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.

War Angel | 3 of 6

postcards from the swamp
Moses Grandy bought his freedom three times and worked on The Great Dismal Swamp Canal.

Moses Grandy bought his freedom three times and worked on The Great Dismal Swamp Canal.

CHAPTER FOUR

Don’t send for the preacher

I am a faithful woman. My introspective nature requires that I have a Higher Power. Without it, I can easily slip into a hopelessness stronger than a riptide on the Outer Banks. And I pray. Rarely with folded hands. Often with a clutched fist. Mostly on my knees.

By November 2013, my luck had turned. I had a job and some gas money. There was no black 1973 El Camino, like I’d hoped. But I still had my two-door Chevy Blazer, newly dubbed the Black Bull. And I was headed for the Dismal.

November is the end of tourist season in the swamp. All the fall foliage tours on kayaks and canoes had wrapped and I couldn’t find a guide. A ranger with the Dismal on the Virginia side filled me in on a few things.

“No, I wouldn’t stay there. Not by myself, anyway,” he said, to several places.

I must have asked about the Juniper trees, because in my notebook I wrote:

“The Juniper is gone.”

Cigar and seltzer selfie.

Cigar and seltzer selfie.

I checked into the Hilton Hotel in Suffolk, Virginia, a lush, hoity-toity palace by a canal. I took a four-pack of seltzer and a cigar to the dock and celebrated on the waterway. Snapped a selfie (the kind where you pretend you don’t know the picture is being taken, even though you’re holding the damn thing).

That night in the hotel I searched online for first-hand accounts about life in the swamp. I wanted to read narratives from the folks who worked the canals in the late 1700s, one of the swamp’s boom times. I had imagined a work force where the maroons did their work, got paid for it, and flipped the white world the bird.

On a web search I found the narrative of Moses Grandy, a man who helped build the Great Dismal Canal, and who commanded several boats that ran merchandise from Elizabeth City, North Carolina to Norfolk, Virginia.

“The labour there is very severe. The ground is often very boggy: the negroes are up to the middle or much deeper in mud and water, cutting away roots and baling out mud: if they can keep their heads above water, they work on.

A few hours into reading Grandy’s narrative, my hope for a belligerent baptism in the Great Dismal started to burn out and drift like cigar ash.

I turned out the light and went to sleep.

The next morning I walked into the swamp via Washington Ditch. The swamp today is a national park, 22 square miles, a little smaller than Manhattan. On google maps it looks like the shape of the state of Indiana, but the bottom hem sweeps to the right and toward North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

In the fall, the swamp colors are stunning. The trees are lean on leaves and the ombre blonde and gold swamp grass bend and scrape; and the cypress trees stand like cathedrals in glass black water.

As I walked in, I bent my ear to the corduroy roads but I couldn’t hear the blues or fast-dancing cajun music that I had imagined I would. I tried to call on Dred, the main character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel about a slave uprising in the swamp, “Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.”

His soul seemed to kindle with almost a fierce impatience, at the toleration of that Almighty Being, who, having the power to blast and to burn so silently endures.”

Back in the hotel room with the guitar, I was discombobulated. I’m too white to write these stories and songs, I thought. I have no right.

I drove home, shaking my fist, ready to quit.

For the next several mornings, I sat at my kitchen table and strummed. On one of those mornings, what came out sounded like a prayer inspired by this passage in Grady’s testimony:

“After a time, I was disabled for a year from following this employment by a severe attack of rheumatism, caught by frequent exposure to severe weather.

… I therefore had myself carried in a lighter up a cross canal in the Dismal Swamp, and to the other side of Drummond’s Lake. I was left on the shore and there I built myself a little hut, and had provisions brought to me as opportunity served.

“Here, among, snakes, bears, and panthers, whenever my strength was sufficient, I cut down a juniper tree, and converted it into cooper’s timber. The camp, like those commonly set up for negroes, was entirely open on one side; on that side a fire is lighted at night, and the person sleeping puts his feet towards it.

“One night I was awoke by some large animal smelling my face, and snuffing strongly; I felt its cold muzzle. I suddenly thrust out my arms, and shouted with all my might; it was frightened and made off. I do not know whether it was a bear or a panther, but it seemed as tall as a large calf. I slept of course no more that night. I put my trust in the Lord, and continued on the spot; I was never attacked again.”

I used to think an answered prayer brought a bright light and a white robe. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. For me, the most lasting transformations come from prayers I’ve said in the middle of the night, when fear and sweat hovers and shakes until I reach for the light. And real relief doesn’t come easy. It’s often days, weeks, sometimes years later. The times I’ve punched the hardest—when I swipe at the night—those prayers have the most enduring effects.

Not all prayers are said with folded hands. Not all baptisms feel clean and pristine. Sometimes you just need to wade through the shit and shake your fists.

The song that came out at my kitchen table feels like that kind of prayer. Sung by my Lady of the Lake over Moses Grandy when he thought he was swiping at a creature in the night, he was swinging at a belligerent prayer.

