfect canvas surface to stretch across the wooden hull of a canoe she was building to float in Lake Drummond.

CHAPTER SEVEN | The Final Postcard

A song and story series by Molly McGinn, inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp. Album available now, online.

Rocking Cane: The Sardine Sessions | 4 of 6

postcards from the swamp
We recorded the songs Stax style: with an emphasis on players and mic techniques, not slick production tricks.

We recorded the songs Stax style: with an emphasis on players and mic techniques, not slick production tricks.

CHAPTER FOUR

God’s awful busy, Molly. Call me. 

By December last year, all the songs were written. Time to record. A band of musicians I’d never met before had assembled at the old Pinebox recording studio and guitar shop in Graham. Studio owner and engineer, Brian Haran, had assembled the unshakable, Stax-worthy line up: Phil Cook, Terry Lonergan and Jeff Crawford.

The Stax recording method—one that defined the southern and country soul sound of the 60s—put an emphasis on the players, not production tricks. Put the right people in the room, mic the instruments right and let the soul, Holy Ghost, whatever you want to call it, take over. To the session, I brought seltzer and snacks and four orderly folders full of lyrics. We rehearsed Friday night, recorded Saturday and tweaked vocals and overdubs Sunday afternoon.

The making of Postcards from the Swamp from Camilo Perdomo on Vimeo.

I got the tracks back shortly after that session and only one of the songs bothered me. I had modified a blues tune I’d learned years ago, “Walking Cane.” The new version was inspired by Dred, the main character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book about the Great Dismal. Dred was a maroon in the swamp, “preaching angry and violent retribution for the evils of slavery and rescuing escapees from the dog of the slavecatchers.” I switched the lyrics to a version I’d heard Porter Wagoner and Jerry Lee Lewis sing, “Rocking Cane.” I thought it suited Dred better.

When I listened to the recording of myself singing it, my solo voice wasn’t bringing enough power to the thing. I needed a choir. A gospel choir.

I put out a call on Facebook and asked where to find one. Responses ranged from “go to church,” to links to choirs with Web sites that looked out of my “thank you” price range. Then came this response from Greensboro blues musician and storyteller Lorenzo “Logie” Meachum.

“God’s awful busy, Molly. Give me a call.”

He said we’d pull in Roby Doby Easter on the vocals and make it work. His fee: a can of sardines, a tall boy Budweiser and a box of saltine crackers.

In my budget.

On the car ride from Greensboro to Graham to do the session, I told Logie about the Great Dismal Swamp and about the song. He said it reminded him of an old old gospel tradition where the choir would sing you up to the altar.

That’s what we’re going to do for this song, Logie told me. When we arrived at the studio, Logie made sardine pâté with a packet of hot sauce and mustard snagged from the restaurant next door. Then Robin, Logie and myself squeezed in like a can of sardines around one mic and let it fly.

The day after the recording, Logie put the following post on Facebook about the session.

Sometimes you know that you need a healing and a prayer from somewhere. Things can get so bad and you think you been down so long that gettin’ up don’t even cross your mind. And then all of a sudden, it happens.

No, you don’t find a million in the seat next to you on the train, (you’re riding the train because all of your wheels are gone). You don’t get saved at the altar because you were a sinner (you don’t feel like you did anything wrong, it’s just that a choice you made that was stupid. Sin is self-inflicted nonsense). You didn’t find a new drug or smoke an old one, but all of a sudden there it is and you never expected to get the blessing. That’s why God is good. He is gonna bless you and as the rapper says, “You don’t even know it.”

We had church recording—this song. My soul looks back in wonder, how I got over, and years from now when I look back, last night’s session will be recorded as a healing moment.

We started testifiying about doubt and sin overtaking our joy and then we started rejoicing, with Robin getting up and running around the studio. She got so happy when we started to talk about about how much hope in life, we still have, our children and grandchildren, how much joy we get from those who love and stand by us, how happy we all were to be together at the moment, doing something wonderful and something we all love.

If I’m not mistaken, I believe at one moment, I saw Molly dancing like the woman Jesus healed in the temple. I looked over at her and she was singing, dancing, laughing and crying, all at the same time. When you put that Angel Robin Doby in the mix you better watch your soul because she will touch it and wake your spirit up. I needed that. I slept good last night.

… listen real close on the song “Walking Cane.” You will enjoy what you hear but please listen close because if you do, you gonna get a blessin too. Folks sing songs and pray prayers about glory and the beauty of hearing David’s harp and Gabriel’s horn, but honey, listen close to that CD and you will hear what sounds like a heavenly choir but its Molly, its me, and if you don’t think angels exist, listen to the voice of Doby and be ye healed. As Jesus also said to me one day, “Take up thy blues and walk.” You’re gonna love it and its gonna heal ya. Thanks Molly. Thanks Robin. Thanks God. I had a good time.

Lorenzo "Logie" Meachum tries out some of Brian's guitars after the Sardine Session at Pinebox studios in Graham.

Lorenzo “Logie” Meachum tries out some of Brian’s guitars after the Sardine Session at Pinebox studios in Graham.

CHAPTER SIX |Where’d Your Church Clothes Go?

A song and story series by Molly McGinn, inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp. Album available now, online.