From the back seat of his parents’ car, traveling north along Route 17 from Elizabeth City to Norfolk, eight-year-old Bland Simpson stares westward into the gloom of the Great Dismal Swamp. A placid canal skirts the road, and beyond there’s an ever-present curtain of loblolly pine, red maple, and cypress trees.
“Don’t ever go in there,” his father says. Bland’s mother gives him a look as if to say, “You heard your father.”
And for the rest of the trip, little Bland gets an earful about the highwaymen, vagabonds, criminals, murderers, and other scofflaws who’ve taken refuge in that murky stretch of seemingly worthless earth that covers thousands of acres of northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia.
For all his young life, despite his love of North Carolina’s backwoods and wetlands, Simpson steered clear of the Great Dismal Swamp—until, when he was 23, his career as a writer demanded it.
Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Forty years later, Simpson is the unofficial chronicler not just of the swamp, but of the whole Outer Coastal Plain. His eight books—a ninth is on the way—delve deep into the region’s lore, people, and geography. When he isn’t writing prose, he writes music, often with the Red Clay Ramblers, a Tony Award-winning string band. And when he isn’t writing tomes or tunes, Simpson teaches at Carolina.
He’s carved out a life that seems well-planned and methodically executed, as if his achievements were fated. But there were times, such as in 1972 when he dared to enter the forbidden swamp, when his life had no roadmap and no compass, when he had no degree, no driving motivation short of a deep, unspoken desire to tell stories.
Born Martin Bland Simpson III, he’s always been known as Bland, a family name. His early childhood was filled with trips to see cousins who’d adventure with him in the coastal wetlands and forests. On Nags Head, he’d explore the beaches and tidal pools, study with awe and wonder the marine life washed up from the sea, and listen to his dad tell tales of sunken Civil War ships and German U-boats from World War II.
Away from the water, Simpson took up the piano on his mother’s behest and tinkered with it through his teens—though he never intended to be a musician.
As a teenager, Simpson’s attention turned toward the family business: politics. His grandfather, a lawyer, was one of Governor John Ehringhaus’s close friends, and Simpson’s father was a district attorney in Elizabeth City. Those were good enough connections to get young Bland a job as a congressional page for Representative Phil Landrum of Georgia.
“I thought politics would be a cool life,” Simpson says. “I was idealistic and I thought politicians thought and talked like my father—energetic but also very friendly and mild-mannered.”
Photo by: Ann Cary Simpson
Click to read photo caption. Photo by: Ann Cary Simpson
In 1966, Simpson, who was and remains as gracious and well-tempered as his father, enrolled at UNC and majored in political science with an eye toward law school. He loved politics so much that his friends thought he’d be governor one day. But a funny thing happened on the way to the governor’s mansion: politics took a backseat to the pen. When as a sophomore Simpson wrote a five-thousand-word paper on two North Carolina congressional races in 1964 and 1966, he found the process of writing fascinating.
“I loved the research and the occupation of writing at length, of telling the story of those elections,” says Simpson, who also wrote a column for the Daily Tar Heel and served as night editor. After three years at Carolina, law school looked further away than ever. “I guess writing was just faster gratification,” he says with a laugh. “I just gravitated toward writing.”
Thanks to his college buddies, most of whom were musicians, Simpson also gravitated toward writing songs. Back then, before keyboards were cheap and ubiquitous, there were only so many places a piano player could practice. So Simpson took a “job” as a live-in custodian at the downtown Methodist church, which was full of pianos. “All I had to do was lock the door at ten o’clock,” he recalls. And then, alone in the dark, he’d play to an empty cathedral. “It was like The Phantom of the Opera,” he says.
The better he got, the more inclined he became to consider a career in music.
One course shy of graduating after just three years at Carolina, Simpson took off for New York City in 1969 and signed a songwriting contract with Albert Grossman, who managed Bob Dylan, The Band, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Within a year, Simpson signed a record deal with the legendary music producer Clive Davis, head of Columbia Records. He played shows in Greenwich Village and put out a record he called Simpson, a collection of eleven country rock songs. He was on his way.
But his good fortune ended as quickly as it started. In 1971, Davis dropped Simpson from Columbia. There’d be no second album. At first, Simpson was unruffled. He was young. Fans responded to his music. He thought there’d be other labels interested.
But a year passed, and there were still no takers. Simpson was foundering. Then Ed Freeman, a producer at Columbia, pulled him aside and said something very simple that changed the course of Simpson’s life.
