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    Correction: When this story appeared in print, it incorrectly stated that Grimes presented The Way Forth in Benham, Kentucky. The Way Forth has not been performed in Benham, though it is an idea Grimes has considered.

    For her “folk opera,” The Way Forth, Rachel Grimes reached back into the long-ago past, and into the near past of her own lifetime, to hear voices that the chroniclers of history have missed, voices that have traditionally not been heard — women, native Americans, African-Americans.

    One day, Grimes came upon a historical marker in Boonesborough, the state’s first pioneer settlement, on the Kentucky River north of what today is Richmond. The sign included the names of all of Boonesborough’s founders in 1775, including “a Negro woman.” “Who was she?” Grimes found herself wondering. What life did she live? What were her dreams, her expectations? What role did she play in such a historically important event as the founding of Boonesborough?

    Grimes talked with historians and read between the lines of old texts to learn that the woman might have been named Dolly, a female slave of one of the men on the trek into Kentucky. Grimes and others believe Dolly gave birth to the first child born in Kentucky, with no record of who the father might have been among the men of the settlement, all white. “There’s just a general lack of historical material oriented to anyone but men,” Grimes says. “That’s kind of a main theme for me, that pioneer women were not published. They didn’t have a lot of diaries. They weren’t written about. But there were as many women at that time as there were men.”

    Grimes notes she is not a scholar or a historian. But she has done a lot of digging. “It takes a lot more work to find information about indigenous people — about slaves, about women, about poor people — because the people who had access to publishing and recordkeeping were a small number of the elite,” says Grimes, who was born and raised in Louisville and now lives in a restored old house in Carroll County, about a 40-minute drive northeast from Louisville. All of her work comes to life as The Way Forth, which is a history in songs, with an accompanying movie she has collaborated on, to be presented by the Louisville Orchestra Feb. 23 at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall. (The Louisville Ballet is also on the program with a performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It’s all part of LO director Teddy Abrams’ ongoing “Festival of American Music.”)

    For one song, “Red House School,” Grimes tells a story of life in the one-room schoolhouse where her maternal grandmother, Margaret Baldwin Leedy, once taught. The Red House School was just up the road from Boonesborough, and the building is still there, though boarded up. The audience will see an image of it in the accompanying film, projected silently above the orchestra.

    Grimes says her grandmother kept a journal about her teaching experiences that eventually reached book-length. “A true life of education in rural Kentucky,” Grimes says. Her grandmother taught her entire adult life but always took classes at nearby Eastern Kentucky University, counting up the credits until one day, finally, she donned a cap and gown and graduated from college at age 61.


    Grimes’ research into the life of the slave Dolly led her to a descendant named Frederick Hart, an African-American who fought alongside white men in the War of 1812. (More Kentuckians, by the way, fought in that war than from any other state.) Hart married Judith Brown, of Frankfort, and their son, Henry Hart, became a prominent musician, working his way into Ohio and eventually marrying a woman from Jeffersonville, Indiana. They resided in Evansville, Indiana, before ending up in the New Orleans. In other words, they were minstrel musicians working the steamboats up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. For the Harts’ story, Grimes composed a medley called “Fontaine Ferry.” “I never thought I would write a medley,” Grimes says, “but the Harts were show people, and the old shows are full of medleys, of course.”

    Grimes says the medley’s main song is Hart’s hit “Good Sweet Ham,” which is cited in the Library of Congress.

         You may talk about good eating,
         Of your oysters and your chowdered clam.
         But it’s when I’m awful hungry,
         Then just give me good old sweet ham.


    The music changes styles and settings throughout The Way Forth. (Grimes enlisted the aid of musicians Scott Moore and Charlie Patton, with whom she frequently performs.) Grimes explores her grandmother Leedy’s childhood roots in Benham, Kentucky — hard by Black Mountain in Harlan County, coal country. Steep, rugged, mountainous land that Daniel Boone and other early settlers blazed right through, or around, on their paths to the lush Bluegrass region of Kentucky. Later, though, the mountains’ timber and coal drew people. “I was always interested in the idea of settlement of this new land,” Grimes says. “As a kid, I didn’t know there were already people here and animals here. Well, I knew there were animals, but I didn’t really know what that story of coming into Kentucky was.”

    In “End of Dominion,” Grimes tells a dark tale of white businessmen essentially ripping off Kentucky land from Cherokee chiefs, with offers of free land luring settlers. “A greedy and negative beginning,” Grimes says. Yet that beginning is the “trunk of the tree,” as Grimes puts it. European-American settlers poured over the Appalachian Mountains and into beautiful and bountiful country along the Kentucky River and its tributaries, including the Dix River. The Dix, south of Lexington between Stanford and Crab Orchard, is the roots of her paternal grandmother, Dorothy Newland Grimes, who was Grimes’ first piano teacher.

    These waterways provide much of the film’s natural setting. Beautiful as it is on the surface, though, the Dix River is ultimately polluted by toxic emissions from utility plants. And for that, Grimes has written “Dix River Doxology.” (A beautiful word, doxology. A faith-born laudation of praise to God, “from whom all blessings flow.”)

    There’s a lot going on in this folk opera. Which might make for a note about the composer herself, now in her 40s. Grimes says she and other women are finding a way forth in the 21st century. She considers that for a moment. “I think I’m still on the journey,” she says.

    This originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Missing Pieces." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: From left to right, photo of Rachel Grimes by Jessie Kriech-Higdon and painting of Nancy J. Willis Arnold by Angela Lombardi

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