“Who was that Masked Man?”: Building a Classroom Persona (Be True to Your School, 4)

[NOTE:  In a previous post in this series, I saluted the two best teachers I’ve ever had, Miss Gertrude Weaver (high school) and Professor James Rabun (graduate school).  In addition to deep knowledge of history and loads of energy and enthusiasm, each of these mentors brought certain eccentricities to the classroom.  What follows is a survey of ways I applied, sometimes without realizing it, their examples while 1) constructing my own classroom persona over a long teaching career at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS); and, 2) trying to fulfill what I eventually decided was my mission statement, “Never let ’em think you’re boring or predictable.”]

* * * * *

The “Dr.” is in—I arrived at AFPS with a doctoral degree in hand, but initially I was reluctant to use the title, given that I was not teaching at a college and so was probably “over-qualified” and didn’t want to be seen “putting on airs.” Yet, several of my new colleagues also had doctorates and were not reluctant to use the honorific from the get-go. My first year, however, I introduced myself as “Mr.”  As that year ended, I agreed to teach summer school and decided to call myself “Dr.” for those nine weeks, just to “try it on for size.” I soon discovered that my students would call me whatever I wanted them to—Mr., Dr., Agha, Prof., Rev., Your Honor, it didn’t seem to matter.  So, I used “Dr.” for the rest of my career, even answering readily to “Doc.”

* * * * *

Bearded fount of knowledge—I had worn my hair very short while growing up, and I didn’t consider growing either a mustache or a beard until I was in college. By that time, however, I was in Army ROTC, and was required to keep my face clean-shaven, which of course carried over after graduation through my two-year stint in the Army.  While in graduate school, however, I cultivated a mustache, which still adorned my visage when I hired on at AFPS. Then, over my first Xmas Break there, in December 1973, I grew a beard, and it has been with me, for better or worse, ever since.  So, “Dr.” and beard–see what persona I was aiming for early on . . .?

* * * * *

“Polyester on Parade”

Fashion Plate—I guess it was the style of the era, but as I was purchasing my classroom “uniform,” I developed a fondness for polyester slacks and jackets.  I wasn’t alone: that sartorial fashion was so prevalent among younger male faculty that the student newspaper featured several of us in an illustrated article, “Polyester on Parade.” Ouch!

Even when styles changed and I gradually replaced my polyester wardrobe, I still had a problem:  I am partially colorblind (a red/green deficiency).  This frequently led to some odd “fashion statements” from yours truly, at least in the eyes of people who were not colorblind.  My wife and children tried to catch any glaring color or pattern clashes before I left home each morning, but they weren’t always successful.  And, truth to tell, eventually I stopped caring.

* * * * *

“Sweat Equity”

Jogging—From the time I turned thirty, I jogged regularly, so much so that my principal eventually asked me to start a program called “Intramural Jogging” as part of my “coaching” responsibilities. This activity was intended mainly to, um, “whip into shape”  students who were as yet unable to complete successfully the school’s required timed mile run, administered at the start of each academic year.

It was an interesting experience, given the unwillingness of most of my charges to exert themselves in a quest for intramural glory.  But my sense of humor did not desert me.  I wangled funds from the athletic director to purchase t-shirts, which I awarded to those in the program who fulfilled their timed run requirement under my tutelage.  Among the slogans on those shirts over the years, two stand out: “If jogging’s the answer, what is the question?”; and, “Competitive Intramural Jogging: Only at AFPS!”

* * * * *

“I Hate New Jersey.” “What do you have against New Jersey?” a couple of generations of my students asked.  My dislike for the Garden State was real, at least at first.  It began with my family’s drive from Georgia to Massachusetts to see one set of parents, a trip that required use of the New Jersey Turnpike (NJTP), no fun at all at that time. And, heck, lovely petrochemical plants with belching smokestacks welcomed travelers heading to Jersey via the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  And Newark (that’s “New-urk,” NJ, not to be confused with “New-ark,” Delaware, my home town), was an urban battle zone, especially in the 1960s and ‘70s. Even popular culture occasionally reinforced my acid portrait of the state as a cesspool of crime and corruption (“The Sopranos,” anyone?).

Early in my time at AFPS, my “Garden State phobia” led to creation of “NJ Inspiration Corner,” on the door of an ungainly wooden cabinet in my classroom: e.g., posters celebrating “Ski NJ” (fully-clad skier posed in front of a chemical plant); “Smell Tours of NJ” (from National Lampoon); the “NJ Air Force” (enlarged photo of a mosquito);  snapshots taken of various NJTP toll booths by students on “college trips” to Princeton University (AKA, “PU”—“smell tours of NJ,” get it?); coffee cups (“I Love NJ”) and other memorabilia brought back to me by students visiting or passing through the Garden State.

Why “NJ Inspiration Corner”?  I used to tell my students, “If you’re not enjoying today’s essay, test, DBQ, lecture, discussion, etc., just cast your eyes on ‘NJ Inspiration Corner’ and realize that, as bad as things are going for you right now, they could be worse:  you could be doing the assignment in New Jersey!”  (You can imagine the fun I had on our annual “Parents’ Night,” when parents scanned the front of my cabinet and asked, often in all innocence, why I liked NJ so much. . . .)

