By Ben Hogwood
“Didn’t you once string up a boat?”
This is Barbara Garrity-Blake, chatting during a typically hot August afternoon from her porch in Gloucester. Barbara has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Virginia, and has published a book, “Fish Factory,” about the menhaden fishing industry. She’s also the co-creator of the Cajun band Unknown Tongues, and she’s asking her husband, Bryan Blake, the other co-creator, who is also sitting on the porch, if he remembers the time he tried to turn a boat into a musical instrument.
“I strung it up and made a bridge,” Bryan said. “It sounded like a whale.”
This is perhaps one of the more extreme ways to combine a passion for music and the maritime traditions of North Carolina’s Down East area, the collection of fishing villages east of Beaufort that run along the Core Banks. But it’s a good example of what these guys do; both were once outsiders in a community that can be wary of outsiders, where even the blue “Hurricane Evacuation Route” signs pointing in the opposite direction might be enough to convince some people they don’t belong here.
The music the Blakes play is from an entirely different shore, with entirely different instruments (accordions? Rub boards? Triangles?), and sometimes with entirely foreign lyrics (French?!). Yet through their efforts to support the fishermen, the boat builders, the musicians and the traditions of this area, and through their efforts to be generous neighbors, the Blakes have managed to weave both their lives, and their music, into the culture of this low-lying land.
Getting to Know You
Just from looking at the knickknacks on the porch, you can tell there’s a touch of nostalgia to the couple. On a wall is a painting of two butterflies on what looks like a piece of driftwood, made by Bryan’s mother. On another is a tapestry of a scarecrow that Bryan made when he was in sixth grade. Elsewhere is the big brassy stencil that Barbara used to make the pink and black signs for their most recent effort to combine music and maritime tradition: a two-day festival held in Gloucester called Wild Caught.
Hanging from the ceiling is a rusted, coiled horn. “I don’t know where that came from,” said Bryan, who is wearing a blue “Marshallberg Fire Department” T-shirt. He is chief of the department and is on duty today. “It just ended up here.”
Behind the house, however, in an overgrown patch of land, is a boat that Bryan has been working on, and the roots of how he ended up in this area begin to reveal themselves. Bryan was born in Greensboro, but grew up in South Carolina. He arrived Down East in 1976, when he drove along the coast after deciding he would build boats for a living, and was eventually hired by the Rose Brothers of Harkers Island.
He didn’t meet Barbara until 11 years later. She grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., but was pursuing an advanced degree at the University of Virginia. She had previously spent time in the county conducting fieldwork on the menhaden fishing industry.
Bryan had previously been married, but it didn’t work out, and he had come to Beaufort one day in the summer of 1987 to do laundry. He decided to stop by the Backstreet Pub, a bar just off Front Street, where live bands thump from the second floor on weekends and patrons’ dogs often congregate around water bowls downstairs. Barbara came into the bar to meet her former roommate, who knew Bryan and made the introduction. Pretty soon, Bryan was driving up to the UVA campus in Charlottesville, Va., bringing his mandolin with him.
Charlottesville is where Bryan became interested in Louisiana music. Chuck Perdue, one of Barbara’s professors, recommended he listen to some Cajun fiddle tunes, and shortly after, while she was attending classes, he was recording every Cajun album he could get his hands on. His new fascination was reinforced when the couple started going to open jams. At one of these Bryan remembers being “struck” when he heard someone playing this “greasy” sound on a fiddle.
He even got to take a one-on-one workshop with Dewey Balfa, a legendary Cajun fiddler who became the face of genre for many following his performance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.
“I just absorbed everything I could,” Bryan said. “That’s when it took a turn.”
Barbara could play a few chords on guitar, but perhaps more relevant to the style of music, she also learned how to play the triangle. In fact, Bryan took the hand crank from the jack to her car and, with a little welding, turned it into a triangle for her to play. She now has two of those, one in C and one in F sharp.
The Only Game in Town
When they returned to Carteret County, they didn’t have the access to jamming they had in Charlottesville.
