Iowa City's Witching Hour Festival: Rachel Grimes talks process behind 'The Way Forth,' a folk opera, film

Clifton Christian Church choir members include composer Rachel Grimes' great-great-grandmother Susie Elkins (center) and
Clifton Christian Church choir members include composer Rachel Grimes’ great-great-grandmother Susie Elkins (center) and her daughter, Grimes’ great-grandmother Bess (back row left). Both were piano/organ players and muses for Grimes’ project, “The Way Forth,” highlighting the perspectives of Kentucky women from 1775 to today. The multimedia film, with live music, will be presented Nov. 1 at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City, as one of the headliners for the Witching Hour Festival. (Rachel Grimes)

Rachel Grimes held in her hands the fading faces of her past, but not their stories.

Tasked with sorting through her parents’ mementos before they moved into nursing care in early 2016, she came across postcards, letters and photos of her Kentucky ancestors, which sparked her inquisitive, creative spirit.

That was the genesis of “The Way Forth,” her 63-minute multimedia film lifting the veil on voices from 1775 to the present with her sometimes haunting, sometimes gauzy, other times jaunty music.

Grimes, 49, a pianist and composer who has performed globally and lives in a rural valley an hour north of Louisville, will present her film with live musicians and narration during the upcoming Witching Hour Festival in downtown Iowa City.

The fifth annual showcase for the creative process and new works will bring musicians, scientists, writers, comedians, filmmakers, artists, dancers and societal innovators to various venues — from the Englert Theatre to the city and university libraries — on Nov. 1 and 2.

Grimes will come early, to speak at the Creative Matters Lecture at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday (10/30) in the Voxman Recital Hall and at noon Oct. 31 in the Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Main Library. Both discussions are free and open to the public.

On Nov. 1, Grimes will sit at the piano on the Englert Theatre stage, joined onstage by an instrumental ensemble, narrators and a choir supplemented with local singers, to perform her folk opera in tandem with the film. Her filmmaking partner, Catharine Axley, coordinate the images with the live music.

The process has been illuminating.

“Ultimately, when you’re holding possessions and memorabilia from all kinds of people in your past, it brings up a lot of questions, and I brought those questions to my parents and to other relatives and some friends,” Grimes said.


She also began researching her ancestors’ roles in the (Daniel) Boone Expedition of 1775, which she noted was a critical historical period in the settlement of Kentucky and the establishment of Fort Boonesborough in central Kentucky. Dismayed that so much of this history, on through the 20th century, was told from the white male point of view, Grimes became interested in hearing the women’s voices.

“Especially when I was younger, it was pretty hard to put your hands on first-person accounts by women in pioneer days, by people who were enslaved, by Native Americans, or people who weren’t in power,” she said. “That became sort of a focal point for me.”

She knew she would be working on a piece, but didn’t know what it would be — just that it would be “pretty epic,” she said.

Two women were in the Boone expedition party, including Dolly, an enslaved teenager brought along to cook and do a lot of the preparations and packing the expedition. She was raped, most likely by her master, Grimes noted, and gave birth to the first child in the fort.

“As it turns out, she was part of my family,” Grimes said, adding that she stumbled across Dolly’s story through an ancestry website, while researching the journey and the ancestor to whom Dolly belonged. She wasn’t named or written about until the last few years, Grimes said. So her story is captured in the song “Dolly,” in which a woman recounts 80 years of living in slavery and the son who was given “no father’s name, no land to farm, no rightful way in this place.”

Modern technology has played a key role in unlocking other doors to Grimes’ past, as well.

“We’re now getting access to more and more research through the internet, through the ability to network with people, through what we can learn through genetic research. It just felt like this rich coming together of information, not just for my family, but outside the bounds of my family. Learning about new stories of everyday accounts of people’s lives, but they really come to life.

“A few of the songs and stories in this piece are not people from my family at all,” she said. “They just really caught my interest and imagination, and I felt like their story gave this beautiful window into time and a way of life that isn’t that familiar to us anymore.”

Grimes grew up in Louisville, but has strong ties to rural areas and farming, and even though her parents left the farm for the city, they returned to their small-town roots on holidays.


Scenes showing horses, rivers, fields with old trees were filmed on the farm where her father and several generations were born. Although the land is no longer in the family, Grimes loved spending time there in her youth, and is the reason she and her husband moved to a rural setting.

“It was my dream to live there, so it was a place I felt so connected to — especially being at the river,” she said.

From its beginnings as an idea in 2016, turning into early recordings later that year, the folk opera/film is a work in progress. Grimes was going to premiere it as a 45-minute piece in the spring of 2017, but it was put on hold after her brother died of a heart attack the night of its dress rehearsal.

“It was devastating and redirected everything in my life for a while,” she said.

He was “a great drummer,” she added, and they had played together in the chamber group, Rachel’s. He also loved film.

“He heard some of the lyrics, saw a little bit of this project in its initial stages, and I felt like I needed to finish it. It’s certainly what he would have wanted me to do, so I did pick it up again later in the year.”

She forged ahead, added some songs, shot more film footage, and made it bigger.

“It’s had all these different stages,” she said. “ ... It’s finally come to fruition.”

She declined to reveal the project’s cost, but called the budget “small” in terms of filmmaking. But it’s bigger than she’s used to working with as an indie musician, and has been financed through fundraisers, an initial underwriter and her own investments of time and money.

She’s anticipating adding about 20 more minutes to make it a feature-length film for entry into indie film festivals.


“It’s a real beast,” she said. “There’s absolutely nothing about this piece that’s commercial or with profit potential. It’s not going to be a ‘Hamilton,’ probably. It’s a work for the stage, for music and film.”

The project has required a leap of faith in which she not only discovered her past, but her present and future.

“It’s really been a work of the heart,” she said. “So many people have given so much to making it happen, including the Witching Hour team that has brought it to Iowa City.”

If you go

• What: Witching Hour Festival

• Where: Downtown Iowa City venues

• When: Nov. 1 and 2, pre-festival events Wednesday (10/30) and Oct. 31

• Rachel Grimes: Creative Matters Lecture Series, 5:30 p.m. Wednesday (10/30), Voxman Recital Hall, 93 E. Burlington St., Iowa City, free; In Conversation with the Iowa Women’s Archives, noon Oct. 31, Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa Main Library, 125 W. Washington St., Iowa City, free; “The Way Forth,” multimedia performance, 8:30 p.m. Nov. 1, Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City, $10 to $20

• Festival tickets: Two-day pass $55 adults, $20 students; Saturday pass $35; Obnox, Nov. 1, Gabe’s, $5 to $10; Counterfeit Madison, Nov. 2, Englert Theatre, $5 to $10; Julio Torres, Nov. 2, Englert Theatre, $10 to $20; Shredders, Nov. 2, Gabe’s, $10 to $15

• Festival details: Witchinghourfestival.com

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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