CHAPTER FIVE | Rocking Cane, the sardine sessions.

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

Glass Hills in Steel Heels | 2 of 6

postcards from the swamp

cropped-2014-07-13-10-32-09-1-1.jpg

CHAPTER THREE

Finding Eve in the swamp

The piece of coal myth was a perfect start to a creation story. I just needed a balancing nature. I needed a heart. I needed an Eve.

Lake Drummond is a perfectly circle-shaped lake at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp. Native Americans believed a giant firebird made her nest there, and when she left, water filled the crater-shaped bowl and created Lake Drummond.

Unlike most swamps, water in the Great Dismal doesn’t run in to Lake Drummond. The lake sits 20-feet above sea level. Like a heart, it pumps water out, feeding seven rivers and sending its black elixir through miles of artery-shaped canals.

In 1803 Thomas Moore wrote one of the most enduring poems about Lake Drummond, “A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp.” The Irish balladeer wrote about a woman who drowned in the lake on her wedding night and haunts the lake by firefly light.

They made her a grave, too cold and damp

For a soul so warm and true;

And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,

Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,

She paddles her white canoe.

On my own late-night firefly walks through Westerwood, I’d fantasize about finding the woman at the center of the lake. I wanted her side of the story. I’d grown tired of the poems and fairy tales that kill off bright, intelligent women—by prince charming or by drowning. Little boys get stories about flying to Neverland. Girls get glass shoes.

If the shoe fits … it’s bull shit.

Those old stories don’t seem to suit the times. I loved the “Modern Love” columns in the New York Times. I’d search for insight and a light between the lines of the mini-documentaries about detached hipsters, skeptical divorcées and over-analyzed lovers.

My own little love vignettes looked nothing like the fairy tales, or the crisp, heavy-edited endings of the Daniel Jones columns. And I thought I had appropriately waited and apprenticed to love like the woman in the “Black Bull of Norroway,” a Scots myth about a woman who climbs a glass hill in steel boots to earn her keep for love.

That summer, the losses and the love’s lost hovered heavy, like the hot, humid July. I could feel a malaise settling in. I didn’t want to let it in. Malaise is a horrible roommate.

I needed a story that didn’t suck. I wanted a “Modern Love” approach to those old fairy tales. I wanted the Lady of the Lake in the Great Dismal to get a new legend. I wanted the girl on the glass hill to get down.

So I rewrote it. The “Black Bull of Norroway” and Moore’s Ballad combined to make a new story for the swamp.

The Eve of the swamp is love’s outcast. And the song is her story, her epiphany, the one that comes when she stands at the top of the glass hill and decides its time to get down.

I wanted my own damn fairy tale.

The Black Bull of Norroway is the story of a woman who climbs a glass hill for seven years to apprentice to love.

The Black Bull of Norroway is the story of a woman who climbs a glass hill for seven years to apprentice to love.

Modern Love

His T-Shirts Wouldn’t Turn White

We grew up on the outskirts of the Great Dismal Swamp. I was one of three sisters. We didn’t have much to give or take in those days and my mom sent us all off to work and live in other towns. I was headed to a blacksmith in a nearby town and I was fascinated. I’d lived in the swamp my whole life and was curious about dinners beyond stolen milk and river oysters.

My mother packed a sack of green apples and told me to wait outside for a black bull, who would take me there. When he arrived, we rode through the night, until sky turned blue.

The blacksmith looked like vintage clothing curator Christophe Loiron.

The blacksmith looked like vintage clothing curator Christophe Loiron.

When we arrived, the blacksmith stood on his front lawn and peeled green apples with a pocket knife. He looked to me like Christophe Loiron in a leather apron.

“I’m here,” I said.

He told me I’d learn to smoke cigars and build a pair of steel boots to climb a glass hill. When I finished the first pair, Christophe Loiron pointed to a glass hill one town over. He told me to put the shoes on and climb it. On the first step, my foot pushed straight through and shattered the glass.

The next summer, fall, winter and spring, and for the next seven years, I’d pour and pound the metal and destroy my hands in the fire. The designs improved over time until finally, I could pound the steel slipper thin. I put the shoes on and climbed. The glass didn’t shatter.

“Your apprenticeship is finished,” the blacksmith said. “There’s a prince in the next town. If you can get his t-shirts white, wash away the wounds from his old lovers, your apprenticeship to love is finished. He’ll be your king.”

I climbed the hill one last time and as I climbed, I missed my stolen milk and river oysters. I missed the swamp.

“He can do his own laundry,” I thought about the prince.

I gathered my things and walked home. As I neared the swamp, I stole the logging tools that the working men in the swamp had left overnight and I pounded the steel hammers and axes into slipper-thin silver sheets. I laid them one-by-one on the rooftops of the lean-to shelters of the men and women who lived there.

And I do this still, every night: Smoke cigars and pound the steel and set off a fireworks-worth of sparks that hang like stars in the night. It’s better than doing laundry.

And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,

Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,

CHAPTER FOUR | War Angel

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