Barbara Garrity-Blake: Musician and Public Scholar
by Bland Simpson
Barbara Garrity-Blake has long been one of the most creative, innovative, and imaginative citizens in the Carolina east, and I know of no one else quite like her. She is simultaneously an energetic artistparticipant, a keen observer, an engaged public scholar, and a fierce advocate for the coastal Carolina culture she so dearly loves.
For over a generation, she has been the joyous co-leader, with her boatbuilding husband Bryan Blake, of the great, highly-spirited Down East Cajun and acoustic-roots band, the Unknown Tongues, appearing locally, often, at such important venues as Fort Macon State Park and the North Carolina Seafood Festival, touring widely as well, and also founding at home a notable, annual folk-feast at the Gloucester Mardi Gras, which occurs each February and has become a significant destination. Most recently, Barbara and Bryan have founded a summertime festival—“Wild Caught”—to emphasize and promote opportunities for fresh North Carolina seafood and those who catch, market, and distribute it. Highly talented as a bassist and frottoir player, Barbara Garrity-Blake also plays guitar and sings exuberantly with fiddler Marjorie Misenheimer in another fine musical
act, the popular duo the Lost Girls.
In two important books, The Fish Factory and The Fish House Opera (the latter co-authored with Susan West), and in numerous other articles and essays, Garrity-Blake’s writings have shown an extraordinary comprehension of and sympathy for the culture and working world of commercial fishing. Significantly, her informed advocacy and broad comprehension of coastal Carolina matters have led to her service on a number of state boards, including her appointment by the governor to a position on the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission from 1999 till 2007.
Her superb organization of “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing,” an oral-history research and programming project with
the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, funded by the NC Humanities Council, created much interest and led to terrific outreach toward and impact within the Carteret County fishing populations from this world, and to many people well beyond it. Her current project, “The Road at the Water’s Edge,” is a collaboration with Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center leader Karen Willis Amspacher, under a forward-contract with UNC Press and with projected publication in 2014 or 2015.
The closing chapter of Garrity-Blake’s The Fish Factory is as fine and penetrating a piece of dramatic nonfiction as any I have read in years. What the fisherman says at the end, to the menhaden captain (“I know why you do it, Captain—‘cause it’s in your heart!”) could, in truth, also be said of her, for one cannot help but observe and marvel at the deep, heartfelt verve she brings to all she touches: her very being intertwining as it does with music, boats, fishing, indeed, with coastal life in totality; her very high standards as a musical artist and as a keen, analytical scholar; her tirelessness, thoughtfulness, and productiveness as a widely renowned and effective regional leader—all this taken together is why she has become one of the most beloved celebrants of all that is best about our coastal provinces.
Like so many others, I have read her writings with great appreciation; relished and loved her music (and joined in, happily, on
occasion); and respected and followed her leadership. Barbara Garrity-Blake is most deserving of the NCFS’s Brown-Hudson Folklore Award; her wide range of admirers rejoice in her receiving this honor.
Bland Simpson is Kenan Distinguished Professor of English & Creative Writing at UNC Chapel Hill and the longtime pianist for the Red Clay Ramblers.
Simpson, Bland. “Barbara Garrity-Blake: Musician and Public Scholar.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 60.1-2 (2013): 22-25.