At ease writing, teaching, playing piano and especially near water, UNC English professor Bland Simpson gets a swamp fix among the cypress trees near University Lake. (Photo by Steve Exum)
Simpson waits for student comments during an English class at UNC.
Take a trip with Bland Simpson up the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. (Produced by UNC-TV and Our State Magazine)
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 (see map at bottom of page).
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.
Unofficial chronicler of the Outer Coastal Plain
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 as the Kenan Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing in the College of Arts and Sciences.
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.
Simpson’s 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 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 connections got 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.”
Politics take a backseat to the pen
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 worked on UNC’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. 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 he considered a career in music.
One course shy of graduating after 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.
A year passed, and still no takers. Simpson was foundering. Then Ed Freeman, a producer at Columbia, pulled him aside and said something 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.
Summer of that same year, Simpson decided to try his lyrical approach to prose when he pitched a story to the Chapel Hill Weekly about Christmas in Rodanthe—the Outer Banks hamlet 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.”
With no other ideas, Simpson winged it. “Well,” he said, “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 said, “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 boatmen of colonial times. Read more from the original article in Endeavors to follow Simpson’s Dismal Swamp adventures.
A version of this story is in the Carolina Alumni Review.
Published March 28, 2013