[Note:  Eventually I changed my mind about NJ, at least somewhat.  Why?  Well, additional lanes were added to the NJTP for one thing, making our journey to Massachusetts slightly less hectic.  With time, too, there was a gradual tapering off of the number of trips we made from Georgia to what I sometimes refer to as the “Great White North.”  I also remember being struck by the almost “New England” look of a couple of small towns in northern NJ I visited on a research trip while in grad school.  Finally, for my sin in tagging Princeton “PU,” in 1990 I attended a summer program there, and the place won me over.]

* * * * *

Big Bucks!  In addition to denigrating NJ at every opportunity, I also began regularly to toss in a catch phrase during class discussions, “That’s why they pay me the Big Bucks!”  At first I did this on a whim, but it soon caught on with my classes.  Thereafter, I reserved the right to use that line at any time—and did! One result was the creation by an AP student of a poster for my classroom, featuring piles of cash, along with the slogan. Not as cute as the poster above, but more in the spirit of the catch phrase.

* * * * *

“U-Pun my word!”  Unfortunately for my students, not to mention my wife and kids, I am an inveterate punster. On those days when I was in a good mood and full of energy (most Mondays, because I knew my students would be worn out from their weekends and so would be relatively defenseless), I’d get on a roll with puns, each greeted with moans and groans, most of them deserved because of the depths my punning sometimes plumbed.  Some brave students even tried to play “I can top that” after one of my puns, but again, if I was full of energy and enthusiasm, I easily beat them into whimpering submission.

* * * * *

The First State

Delaware—How could my birthplace contribute to my classroom persona? Glad you asked: It began with my stating, usually on the first day of class, that, I was “one of the few native Delawareans you’ll ever meet.”   That simple declarative statement was almost invariably greeted by the innocent question, “Where is Delaware, anyway?” (which led to an immediate refresher course in the nation’s geography).

I also liked to tell a story about a “Candid Camera” skit from long ago (when the program was hosted by its creator, Alan Funt): Folks driving from NJ to Delaware on the Delaware Memorial Bridge were greeted by barricades at the toll booths and signs informing them that they’d have to turn around, because Delaware was closed for the day.  And, because that was a more innocent, less jaded time (social media had not yet been invented), many drivers obediently turned around and headed back to the Garden State. . . .

* * * * *

Golden Shovel(s)—Once upon a time, I had a very bright, but lazy, group of seniors who seemed incapable of producing the kind of written work I expected from a purportedly AP American History class. When my earnest entreaties failed to spur them on to greater heights, I devised a new “grade” that I drew, first on the blackboard and, if necessary, inside the front covers of their “blue books,” explaining said mark when asked, as only grade-grubbing, college-admission stressed seniors can, “What’s this grade supposed to mean, anyway?”

In response, I launched into a story about how I spent one summer while in high school, cleaning stalls in the barn located behind our house. It was one of the most satisfying jobs I’d ever had, I’d declare:  I’d arrive in the morning to find piles of horse manure in each stall; I’d put in a couple of sweaty hours removing the ordure and replacing the straw.  And, best of all, I could clearly see the results of my efforts.  But, when the horses came in from the pasture, what would happen, I’d ask.  My students nailed the answer easily enough:  why, there would soon be new piles of manure and smelly straw and, thus, more sweaty work for you the next day.  That’s right, I’d respond with a smile–just like what’s been happening lately when I grade your essays!

That grade I drew on their papers?  It was a pile of reeking dung, a shovel standing upright in the middle of it.  And someone invariably asked, “But what does that grade mean, Doc?”  To which I’d reply, “That’s my ‘Golden Shovel Award,’ designed especially for those of you who produce essays full of sentences and paragraphs that tell me absolutely nothing about the assigned topic!”

The “Golden Shovel Award” caught on quickly, especially once members of a later AP class bought a shovel, cut off the handle, spray painted the business end of the implement gold, and presented it to me at the end of the year.  That shovel proved a very useful tool, for decades, to return, um, “piles” of less than scintillating “historical essays” and tests.  A subsequent class gave me a much smaller golden shovel, complete with a handle.  When I retired, I left the original shovel to the head of our English Department and carried the smaller one home with me, where it still enjoys pride of place on my desk.

* * * * *

[Disclosure:  None of Miss Weaver’s or Dr. Rabun’s eccentricities were harmed in the making of this blog post or copied by me in creating my own classroom persona.  Oh, and about the classroom philosophy mentioned at the end of the introductory note:  I’ll furnish additional examples another time.]