“You know, you don’t write about New York,” Freeman said. “You write about southern stuff. You should go back to North Carolina. Let the dust settle up here. Come back when you have something to sell.”
Years later, Simpson says, “Ed didn’t have to do that. He could’ve just said, ‘Well, good luck to ya.’ But he liked my writing and my voice. He felt like I was spinning my wheels during a time when it wouldn’t have done me any good to stay in New York.
“So I came back,” he says, “to North Carolina.”
In 1972, Simpson and his old college friend John Foley formed City Transfer, a moving company, and they worked as housepainters. At night, they’d get a respite from labor by writing songs and performing them throughout North Carolina.
Late summer of that same year, Simpson decided to try his lyrical approach to prose writing when he pitched a story to the Chapel Hill Weekly about Christmas in Rodanthe—the tiny hamlet on the Outer Banks that celebrates the birth of Jesus in early January. But editor Jim Shumaker shot down the idea: “Everyone’s writing about that,” he told Simpson. “Do something else.”
Simpson had no other ideas, so he winged it. “Well,” he said, unsure that what he was about to say would mean anything to Shumaker, “I’m thinking of taking a trip to the Great Dismal Swamp.”
Schumaker’s eyes widened. He must’ve heard a myth or two about the old swamp. “If you go,” he told Simpson, “write it up; I’ll publish that.”
Simpson and songwriting pal John Foley drove to the southern edge of the Great Dismal, thinking they’d navigate the canals in a jonboat like the old boatmen of colonial times.
Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
But aside from the main canal along Route 17 and a narrow waterway that leads to Lake Drummond at the swamp’s center, the canals were overgrown and impenetrable. So Simpson and Foley tromped through the swamp, camped, and tooled around the lake. They took note of the spooky dead cypress trees piercing the murky water, the misty air and odd light, and the wild vibrancy of the undisturbed nature preserve with an almost perfectly circular lake.
There was no development and no sign of humans aside from the rare hunting hut tucked in the woods or on stilts on the water. The swamp was odd and awesome, and Simpson fell in love with the place and the people who populated its outskirts, people who told tales that had never been put to paper.
Simpson wrote his story for the Chapel Hill Weekly, and got such a hearty response from readers that he toyed with the idea of expanding the story for National Geographic. “But I had no idea how to approach a magazine like that,” Simpson says. And he certainly entertained no thoughts of turning his article into a book. Instead, Simpson looked for more work to pay the bills.
At the Carolina Financial Times, he was rebuffed by editor Loyd Little, who said the last thing he needed was another Chapel Hill-based stringer. Simpson didn’t hear no, though. He was transfixed by a huge map of North Carolina stapled to the wall. “What about that area?” Simpson asked, pointing at the coastal plain. Little looked at the map. “That?” he said dismissively. “We don’t have anyone for that. There’s not much down there.”
But Little was happy to have Simpson search for the great unknown coastal business story. As a test run, he sent Simpson to Macclesfield, a town with four hundred residents, where the smallest commercial bank in North Carolina thrived just east of Wilson.
Simpson, who owned only a beat-up step van, borrowed Foley’s car and trekked toward Macclesfield—but somewhere east of Raleigh the weather conspired against him. A blinding rainstorm forced him off the road. He parked on the shoulder for several minutes, and as the rain poured down and the windows fogged up, doubts crept into his head and heart.
“What am I doing?” he thought. “It’s freezing cold. It’s raining like hell. I’m stuck in Foley’s car in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know a damned thing about banking or Macclesfield.”
Simpson couldn’t help but second-guess himself. “I didn’t feel like I was on the right path,” he says.
But whatever choice he thought he needed make about his career, it would have to wait. Simpson owed Loyd Little a story, and though tempted to turn around, he felt he should soldier on to Macclesfield, where the weather and his own contemplations brightened.
“Once I got there and met the people, they were so excited that someone had come to talk to them,” Simpson says. “I thought: there’s something to write about here.”
Instead of writing a typical business story, he wrote about the people of Macclesfield and the pride they took in their tiny bank that loaned out big cash for commercial development. Simpson realized that even the driest story idea could have a soul, and he liked searching for and creating a narrative around it.
Over the next several years he’d bring attention to little-known enterprises down east, such as catfish farming, feeder-pig auctions, scuppernong growing, and wine making. In 1973, he won an award from the NC Press Association for a three-part investigative piece about development and planning (or the lack of it) on the Outer Banks.