“We were like, where’s the musicians?” said Barbara. So they put an ad in the Carteret County News-Times: “Musicians Wanted – Jam.”
One of those who responded was a guitarist named Derby Daniels. He was an established local musician and had previously been in the Core Creek Corn Commission. He promptly took the lead of this band – if it could be called a band at this point. While “Unknown Tongues” may conjure up a weird voodoo vibe, the name actually has a lot more to do with the transiency of the members during those early years.
“We’re just a bunch of unknown tongues,” Daniels exclaimed during one jam session. “We don’t know who’s singing.”
The name stuck, though Daniels would eventually leave. A few years later, after variations of the band with multiple fiddle players and even multiple drum kits, bassist Todd Humphreys and drummer Tom Parker came on board, cementing the lineup that is still in place today. Daniels had experience, and the Blakes took note before he left. “Derby was the professional,” Bryan said. “We were just the rank amateurs.”
The music at that time was more bluegrass, though Bryan would pepper it with Cajun whenever he got the chance to take a fiddle solo. With Daniels departure, the Blakes stepped to the front, and that’s when their musical background bled more into the sound and the songs.
Audiences, at least at first, were often confused. Even in the early ’90s, people weren’t really familiar with Cajun music. “We’d get people” – Bryan pauses and bugs his eyes out, impersonating one of the stunned faces he saw in the crowd – “‘They’re not singing in English.’ We were the only game in town.”
Stirring the Pot
One piece of advice Daniels gave the band was never to play gigs for free.
“We took the business model where we would charge decently, so we could pay for gas to get home,” Bryan said. But the band wanted to do something for its community.”
“We wanted to give everybody a free concert,” Barbara said. So they decided to have a potluck, at which they would play. To get the word out, they once again put an ad in the newspaper. That potluck grew into what is now the Down East Mardi Gras, an annual event held at the Gloucester Community Club each February that draws hundreds of guests and features multiple bands, along with cauldrons of gumbo filled with local seafood.
“We’ve always been holding our breath that it doesn’t get too big,” Barbara said.
In 2010, that almost happened. That year, Our State magazine published an article on the event, naming it one of the best destinations in the state. “We were ‘Miss February,’” Barbara said. The weather was gorgeous the week leading up the Mardi Gras. They were sure to be overrun.
The Blakes, as well as the crew they’ve amassed to help, began planning for thousands of visitors, and borrowed an event tent from the Beaufort Historic Site, but they still had doubts about the location being able to handle those kinds of numbers. And then, a few days before the designated weekend, a weather report suggested there was a slight, tiny, miniscule chance of snow flurries being in the forecast.
The night before the event Barbara was outside, stirring the roux for the gumbo, when she looked up. “What’s that?” she said.
By 3am, Bryan was outside sweeping snow off the tent to make sure it didn’t collapse. By morning, there were six inches of snow on the ground. To get to the community club, visitors had to drive along a long stretch of roadway without shoulders in an area where snow is so rare that snowplows are almost unheard of. Would anybody show up?
The phone calls, starting at 7am, suggested they would. One after the other they came, until Barbara eventually recorded a new voice message: yes, she said. The 2010 Down East Mardi Gras is still taking place.
Despite the weather, 450 people attended that year. The following year, 2011, set a record high of 1,200, and the event is still going strong with planning for its twenty-fourth festival now in the planning stages.
“Mardi Gras has truly turned into a community event,” Bryan said.
Ups and Downs
While the band took off after its formation in the ’90s, the fishing industry went the opposite way. Seafood landings nosedived, imports from abroad increased, federal and state governments beefed up regulations, and property values along the coast skyrocketed. The businesses Down East supported by the fishing industry – from fish houses to grocery stores – started disappearing, and jobs became harder to find.
“We’ve seen first-hand the effects of younger people moving away,” Barbara said.
Barbara, in particular, has invested countless hours trying to bring attention to the issue, serving on state boards including the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission and the N.C. Waterfront Access Study Committee. She even ran for the N.C. House and N.C. Senate and part of her platform was to support the industry and boost the recognition of local seafood, though those political campaigns ultimately failed.
