Rachel Grimes explores her roots and Kentucky’s checkered history in ‘The Way Forth,’ a folk opera and film

Creative Matters Lecture w/ Rachel Grimes

Voxman Recital Hall — Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 5:30 p.m.

Rachel Grimes in Conversation with the Iowa Women’s Archives

University of Iowa Main Library, Iowa Women’s Archives — Thursday, Oct. 31 at 12 p.m.

Witching Hour: The Way Forth

Englert Theatre — Friday, Nov. 1 at 8:30 p.m.

Composer Rachel Grimes — courtesy of Witching Hour

A few years back, siblings Rachel and Edward Grimes were faced with a difficult but rather common responsibility: transitioning their parents into a nursing care facility. This required the pair to sort through decades — and, it turned out, centuries — worth of stuff in their parents’ Kentucky home.

“Both of my parents had a really wonderful trove of photographs and mementos from their lives,” Rachel said. “[My dad] had a Scottish Bible from the 1730s. You can see your great-great-grandparents’ handwriting in sepia ink on this ancient Bible. You can read your great-grandmother’s postcards.”

She was enthralled.

“While I was trying to take care of this task — organizing their things, trying to put some photos into an album — it became bigger than that. I started thinking about how this could be a piece of music.”

Rachel Grimes is a pianist and composer, providing music for chamber ensembles and orchestras, including the Louisville Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, Knoxville Symphony, A Far Cry and the Dublin Guitar Quartet. Along with five albums of solo work, she was also a member of the post-rock chamber music outfit Rachel’s for more than a decade, which also included Jason Noble and her brother Edward.

The spark of inspiration Grimes felt while sorting through family artifacts begat her most ambitious project yet, one that involved extensive research into her own genealogy and that of some of Kentucky’s most important but forgotten figures, as well as collaboration with dozens of vocalists and musicians.

She will present the product of all this work — The Way Forth, a folk opera and film — at the Englert Theatre on Friday, Nov. 1 for Witching Hour Festival.

“One day, as I was driving around with my friend Catharine [Axley], who’s been shooting this film, I said to her, ‘What do you think this piece is about?’ She says, ‘Well, I think it’s a reckoning.’ And I think that’s absolutely true,” Grimes said. “I’m making a piece that’s reckoning with both my own personal history through my family, through their artifacts, with my state’s history, with my country’s history. I’m looking at it through these slivers of people’s lives, their stories. There isn’t one thesis to it all, it’s really just an exploration, an investigation.”

The seeds of the project were planted during Grimes’ childhood in Louisville — playing in the woods behind their house with her brother, sight-learning piano by watching her mother and listening to Motown girl groups, Billy Joel and The Wiz. Despite receiving classical training in piano and composition, Grimes always had an interest in rock and experimental music.


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“I could tell from early on my destiny was not going to be in academic music departments,” she said.

From composing film soundtracks to sound mixing for theater productions, Grimes’ pieces are often rooted in stories and visuals. Her first musical composition was inspired by a painting of a horse in the woods; more recently, she wrote a piece called “In the Vapor with the Air Underneath,” meant to capture the experience of soaring through the air like a bird.

“For better or for worse, there’s always music present for me,” she said. “I am often kind of composing my own life as I go, whether I intend to or not. I kind of can’t help that things that are happening in my life are winding up somehow in the music.”

This is especially true of The Way Forth, developed during the most difficult period of Grimes’ life. In 2012, her former bandmate Noble died of cancer. Over the next seven years, she also lost a beloved teacher, two dogs, her mother and, in March 2017, her brother Edward, who died of a heart attack at the age of 43.

“A lot of The Way Forth is really a response to that loss and grief,” Grimes said. “I was supposed to premiere a piece of it the day after my brother died. I had to put the piece down; there wasn’t any room in my life for that anymore. I really didn’t intend to come back to it, but after four or five months, I got to see a rough string-out of some of the film that Catharine and I had filmed about two weeks before he died. When I saw the film, I knew I had to keep working on it, and I knew that’s what he would want.”

“It was therapy for me.”

The Way Forth charts Kentucky history in a non-linear format, with an emphasis on the perspectives of women. It is perhaps most impressive as a work of arrangement: Grimes pairs old photographs and footage of Kentucky’s natural and cultural landscape with 17 songs, some written by Grimes, others adapted from historical hymns and folk tunes. Unlike much of Grimes’ musical catalog, all but one song in The Way Forth contain lyrics, many of which pulled directly from essays, articles and postcards written by her ancestors, others from history books; yet others are poetic reflections from Grimes’ own mind.

“Let us find the way forth / By any means, our freedom,” read the lyrics for the song “Sisterhood of Man,” which Grimes describes as inspired by “the voices of many women through time.”

Rachel Grimes and Catharine Axley captured footage of two retired thoroughbreds living on a farm on the Dix River in Lincoln County, Kentucky, “a farm that used to be in my family, and where I spent a lot of time playing as a child,” Grimes said. — courtesy of Rachel Grimes

“What I’m trying to do with the music is build an environment through which the different stories can be experienced and explored,” Grimes said. “It’s not so much a literal depiction of the story but an environment of going back in time and having these foggy memories.”

Among these stories is that of an enslaved woman named Dolly, one of only two women who made the journey, led by the legendary pioneer Daniel Boone, across the Kentucky River to establish Fort Boonesborough in the spring of 1775. Dolly was owned by Col. Richard Callaway, the second husband of Grimes’ six-time great-grandmother Elizabeth — and, most likely, the father of Dolly’s baby, the first born in the settlement.