Journalism was becoming his career.
That same year, Simpson finally took that last college course to graduate from Carolina the age of 24, with none of the familiar commencement fanfare. “Foley picked up my diploma along with our business mail at our PO box on East Franklin Street and brought it to me at Jeff’s Campus Confectionery,” he recalls.
His diploma and foray into newswriting while running a moving company didn’t cause him to consider giving up music, which by then would’ve been akin to giving up breathing.
Credit: Dick Duane
The cast of DIAMOND STUDS, The Life of Jesse James, off-broadway in 1975. A young Bland Simpson is in the top row, fourth from the left, with vest and tie.
Click to read photo caption. Credit: Dick Duane
With friend Jim Wann, Simpson wrote the musical DIAMOND STUDS: The Life of Jesse James, a Saloon Musical, which was staged in Chapel Hill before they took it to off-Broadway New York in 1975. And there in the audience one night was Simpson’s old friend Ed Freeman.
“I can still see him there after the show,” Simpson says, “wagging his finger at me and saying, ‘I was right, wasn’t I?’”
During much of the 1970s, Simpson wrote and performed musicals while in residence with theater companies in New York, Washington, Norfolk, Memphis, and Chapel Hill.
And in 1980, he added to his eclectic career by writing his first book, a novel titled Heart of the Country, which weaves together tales of fictional musicians with the real history of country music after World War II.
UNC’s Max Steele, who headed Carolina’s writing curriculum, took notice. “Now that you have a book coming out,” he told Simpson, “why don’t you come teach with us?”
Simpson was a bit taken aback, though he did recall thinking, back when he was an undergrad, that following in the footsteps of his favorite professors might be fun. But that notion was fleeting, and he never thought to pursue it until Steele opened the door to the kingdom.
As the first day of classes approached in spring of 1982, Simpson felt the need to ask Steele for a little advice. Steele, looking down to the ground as if in deep contemplation, told Simpson, “It’ll come to you.”
Photo by Dan Sears
Along with teaching fiction and nonfiction writing, Simpson teaches lyric writing at UNC. Students pen new lyrics to famous melodies and then sing their new creations in front of their classmates. Simpson plays piano and then critiques, suggests, cajoles, and laughs along with students. In the end the students wind up with a much better appreciation of the interplay between words and melodies.
Click to read photo caption. Photo by Dan Sears
Then he added a bit of prophecy: “Whatever else you do outside of this job, keep doing it, because this will never amount to anything.” Steele only needed a part-time lecturer, not a tenure-seeking up-and-comer.
Simpson took Steele at his word and responded, “That’s all right. This is helping me; this works for me.”
Not long after Simpson began teaching, he had a conversation with David Perry, an old college buddy and an editor at UNC Press, about why the music, literature, and geography of the Blue Ridge Mountains got so much attention while the coastal plain didn’t.
That question remained unanswered during the mid-1980s, when Simpson joined the Red Clay Ramblers and went on tour, though he did start writing his second novel, a story set in the Louisiana bayou about musicians Simpson came to admire.
Swamps. Music. It was right in Simpson’s wheelhouse. But one of his mentors had a problem with it. Louis Rubin, a UNC professor who founded Algonquin Press, asked Simpson, “Why are you writing about Louisiana? You’re from eastern North Carolina; why not write about the Great Dismal Swamp?”
Simpson told him that the bayou was exotic, full of musicians, the perfect setting for a nonfiction novel. “The Great Dismal Swamp,” Simpson told him, “is just the place where I’m from.”
Rubin looked at him incredulously, and Simpson knew that Rubin thought he should write a book about the old swamp. Simpson wasn’t completely sold on the idea at first—but the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. He remembered that conversation with David Perry. Why not return to the old swamp and give the coastal plain a little press? Who better to write it than a native son?
Simpson abandoned his bayou project and rummaged through his files to find the swamp article he had written for the Chapel Hill Weekly. He began reworking it as a possible first chapter of a book.
“I enjoyed that so much that I decided to investigate and see if anyone else was working on the Great Dismal,” he says. “My friends at the Nature Conservancy, who would’ve known, said no, and I jumped on it and started researching and interviewing folks in late summer 1985.”