So, in 2010, they decided to hold a festival. The festival would celebrate roots music and the people who made it, and it would celebrate seafood and the people who hauled it in. It would feature the Unknown Tongues, of course, but as it grew it would also feature other local musicians and bands, including cutting edge, disco-mariachi rock from the Beaufort-based Chupacabras (de la rosa) (author’s note – I play in this band) to the Southern guitar sounds of Straits Haven (author’s note again – I play in this one too).
Perhaps of more note, for the last two years, it’s also featured Bland Simpson, the pianist of the Tony-award winning band the Red Clay Ramblers. Simpson is also a professor of English and creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, and has written several nonfiction books that feature stories from the Down East region. His most recent book, “Little Rivers & Waterway Tales,” came out this year.
“I first met them a little over 20 years ago,” Simpson said. The Tongues were playing a fundraiser in the Beaufort area and Simpson’s mother-in-law, the late Pat Kindell, wanted to take Simpson and his wife (and photographer) Ann. Kindell told him there would be a Cajun band playing.
“I said, ‘A Cajun band?’” He was expecting perhaps something a little showy and a little country, in the vein of Doug Kershaw. “When we walked down the lane, I remember hearing – they were playing as a three-piece then – I remember hearing a Balfa Brothers song, played very faithfully,” he said. “I thought, whoa, this is not what I expected. I certainly took note.”
Simpson ran into the band at various places and each time the Tongues surprised him with their approach and repertoire. He found out Bryan was a boat builder, and heard about Barbara’s research on the menhaden industry.
“I read Barbara’s work to better understand Beaufort,” he said.
The Simpsons are not just fans of the music; they are also big supporters of the Blakes’ efforts with wild caught seafood. In Fact, Ann Simpson is the director of NC Catch, an effort to promote the state’s seafood. Likewise, Ann’s mother was a big proponent of local seafood.
“She couldn’t eat imported shrimp because she could taste the chemicals,” he said.
So, Without Further Ado …
It’s just after 9 p.m. on a Saturday in July, and after swimming humidity followed by the kind of downpour that would inspire Noah to dig out his boat shoes, the weather is cool, the sky is clear, and the Unknown Tongues have taken the stage of the 2015 Wild Caught Festival.
They open with “Going to Louisiana,” a simple song filled with the kinds of grace notes and embellishments that makes Cajun music almost impossible, or maybe pointless, to transcribe. They are playing on the back porch of a house in Gloucester that faces out toward the Straits, where the outlines of tall, mostly naked pine trees on the opposite side of the creek can be seen scratching the sky. Earlier in the day, smoke poured from the charcoal grills cooking up fresh-caught mullet. In fact, if Bryan, Barbara, Todd and Tom were to look over the heads of the audience dancing in front of them, they would see some of the spots where the fish were caught.
Barbara takes the microphone when the song ends.
“Bryan’s feeling sentimental,” she says. “That was the first song we wrote together. I was trying to leave him and he said, ‘Can I come too?’”
“She’s been trying to leave me for 30 years,” says Bryan. “I keep a backpack in the truck.”
These are the guys behind the Unknown Tongues, behind Wild Caught, behind the Down East Mardi Gras, behind efforts to support local musicians, behind efforts to support local fishermen, and maybe, if you live in the Marshallberg area, behind efforts to pour water on your house if it were to ever catch on fire.
It’s dark now and the band brings Simpson on stage to play piano, which he does until the closing band, The Family, takes over. Todd, barefoot and wearing a blue Wild Caught T-shirt, thumps on the bass, and Tom, in a white undershirt, taps the drums. Barbara switches between forming barre chords on an acoustic guitar to tinging a triangle to scratching a rub board. Bryan transitions from fiddle to accordion to pedal steel, sometimes in the same song. They both sing. They banter. They make the audience laugh and nod their heads and move their feet.
They can put everything they enjoy and care about, everything they are good at, on one stage. And they make it look so easy.