“Learning that the first child born in that fort was a mixed-race child, the result of rape, that had been left out of history entirely just got me really fired up,” Grimes said. “Her story needed more air and more understanding.”

Fort Boonesborough in 1778 by George Washington Ranck (1901).

Grimes regards Dolly as a founding mother of Kentucky.

“I weep for my son, given no father’s name, no land to farm, no rightful way in this place to be a man,” reads a lyric of The Way Forth song “Dolly,” based on a newspaper account from the 1840 celebration of the establishment of Fort Boonesborough (at which time Dolly was in her 80s and was apparently still enslaved).

“I am fascinated by pioneer and settlement history, especially because the more I read, the more it becomes apparent that the stories I heard in my youth are not accurate or complete,” Grimes said. “I have many mixed and conflicted feelings about being a descendant of these early settlers. These people were at times greedy, and violent, and they were participants in slavery. They participated in the extortion of the Cherokee Nation and the lands on which they and many other peoples had lived for millennia. At this point, I feel it is my responsibility to participate in the ongoing historical account of what we know and can uncover of those colonial days.”

Tracing her own family tree was difficult enough, Grimes said, but tracking down records of slaves, like Dolly, “was truly a breadcrumb trail.” Women are underrepresented in historical archives, women of color much more so. “You look for census records, you look for wills, you look for all kinds of documents you may not have thought about containing reference to a person or place.”

Sheet music for the 1873 song “Good Sweet Ham” by Henry Hart — U.S. Library of Congress

With the help of researcher Paula Falvey, Grimes was able to piece together Dolly’s lineage. Her son Frederick appears to have been freed after serving in the War of 1812. He married, and his own son, Henry Hart, became a celebrated violinist and composer. Hart in turn married pianist Sarah Smith, and they formed a family band with their daughters. Grimes tracked down the Harts’ hit song “Good Sweet Ham” (1873) in the Library of Congress and incorporated the tune into The Way Forth.

Sixty-three minutes in length, The Way Forth calls for soloists and instrumentalists as well as a choir, their performance accompanying the film. Grimes said local singers will help form the chorus for her Iowa City performance of the piece. She plans to release a feature-length version of the film — with the addition of four documentary-style interviews with family, friends and researchers — next year.

The Blair family (with Grimes’ great-great grandparents in front) in western Virginia, 1885. This photo was captioned, “Ice cream day at the sink hole.” — courtesy of Rachel Grimes

Grimes hopes The Way Forth will shed light “on a place battered by greed, civil war, bigotry and the exploitation of natural resources” in a time when warts-and-all reflections on history — including the efforts of indigenous people to shed light on colonial atrocities, and the New York Times1619 Project — are met with pushback.

“There’s a lot of anger and rebellion from the people who believe they are losing power,” Grimes said. “I think transparency and a more complex understanding of our past is going to help everyone. But I think a lot of people feel very threatened by it.”

“It’s disturbing to look back at these very early origin stories of the development and settlement both of my state and of the country and recognize that violence was fundamental. For instance, I live on a piece of property that is at the very edge of the Transylvanian Purchase, which is a 20-million-acre piece of land that was heisted from the Cherokee Nation in 1775, and that’s one of the stories I go into. I’m looking at a map one day when I was researching that story early on, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, there we are.’ I’m living on that land. It’s a horrible feeling. There were so many broken treaties, so many broken agreements, so many people massacred in order for the people with the guns to get more land, to get more goods and be more rich.”

Members of the Clifton Christian Church choir in 1910. “My great-great-grandmother is in the center, and her daughter, my great-grandmother, is back row second from left,” Grimes said. “Both were piano players and organists and muses for the beginnings of this project.” — courtesy of Rachel Grimes

The stories of our ancestors can tell us more than where we came from, but who we are, Grimes said.

“One subject I’m really interested in is inherited memory and inherited experience,” she said. “It has now been proven that mice can inherit trauma that they’ve never personally experienced but that their parents have. … I think there must be some cellular-level amount of knowledge that we all carry with us and that could be in music, it could be in certain proclivities that we have, it could be the kind of land that we feel most associated with or comfortable in, but it also could be things like trauma and more physical issues.”

The Way Forth serves as more than an investigation of atrocities and trauma. It is the story of her grandmother Margaret, born in 1903, a rural teacher who returned to college in her sixties to earn her degree; of communities bonding over food and dance; of the beautiful Kentucky and Dix Rivers.

Grimes hopes her impressionistic history project can embody — and, in some ways, redefine — the concept of nostalgia.

“I feel like Norman Rockwell-era on, nostalgia kind of means a syrupy or overly fond feeling about the better memories and a filtering out of the not-so-good ones — an unhealthy attachment to times gone by,” she said. “For me, nostalgia is an experience, it’s something that comes along out of the blue. You pick up an object or a photograph and you’re just swept into it. You look at a person’s face or you look at the way their clothes are made, or you look at the furniture in a room and you think, ‘Wow, what would it have been like to live then? Can you imagine?’ Your imagination just takes you on a ride. That’s a lot of what this piece is.”

Emma McClatchey’s most precious possessions are two blankets woven by her many-times great-grandmother in the 1770s and passed down through the generations. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 273.

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