The Swedish Nightingale

Last night I saw a scene on PBS’s drama Victoria in which the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind sang for Queen Victoria. That was an actual event: it happened on April 26, 1846. But of course I thought immediately of the little community called “Jenny Lind” that is located 10 miles west of Kinston, in Lenoir County, N.C. According to legend, Jenny Lind sang there, too.

Songs on a Nags Head Porch

I recently visited with Gerret Warner and Mimi Gredy at a coffee shop in Durham, N.C. I had sought out the couple because I had learned that they were making a documentary film about two legendary collectors of American folk music who visited singers and musicians on the North Carolina coast beginning in the 1930s--  Gerret’s father and mother, Frank and Anne Warner.

Annie Hooper’s Vision: From Hatteras Island to the Smithsonian

I found Annie Hooper’s masterpiece in a warehouse in a small town in eastern North Carolina: thousands of hauntingly beautiful Biblical figures made out of driftwood, seashells, putty and plaster. All of them are part of large, elaborate scenes depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments. I had been hoping to see them for decades, and when I finally found them, they were together for probably the last time.

A Shad Camp, Neuse River, ca. 1890– The Men Singing as They Fish

A shad fisherman’s camp on the Lower Neuse River, possibly at or near James City, N.C., circa 1900. Fishermen constructed their huts out of cedar limbs or another supple hardwood and thatched them with saltmarsh cordgrass or black needlerush. Typically they bound them together with yucca fibers. These round huts with conical roofs were a spartan home away from home for shad fishermen and, occasionally, for their families.

Finding Edna Ferber’s Showboat

I don’t know how the great American novelist, short story writer and playwright Edna Ferber heard about the little river town of Winton, N.C. But I know she did. In a collection of her research notes that I found at Yale’s Beinecke Library when I was in New Haven, Conn. last summer, she scratched the following: Winton, N.C.—The Croatans, relic of the lost Roanoke Island settlement. Tar River. White negroes.

All the Fair Faced Pretty Boys

A memory. I am remembering a day at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass. The Society holds one of the great collections of early American manuscripts and artifacts, everything from John Quincy Adams’ diary to Paul Revere’s pistol. I was there to look at less famous relics, but ones just as exciting to me: letters and diaries written by Union soldiers that served in New Bern, N.C. during the American Civil War.

The Wilmington Jubilee Singers

I discovered the Wilmington Jubilee Singers while I was exploring old newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). The BNA is an invaluable on-line resource that is making available (for a small fee) digital copies of the historical newspapers preserved at the British Library in London. The British Library holds the largest collection of British newspapers … Continue reading The Wilmington Jubilee Singers

Music All Over the Ocean

In 2009 and 2010, an extraordinary community project, called “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing,” commemorated the central role that the menhaden industry played here in Carteret County, N.C, for generations. Inspired by the closing of the state's last menhaden factory, Beaufort Fisheries, in 2005, the project involved a series of community forums, school events and documentary projects. Led by cultural anthropologist and local fisheries activist, and my old friend, Barbara Garrity-Blake, the project’s organizers worked hand-in-hand with former menhaden fishermen and factory workers to create a unique community-wide period of reflection on the passing of a way of life.