By Peter Vankevich
(Listen to King Mackerel And The Blues Are Running by clicking below)
Bland Simpson has had a long and prolific career and life experiences.
Hailing from Elizabeth City, he spent a lot of time on the Albemarle Sound marveling at its nature and cultural history which has inspired his writings about Eastern Carolina. One of them is The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir (1990).
In his teens, he was a page for the U.S. Congress, attending 6:30 a.m. classes way up in the cupola of the Library of Congress before heading across the street to the U.S. Capitol when sessions began. He was class president of both his senior year in high school and freshman class at Chapel Hill.
After serious consideration, he passed on a career in politics for more creative endeavors and moved to New York City to pursue writing musicals and songs. He later turned to writing of both fiction and nonfiction. These days he is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he has taught since 1981.
He is a rare man of letters who is equally comfortable playing piano and singing the many songs he has written. He performs solo and is a long-time member of the Red Clay Ramblers, a Carolina string band that has been around for 44 years. Their performances include old-time mountain music, bluegrass, country rock, New Orleans jazz, gospel and the American musical.
Simpson displayed many of his talents recently in Deepwater Theater in a program sponsored by the Ocracoke Friends of the Library. Starting by reading excerpts from previous writings and discussing his most recent book Little Rivers and Waterway Tales, which includes photography by his frequent collaborator and wife, Ann Cary Simpson, he then took to the piano and sang several songs he had composed.
Bland got exposure to folk music from the famous Taylor family, James, Livingston, Kate, Alex, Hugh and their parents, who put on informal folk music gatherings in the gym of Chapel Hill High School. Back in the mid-1960s, these were called hootenannies.
Simpson recalled James Taylor fondly.
“He gave me contacts in the new Beatles record company, Apple,” Simpson said. “James was an enormous inspiration, encouraging me and many others to play music.”
That was in 1968–around the time Taylor’s eponymous album with Apple Records was coming out.
Simpson took piano lessons in junior high school, and in college started playing more seriously that led him to New York. Some of the musicals he has written are Diamond Studs, Kudzu, Fool Moon and King Mackerel And the Blues Are Running.
Listen to King Mackerel And The Blues Are Running: