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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Tift Merritt explores the lyrical language of history and place at Dorothea Dix

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, who received the University’s Distinguished Alumna Award in 2018, has be- come the Community Histories Workshop performing artist-in-residence.

The idea came together over lunch in a Raleigh café on May 2, 2018, when American Studies professor Bobby Allen and Tift Merritt, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, met to discuss their mutual interest in the transformation of the 308-acre site of Dorothea Dix Hospital into a “destination park.”

For nearly a year, Allen had been working with the Dix Park Conservancy Board to recover the long and rich history of the site’s use as an insane asylum between 1856 and 2012. Merritt had recently moved back to Raleigh to take a break from 15 years of touring and recording and to raise her daughter in the city where she had grown up and where her parents still lived. 

She was fascinated to learn of the ambitious plans for the park and eager to get involved in public arts projects around it. Even before they met, Merritt invited Allen to her concert in Memorial Hall on the Carolina campus. He already knew her music and her legacy as the American studies and creative writing major whose professional musical career began to soar while she was still a student.

Tift Merritt (right) and Sarah Almond, Dix Park project coordinator, research patient records in the State Archives reading room.

Allen shared some of the early patient records he and his team at the Community Histories Workshop had discovered in the State Archives of North Carolina and talked about how the historical record of the site might be made part of the visitor experience when the park reopened in three to five years. Merritt mused about the role public arts and performance might play in drawing families to an iconic site of both trauma and healing.

“What would you most like to do right now around the Dix Park project?” Allen asked the singer.

Without hesitation Merritt said, “I want to write a song cycle grounded in the history of the hospital and the people who lived and worked here, and I want to perform it first on the Dix campus with a community choir.”

Allen’s immediate and visceral response was, “Of course that’s what you should do, and I think we might be able to help you.”

Performing artist-in-residence

In September, Merritt became CHW’s “performing artist-in-residence.” The appointment will last for a year.

Merritt is a member of the CHW team that is creating the first comprehensive patient database for a 19th-century American insane asylum, using handwritten records preserved at the State Archives of North Carolina. In early October, she joined Sarah Almond, Dix Park project coordinator, and Will Bosley, CHW technologist, in the State Archives reading room to continue researching and photographing patient records: the database currently has more than 7,000 records of patients treated between 1856 and 1917. While there, they found a previously undiscovered ledger of 19th-century patient records.

Merritt is fascinated by the ability of CHW team members — including undergraduate students — to reconstruct the lives of men and women who were sent to the hospital, some of them staying there for decades, using both digitized primary sources and archival records. 

Allen discovered that the first female patient at the hospital in 1856 was a member of the Cameron Family — one of the most prominent and affluent families in North Carolina history, 33,000 of whose letters are held by UNC’s Southern Historical Collection. Merritt spent a day in September with the team reading and transcribing some of the hundreds of letters that were written from, to and about her. 

‘Lyrical language’

At the State Archives, CHW researchers found a previously undiscovered ledger of 19th-century patient records.

Armed now with University affiliation, Merritt has full access to the University’s library and archive holdings, including more than 3.7 million pages of local North Carolina newspapers online, enabling her to contribute new life histories to the project.

“To me, this project is about finding a lyrical language in the historical records that place these stories into what is still happening right now with conversations about mental health illness and its stigma,” Merritt said.

From her perch within CHW, Merritt reaches into the University community to revive old connections and make new ones. She has consulted with American Studies professor Bernie Herman about his groundbreaking work on “outsider art.” She stops on the second floor of Greenlaw to say hello to creative writer mentor (and fellow musical performer) Bland Simpson. She walks over to Wilson Library to share her plans with old friend Steven Weiss, curator at the Southern Folklife Collection. Allen put her together with acclaimed gospel singer Mary D. Williams, who is a student in Carolina’s master’s is in folklore program. Williams is working with Allen on an independent study to create a musical and spoken-word performance based on African-American musical culture in Rocky Mount, which she hopes to debut in the spring.

“Tift’s creative practice is a perfect fit for CHW,” Allen said. “She is nothing if not social. She has a natural ability to make connections among all kinds of people, especially artists and performers, and she goes out of her way to make new connections. She has a deep appreciation for historical scholarship. She values collaboration. She is deeply curious. She has great ideas. She brings incredible energy and passion to everything she does.”