Bland Simpson ’70 – My Carolina Story

Bland Simpson ’70

Bland Simpson ’70

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

“Conceived in Chapel Hill — in so many ways, so were we all.”

April 14, 2012

In 1924, my grandfather, J.A. Page, shook hands with John Sprunt Hill and then took command of the massive building program on this campus, beginning my family’s association with The University of North Carolina. My father entered Carolina in the fall of 1939 and finished his undergraduate courses and a year of law school before joining the Navy in 1943; my mother took business courses here and worked in the University’s post office during the war.

They married in Florida, returning to Chapel Hill in 1946 and living in a lovely, small gray cottage just off East Franklin Street — my father finished law school as a member of the vaunted class of ’48, passed the bar and my parents then awaited my mid-October arrival. At that time, one went to Durham to be born in a hospital, and the legendary Daddy Ross at Duke brought me into the world, and all was well, even at Duke, ’til a nurse looked in on my mother as she cradled me and remarked, “Boy, that sure is one ugly baby.” Back we went to the Chapel Hill cottage, where I fattened up quickly — and by early December, we were moved in at our new home in Elizabeth City, the little Pasquotank County river port where I grew half-way up.

During the 1950s, we made frequent trips to Chapel Hill to visit my mother’s family. Always we stayed at The Carolina Inn, and I remember, too, that in my earliest years, what Chapel Hill meant to me was our arrival beneath the porte cochere on the east side of the inn — I used to fly about the north lawn at The Carolina Inn, in a makeshift Superman costume when I was 5 or 6 — and I often re-invite those superhuman powers these days, mornings about 6:50 or 7 a.m., when I’m driving right past that very lawn on my way to meet my 8 a.m. fiction-writing class. Whenever we walked around campus, my grandfather spoke so familiarly about the buildings he had built or renovated, touching mortar joints here and there, that I naturally came to think that they were all his. The summer of 1959, we moved to Chapel Hill, which was then smaller than Elizabeth City. Sunny Jim Tatum, the great Carolina football coach, died of Rocky Mountain spotted fever a short while afterwards, and I vividly remember the great mourning, the sense of a whole community in grief and of how much Carolina and Chapel Hill were interwoven.

My friends and I roamed all over the place freely — we climbed the mountain up to Gimghoul Castle and the Kemp Plummer Battle stone seat; we played tennis on the old clay courts between the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and Cobb dorm, drank limeades made fresh in the Circus Room, where Carl Boetcher’s carvings done from William Meade Prince’s illustration — now right outside this room — originally were mounted; we shot baskets in Woollen Gym and the Tin Can. I learned to swim in the Bowman Gray Pool and the Kessing Pool — I had been dipped in the Pasquotank River and tossed into the Atlantic Ocean since I was a babe, but never ’til I reached Chapel Hill had anyone thought to teach me to swim. If this sounds like an unsubtle call for my alma mater to restore the swim test (on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic), let it be.

Never have I heard anything louder than the incredible noise made by 5,000 people packed into Woollen Gym to see Carolina face Duke or State or Wake. There I once spotted Joe Quigg from the 1957 championship team and got his autograph; there I watched York Larese’s incredible two-hand set shots, an archaic flat-footed thing of beauty from a different era, a different game, and yet still a joy forever.

We graduated from Chapel Hill High School in June 1966, in Memorial Hall — I took a check my father gave me very early the next morning and went up to campus and enrolled by 8 a.m. for my first classes at the University — that was a short trip, 12 hours from graduation to matriculation, and all I did was step over a stone wall.

Yet there was much more to it than that.

I entered the brave new world that I have never left. A second-year history honors course with Elizabeth Nathans, in which I wrote a comparative paper on the two Cooley-Gardner congressional races, ’64 and ’66, steered me into research and writing, and my passionate interest in politics veered away from student government and toward the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, the Di-Phi, and to The Daily Tar Heel, where I became a columnist and night editor.

What incredible teachers we had! In addition to Professor Nathans, I had classes with Ruel Tyson in religious studies; Lou Lipsitz, the poet-professor; and Andy Scott and Earl Wallace in political science; Walter Spearman in journalism; Don Mathews (social movements) and Joel Williamson (the Old South) and Herbert Bodman (Middle East); Jake Mills, the Renaissance scholar and teller of Carolina tales afield and afloat; and Tom Stumpf in English, who taught the Old Testament as literature; and Dan Patterson, who showed us how English and Scottish ballads were still alive in the North Carolina mountains, and whistled them to us, too.

During my second year, I lived as a lock-up-at-night caretaker in the University Methodist Church, and I roamed all over the place in the wee hours, playing any one of the 15 or 20 pianos I found, occasionally cranking up the big pipe organ in the sanctuary — talk about the phantom of the opera: I played music and I wrote songs all over that old church. And one of my favorite privileges of that year was, whenever Carolina won a basketball game (this was the Billy Cunningham ’65, Charlie Scott ’70 era, so there were many), I would go up and grab ahold of the bell rope and ring the church bells in the steeple, the people’s great victory celebrated with authoritative joy, and music.

We held Halloween midnight rites at the Di and Phi plots in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. We talked politics and music at Harry’s Restaurant next to the post office. We talked politics and music at the Tempo Room down the street. And at the Chi Psi Lodge, where I had many friends, like Jed Dietz ’69, and though I was not a member was always a welcome guest, owing to my having pulled the Chi Psi Beat Duke Float one fall with my jeep. We talked politics and music at the Carolina Political Union, Eric Van Loon ’67 and David Kiel ’68 (’71 MPH, ’74 DRPH) leading the way, and got The Daily Tar Heel together on the top floor of Graham Memorial, and we bought and read the artful Lillabullero literary magazine in Y Court.

