Native son Bland Simpson never set out to do it, but he’s become the unofficial chronicler of North Carolina’s Outer Coastal Plain, including his old stomping ground: the Great Dismal Swamp.
From the backseat 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.
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 he enter it.
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.
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 and no driving motivation short of a deep, unspoken desire to tell stories.
Born Martin Bland Simpson III, he’s always been known as Bland, a family name. His 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 the 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 were good enough connections to get 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.”
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 wrote a column for the Daily Tar Heel and served as night editor. 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 inclined he became to consider a career in music.
One course shy of graduating after just 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.
But a year passed, and there were still no takers. Simpson was foundering. Then Ed Freeman, a producer at Columbia, pulled him aside and said something very 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.”