He called his book The Great Dismal, and it came out in 1990 to a steady flow of positive reviews. The New Yorker called it “a jewel of natural and human history.” The Atlantic Monthly wrote, “Indians, lumbermen, hermits, fugitive slaves, swamp rats, canal builders, and bird watchers have all enjoyed the slightly sinister beauty of the Great Dismal. Mr. Simpson’s book, part history and part travelogue, entices the reader to join them.” And the Christian Science Monitor called it “nature writing at its best … transfixing in its gem-like language. Simpson reveals to us by the sheer power of his prose the importance of preserving places like the Swamp, and the joy of visiting them.”
Courtesy of UNC Press
Critics lauded Simpson’s second book, The Great Dismal, first published in 1990 by UNC Press. The softcover version, which includes an epilogue, was published in 1998.
Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of UNC Press
The critical response didn’t mean as much to Simpson as the immediate satisfaction he took from unearthing the swamp’s deep history and telling its story the way he saw fit. He wanted more. Luckily there’s a whole lot of swamp in eastern North Carolina and a glut of stories to tell. Simpson took to chronicling the stories over the course of twenty years. “I grabbed hold of the Great Dismal Swamp,” Simpson says, “and then I wanted them all.”
With him all the way was David Perry, the editor who was now able to help Simpson give the Outer Coastal Plain its fair share of attention. “Simpson’s writing has a lyrical quality to it,” Perry says. “He’s not interested in what the words look like on the page, but in how they sound.”
By 1998, Simpson had published four books, made a name for himself as a playwright, had been in one of the state’s most popular bands for twelve years, and had lectured at his alma mater for all but two years since 1982. That was plenty good enough for the English department to hire him as a full-time assistant professor. Max Steele was wrong; the lecturing gig did amount to something. Simpson is now a distinguished professor.
Courtesy of UNC Press
Two Captains from Carolina by Bland Simpson, published in 2012.
Click to read photo caption. Courtesy of UNC Press
Over the next fourteen years, Simpson wrote four more books, including his latest, Two Captains from Carolina, a nonfiction novel that sends readers through the waters of North Carolina in the years prior to the Civil War. Simpson continued writing music and performing with the Red Clay Ramblers, which during the 80s and 90s scored movies for Sam Shepard, the famed actor, director, and playwright. Shepard’s film Silent Tongue spawned the Rambers’ 3-time Broadway hit FOOL MOON.
All the while, Simpson taught Carolina’s next generation of writers how to find their voices, both as storytellers and songwriters.
Although his life seems fated and perfectly arranged, it wasn’t. And it wasn’t easy, though Simpson’s understated way betrays this notion.
“Sometimes there’s that overlap in life that’s fairly intense, and it isn’t as orderly as regular people would wish their lives to be,” he says. “Looking with hindsight, it can all be edited into something that looks orderly and methodical. But a lot of times all these things were kind of crazed.” Tours overlapped with teaching, which isn’t as much of a picnic as those outside academia might think. Books are not easily written, and neither are good plays.
But always, whenever Simpson would return from a tour, or conclude a play, or finish a book, he would find solace back on the water where the rivers meet the sea or the swamps turn into placid ponds, and he could put all that he loves into sharp focus and, maybe, pristine prose.
One day, when his son was eight years old, Simpson navigated the family car north along Route 17. His son stared out the side window at the tree-lined horizon, beyond which lay thousands of acres of swampland. It was then Simpson knew he had come full circle, as he wrote in the 1998 epilogue to The Great Dismal:
He kept staring at the curtain of green and at last asked earnestly if he were to go into the woods beyond the canal, would he really get lost? Yes, I said, and now I was back at the beginning for certain, hearing my voice in his and both my mother’s and father’s voices in my own. So easy to get all turned around back in the big woods, I said. No way to get your bearings, I said. Slaves ran away and hid in there, I said, and criminals, too, and the law wouldn’t go in after them.
But then, as the epilogue comes to a close, Simpson can’t help himself. Ever the lover of the Old North State’s swamps and the stories they hold, he wrote the words his parents would never have uttered.
And sometimes I will get lost with you. I will untie the halfhitches of the rope securing the jonboat to the rooftop of the car, slide it off and down into the dark, ruby-watered canal and put a paddle in your hand, or an engine throttle, and so as children of the eastern swamps and sounds and with the deepest of affections for all these boggy lands and the waters that course under and through them and for the needle-leaved cypress that sway above them, together we will set forth into the desert, if only for the merest of moments, having and needing no other purpose than the yearning to discover anew the unfolding of its wonders and to sense the grand rotations of day, night, and season here, to disappear once again into the Great Dismal Swamp.