What an exciting day it was to move into Old East in the fall of 1968! Top floor, north tower, number 36. I had learned at the housing office that this had once been Thomas Wolfe’s ’20 room, and when all the various suite mates (there were four double rooms and one single on each floor of each tower) gather to meet up that first night, at some point I let it slip about being in Thomas Wolfe’s room. That nearly started a riot. Turned out that everyone living in Old East had been informed by the housing office that his room was Wolfe’s former room.

That fall we listened to Robbie Robertson’s songs on The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink, so much so that by Thanksgiving I decided to make a pilgrimage to Woodstock, N.Y., and see the Band and their great ally, Bob Dylan. I hitchhiked all the way up there in the icy pre-Christmas cold of 1968, stood on manager Albert Grossman’s log cabin front porch and conversed familiarly with Dylan for much of an hour — which I have chronicled elsewhere in an essay named “Thumbin’ in the Wind” — an encouraging encounter that ultimately led me to Grossman’s New York City offices, during spring break 1969, and to a songwriting contract.

And then, suddenly, it seemed I was done with Carolina and Chapel Hill — I was a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side before Labor Day of ’69. That was the start of an almost incredible swirl for me, a 20-year-old small-town kid from Elizabeth City and Chapel Hill, throwing myself into city life, writing songs, in and out of recording studios; hearing some of the great folk, jazz and blues musicians close-up in the Village clubs: Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Tim Hardin, Mose Allison; finding new collaborators — from Juilliard and from Columbia University; and recording an album for Columbia Records — New York was overwhelming, and overwhelmingly good to me from the start.

Yet a trip from the Upper West Side to the Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention, by way of Chapel Hill at Eastertide, convinced me to come home and to keep following music in a warmer and less expensive latitude. Back here,  I teamed up with some great Carolina musical friends, John Foley ’71 and Jim Wann ’70, Mike Sheehan ’70 (’82 MACOM) and Jan Davidson ’70 (’72 MA) and our ensemble, the Southern States Fidelity Choir, soon made an even bigger team, with a UNC philosophy prof (and Union Grove old-time banjo champion) named Tommy Thompson ’63 and his brand-new band, The Red Clay Ramblers — and with more Carolina support — Buck ’70 (’76 JD) and Kay ’71 Goldstein’s dining room table to work out a script and with John Haber ’70 to direct it — we forged the show Diamond Studs, The Life of Jesse James, staged it boisterously in the rococo/red banquet room of the Ranch House in October ’74, moved straight to Manhattan where in January ’75, Studs was a hit — “musicians’ theatre” was born, and we were in it for good. The support this Carolina-centric movement has gotten over so many years (the Red Clay Ramblers turn 40 this fall) gave us the individual and collective strength to carry a very joyous music all over North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

And then some more magic touched me. In late 1981, I was just back from Memphis, from doing final edits on my first book and from doing the first staging of Tommy’s and my Mark Twain musical, Life on the Mississippi.

Max Steele ’46, longtime director of creative writing at Carolina, asked me whether I’d like to teach for a semester, spring of 1982. “Sign me up,” I said, “and what advice do you have for me?”

He looked thoughtfully off over my shoulder and finally said: “Use the textbook that’s already been ordered.”

“I mean, about teaching.” Again he looked away and finally smiled and waved his hand and said, “Oh, it’ll come to you.”

What came to me pretty quickly back in 1982 — and what has steadily deepened over 30 years of working with undergraduates at Carolina — was an understanding of how much more than editorial advice the teaching of writing called for and was all about. Beyond the reading of classic texts and the workshopping of original manuscripts, this endeavor involves empathy, encouragement and all manner of advice and counsel both in- and outside of the classroom, as young writers seek not only to develop and expand their literary skills but also, simultaneously, to come to terms with the great, central aspirations of their lives.

To have witnessed and worked with so much new talent and with such cherished colleagues, to have stayed in touch with so many students well after their graduations — what a terrific honor and a deep, abiding pleasure.

And this is added to the extraordinarily strong bonds of friendship and of professional endeavor that I’ve enjoyed with so many fellow Tar Heels. And a very personal endeavor, I should certainly add, with one in particular: my wife, Ann Cary Simpson, is a member of our School of Journalism’s class of 1978.

The books and music and shows I have written and collaborated on made my late mother proud, yet nothing pleased her more than my association with Carolina as an English teacher.

Only one little matter kept bothering her, though, concerning a particular detail that would show up in many of the newspaper feature stories about The Red Clay Ramblers or whatever show we were working up — inevitably, I would get interviewed and asked, “Where were you born?” to which I would answer, “Durham” — the journalist would put into the story such phrases, referencing me as “from Durham” or “Durham native,” resulting in day-of-publication phone calls to me from my mother:

“Is this the ‘Durham songwriter?’ ” or “I’d like to speak with Bland Simpson, ‘a Durham native.’ ”  with suggestions like: “Why don’t you tell them you were born in Chapel Hill?”

“I would if I had been, but my mother taught me to tell the truth.”

This went on for almost 30 years, ’til finally, her exasperation one evening reached fever stage. I had just answered the “Why do you tell them you were born in Durham” question with my standard, “Because I was,” and then I heard this:

“All right, all right — you were born in Durham. You were born in Durham. You were born in Durham. But you were conceived in Chapel Hill!”

Conceived in Chapel Hill — in so many ways, so were we all. The good fortune in arts and letters, and, indeed, in life, that has come my way is surely and intimately bound up with Carolina, leaving me with Great Smoky Mountains of debts to our alma mater, which I can never repay. But I can try: To get back to health, in every area, our beloved state needs the University’s leadership, at full strength, more than ever, and I will tell her story and sing her song as long as I live.

Thank you for your company and friendship this year. God bless you all, and God bless the University, and the love of inquiry and art and knowledge for which she stands.