A few years ago, when composer Rachel Grimes was helping some family members move, she suddenly found herself with a lot of stuff to sort through. Among the personal items and family photos, she found something that completely shocked her: a bill of sale for a woman and her three children from 1824. The single page document would become a spark for a new folk opera, which will have its Tennessee premiere this week.
"That was one of the items that stopped me in my tracks," Grimes explains. "You know, one of my ancestors had purchased a woman and her three children, and it is so shocking and horrifying. I immediately started wondering, who is Susan, you know? Who is this woman?"
So Grimes started to dig, combing through family records, geneaology websites and historical documents to learn what she could about Susan. To her disappointment, she didn't find very much.
"The most difficult research, most definitely, is African Americans, people who were brought here against their will," she says. "Their names were changed, they didn't have last names... they didn't have, you know, basic records until the late 1800s, really."
But during her research, Grimes did find snippets of stories from other Kentucky women. Like Patsy, a nineteenth century women who toiled on her farm while simultaneously raising her children. Or Dolly, a slave and one of two women who were with Daniel Boone when he made his famous trek across the Cumberland Gap in 1775.
It was stories like these — and the missing stories of women like Susan — that inspired Grimes to compose her new folk opera, The Way Forth.
Grimes says that the opera "zigzags through about 300 years of Kentucky history" from one personal perspective to another, with a focus on women's voices. "That absolutely became the focus for me on this piece, is getting more information and more perspective on voices that have typically been ignored."
Like many folk operas, The Way Forth has a focus on social consciousness— the idea that music can engage with social or political issues. With original music that draws on hymns and old time fiddle tunes, Grimes explores what she feels ties together the stories of all these women, who span not only hundreds of years of time, but also race and class:
"They're all looking for freedom," she says. "Freedom of choice, freedom for their voice, their bodies, and what they can do with their lives. And you know, regardless of economic status, most women weren't free in all sense of the word. And many still aren't."
Grimes says women still face issues of freedom: economic inequities, the difficult task of advancing a career if you decide to have kids, and the general lack of representation in certain spaces. As a female classical composer, this is something that Grimes has felt keenly in her own field.
"You know, when I was in college 30 years ago, it was a hot topic then, but it was also being talked about like kind of a head scratching question: are there going to be any more women?"
This week, The Way Forth will be performed at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. And rather fittingly, the festival's lineup is chock full of music created by women, including vocal innovator Meredith Monk, Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and award-winning violist Kim Kashkashian.
It's company that Grimes says she is "delighted" about, adding that she's thrilled "to be able to see the sort of flourishing of a scene, that there are way more women in the field and they're doing such exciting work."
As for her work?
"I'm just hoping for an audience member to just have this brief moment they can experience someone else's emotional terrain, their voice, and to be reminded that all around them and all through time there have been all these voices that they might not have heard from." Grimes says. "And, you know, probably in their own neighborhood the people that are being overlooked or don't have a voice in the media or in the social fabric."
The audio version of this story includes "Eights," composed and performed by Rachel Grimes, and "Sisterhood of Man" from The Way Forth, which features Nashville musician Timbre Cierpke (voice and harp), with Louisville musicians: Scott Moore, Erica Pisaturo, Rob Simonds (violin), Laura De St. Croix and Evan Vicic (viola), Cecilia Huerta-Lauf and Charlie Patton (cello), Aaron May (bass), Rachel Grimes (piano).