McGinn sends postcards from a harsh refuge

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by Jordan Green

Given all the historical research and conceptual framing that went into Molly McGinn’s new multimedia release, Postcards from the Swamp, it’s remarkable that it’s also her most personal project to date.

A former News & Record reporter who now works at Pace Communications, McGinn is a natural storyteller. The genesis of Postcards is woven into the story itself, which begins two summers ago when McGinn was out of work and staying in a carriage house in back of songwriter Laurelyn Dossett and journalist Justin Catanoso’s home in Greensboro’s Westerwood neighborhood.

“It was hot, so hot it felt like a sheet of metal on my body,” she told the audience at the premiere performance of Postcards at Triad Stage on Aug. 8. Other parts of the story emerge in a chapter-by-chapter account, roughly mated to each of the six songs in the collection, on her website.

A recording of an acoustic version of Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” played by a housepainter “was a divining rod that summer.” She tells of googling for water and discovering a page about Lake Drummond at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp. She fantasized about renting a 1973 El Camino truck and driving to the lake, but she was broke, so the trip would have to wait.

The Great Dismal Swamp, a refuge for runaway slaves and possibly one of the harshest, most unforgiving places east of the Mississippi, serves as a metaphor for a personal experience of undergoing a trial and emerging somehow better for it.

“What was cool is that I had to ask myself why I was drawn to a swamp full of misfits and outcasts,” McGinn said in an interview. “I realized that I really love outcasts. They have a wisdom about them from experiencing setbacks and adversity. People who walk through hell and come out the other side singing — those are my kind of people.”

The photographer and documentary filmmaker Harvey Robinson urged McGinn to put herself in the story.

“Harvey said, ‘You need to make it personal and not just journalistic,’” she recalled. “It wasn’t about hiding behind the research.”

She wasn’t prepared for everything she found.

While there was something liberating about runaway slaves earning wages by cutting canals, felling juniper trees and running the harvest through a swamp infested with mosquitos, snakes, alligators and bears, the reality of hard labor, brutality and privation disabused her of any romantic notions about the place.

“I really struggled to hear music at all,” she said. “I thought I would hear all this soul music and gospel. Instead I heard these really sad ballads.”

The story of Moses Grady, a canal man who fended off an attack by a wild animal while convalescing in the swamp with rheumatism, putting his faith in the Lord, inspired McGinn’s song “War Angel.”

The song is a prayer with shaking fists in place of folded hands.

It’s one of the quieter songs in a collection that generally coheres around a Stax-like groove. Postcards from the Swamp was one of the last recordings at Brian Haran’s guitar shop in Graham, before he relocated to Durham. Haran assembled a studio band comprised of Phil Cook of the Guitarheels and Megafaun, Terry Lonergan of Hiss Golden Messenger, Jeff Crawford of Roman Candle, and two of McGinn’s cohorts from Wurlitzer Prize, Dave Willis and Brent Buckner. The organic sound they created live in the studio with minimal overdubs ranges from the blues-rocking “Piece of Coal” to the quiet, restrained soul of “Glass Hills/Steel Heels” and the rollicking and profane transcendence of “The Great Dismal Swamp.”

But it’s a take on the traditional song “Rocking Cane,” for which McGinn recruited Logie Meachum and Robin Doby Easter as a kind of a gospel choir, that the band really takes off, with churchy organ meditations and resonating guitar worthy of Ry Cooder.

Meachum preaches in the intro of the song: “Oh, heavenly Father. Oh, we just want to gather at the altar this morning. We’re down here, Lord, waiting on you because we can’t do nothing ’til your spirit comes, Lord, amen. But we have one this morning who is at the altar and in need of prayer.”

McGinn said her creative acknowledgement of the economic adversity she experienced in the summer of 2012 was by no means the most personal part of the project. After all, most people she knew were feeling the effects of the recession, she said.

“Glass Hills/Steel Heels,” her retort to the Thomas Moore poem “A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp,” was the song that truly required her to summon nerve and vulnerability. She found the tale of a woman who drowned in the lake on her wedding night to be tiresome.

“I’ve had so many disappointments in pursuing romantic love,” McGinn said. “Every template that’s been put out there, I’ve tried and it hasn’t worked out.”

Noting that she’s facing a 40th birthday in a couple weeks, she said, “I would have thought I would have been married three times by now.”

She needed a new storyline. So she combined Moore’s poem with a Scots myth called the “Black Bull of Norroway” to create a different ending in which the heroine rejects the prince, and steals into the swamp to smoke cigars and pound steel to “set off fireworks-worth of sparks that hang like stars.”

“Fairytales are so different in how they treat women and men,” McGinn said. “Whenever women chase things in life, it becomes their husband. Whenever men chase things, it becomes their adventure and destiny. It pisses me off.”

On “The Great Dismal Swamp,” McGinn imagines a refuge for outcasts — a place of mutually shared joy in place of romantic stockades.

“I’m taking matters into my own hands,” she sings, “try to put a little power where there hasn’t been.”