Mary Rocap
Mary Rocap

By Text and photos by Peter Vankevich

To  listen to Mary Rocap’s song Oleander, scroll down to the bottom. 

Eleventh grade was a life-changing year for Mary Rocap when she received two gifts–a Yamaha guitar and a recording of songs by the great folk singer and Civil Rights activist Odetta (Holmes).

Rocap, of Hillsborough, fell in love with how Odetta would style her wide-ranging voice as needed for particular songs, sometimes harsh and not pretty, or soft and sweet sounds for lullabies.

For years, Mary enjoyed performing primarily as a harmonizer in small groups of mostly friends.

She didn’t start writing songs until she was in her 40s when she moved to Cedar Groves just outside of Hillsborough, a noted writers’ community. She was inspired by her highly talented neighbors such as Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, Susan Ketchin and Clyde Edgerton.

“Hillsborough is a creative community and I saw these great writers focusing on their gifts which helped to bring out my own creativity,” she said.

Once she started writing songs, it changed both her singing style and guitar playing.

Perhaps inspired by Odetta, the normally soft-spoken side of her takes on a new dynamic and she displays a surprising vocal range heard in the song “Oleander.”

Mary Rocap and husband Tom Prince
Mary Rocap and husband Tom Prince

As for the creative side, she notes, “My inspiration for song writing comes from the natural world and our place within it. The sea and stars are prominent features of my landscape.

“The other inspiration is my attempt to walk in faith, acknowledging that doubt is never far behind.”

It doesn’t take much prodding to find her love for Ocracoke and how her frequent visits to the island and its people have inspired her.

“Ocracoke is not a place I come to be entertained or that provides flashy distractions from my life,” she said. “Ocracoke is a place that extends an invitation to lean back or maybe lean into life at a more measured pace.  When I come, I bring my notebook and guitar for song writing, an in-progress-quilt, embroidery projects, and books I’ve had to put off reading.”

She and her husband, Tom Prince spend time walking the island, watching the sunset.

“We’d rather be on the porch than inside,” she said “We’d rather walk the narrow streets and lanes than drive them. We go to the shops and look at the wonderful art and craft created by those inspired by the sea.  We buy fresh caught bluefish and Spanish mackerel and later dredge the fillets with corn meal and flour and pan fry them for dinner. The sun wakes us up and by the time the sun sets we are tired.”

Oleander on Ocracoke.

Her song “Oleander” was written on Ocracoke. Sitting on the porch of a cottage she was staying, she noted how the yard was filled with beautiful blooming oleanders.

“ ‘You know they are poisonous, don’t you?’ ” Tom had noted, but Mary did not.  Once she learned about oleanders, the beauty and danger combination inspired her to write a song about a tough girl named after the plant and warns: “Oleander could be your doom, Oleander a rosy bloom, Oleander smells so sweet, makes a heart forget to beat.”

She has recorded four CDs and is working on her fifth one.  Her released CDs are “Sweet Mimosa” (2002),“Indian Summer” (2005), “Hallelujah! Amen”(2007) and “Deep December Dreams”  (2011).

She loves that Ocracoke is a working sea village community.

“The people in the shops and stores are people whose lives are rooted here,” she said. “The graves of their forebears are behind fences along the road, visible yet private.  These consecrated sites remind me that the sandy ground upon which I walk is holy. Ocracoke is not

“On the trip home I am filled with an immediate sense of loss and nostalgia as the ferry pulls away from the harbor and I gradually lose sight of the island.”

For more information on Mary, see:

To listen to  Oleander :

Mary Rocap performing at Ocracoke's community radio station VOVV. Photo by P. Vankevich
Mary Rocap performs at Ocracoke’s community radio station VOVV. Photo by P. Vankevich
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