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


Posted in "big bucks", American History, building a classroom persona, classroom eccentricities, Delaware, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, jogging, memoir, New Jersey, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Teaching, The Blues, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Ol’ History Curriculum Merry-go-Round Comes ‘Round Again (History Lesson Plans, 12)

[NOTE:  In a two-part series in The American Historian, David Arnold reviews a recent movement aimed at reforming  the way history is taught in colleges and universities.  An eighteen-year veteran of teaching history in a community college, Professor Arnold’s average teaching load is ten classes of forty-five or so students a year.  This alone, Arnold wryly notes, means that he has probably taught more history survey courses—and history survey students—“than most university professors will teach in two lifetimes.” (I, 11)

The reform agenda Arnold reports on is (rather clumsily) labeled “the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” (or SoTL); its purveyors consider the traditional lecture method ineffective.  Instead, they  proclaim an “inquiry-based” approach far superior, because it encourages students to “do, think, and value what practitioners in the field are doing, thinking, and valuing.” (I, 10)  Put bluntly, SoTL reformers “seek to destroy the authoritative ‘sage on the stage’ professor, who sees history teaching as simply transmitting content from his mouth to students’ brains, and nurture the ‘guide on the side’ who focuses on student learning rather than the expertise of the professor.” (I, 10)]

* * * * *

Arnold admits at the outset that the requirements of the SoTL approach proved impracticable when he and several other History faculty evaluated them for possible use at his junior college, because “large classrooms filled with non-history majors, large teaching loads, and little institutional support restrict our teaching choices.”  Moreover, professors at four-year colleges and universities haven’t exactly been flocking to the SoTL movement, largely because of the “significant logistical challenges” involved in re-organizing introductory survey courses on the SoTL model. (I, 11)

Professor Arnold opines that perhaps SoTL might work on the K-12 level and in large, wealthy universities, but not in junior colleges or lower-tier four-year institutions. SoTL’s proponents, he avers, are “ensconced at universities where they teach less and receive more funding, as well as graduate research assistants to carry out their scholarship on teaching and learning.” (I,12)

* * * * *

Professor Arnold is aware that this is not a new battle being fought for the soul of “history education.”  In different guises, historians and history teacher have been wrestling for generations with the distinction presented by SoTL’s backers between what are now called the “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side.”  The “sage” represents the stereotypical history prof, handing down the wisdom of the ancients (himself  included) in lectures, as his adoring students stare raptly, all the time taking detailed notes.  The “guide” is more up-to-date, using gentle nudges to draw eager students in the direction of “doing history,” employing primary sources, critical thinking, essential questions, and the innate interest in history all his students surely harbor (don’t they?).

Overdrawn?  Sure, yet, as Arnold concedes, “No amount of research will convince true believers on either side.” (II, 31)  Nevertheless, he argues that SoTL is at least worth a shot, for three reasons:  unlike the lecture approach, SoTL “privileges the historical method above all other things”; links its practitioners “to a larger community of scholar-teachers who are grappling with similar problems and concerns”; and might convince history teachers to see their classrooms “as places of scholarly investigation and problem-solving rather than drudgery.” (II, 33)

* * * * *

History Curriculum Merry-Go-Round

When I was in college in the early 1960s, a history major at a state university, our faculty evinced little concern about “teaching style,” because, at that time and place, the lecture method ruled the roost, except during the dreaded early Saturday morning “quiz section,” when one of our professor’s harried teaching assistants tried to convince us that “discussions” were fun.  Uh-huh. . . .

A few years later, when I was in grad school at a southern university, ideas about how to pass on historical “knowledge” hadn’t changed much.  Although classes, now called “seminars,” were smaller and courses more specialized, our professors still relied on lectures to convey information, at least for the first couple of years.  Thereafter, we were launched into dissertation research mode, while also teaching a class of our own each semester, usually employing lectures, the teaching, um, strategy emphasized in a required first-year course, “Introduction to College Teaching.”

When I began teaching at an Atlanta prep school in the fall of 1973, my department head explained that the school’s history faculty was committed to the “lecture-discussion method.”  As I understood it, this meant that, while lectures should continue to be used to convey “knowledge” (i.e., names, dates, and other significant facts), teachers should feel free to employ class discussions, primary sources, videos, etc., at least for part of each period.

So, I began my prep school teaching career by lecturing to my AP and “regular” American History students (using lectures I had written while a teaching assistant in grad school) but relying more on alternative approaches in Ancient and Medieval History and in  European history.

* * * **

Professor Arnold is absolutely right on a key point in this curricular kerfluffle:  the distinction between “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” is both artificial and misleading.  Over my long career teaching history on the secondary level, I participated in this debate several times, every dozen years or so; and I concluded—surprise!—that a teacher needs to include both approaches in his or her academic arsenal.

For example, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, I created a course, “Introduction to History,” a one-semester elective for high school freshmen and sophomores.  I felt that I was “introducing” the discipline of history to young students who were, while not blank slates or empty vessels, still products of earlier classes that tended to be more content driven and heavier on memorization, without much time spent on appreciation of context and complexity, let alone the importance of critical thinking. (Folks without the latter experiences, by the way, while chatting later in life at social gatherings with a grizzled history teacher in attendance, are apt to observe, “I didn’t really enjoy my history courses—too many names and dates!”)

But, this did not mean that I spent each semester in my Intro sections solely as the “guide on the side.”  There was always room for “sage” action, especially mini-lectures to provide my charges with necessary information not covered very well in the text.  No question, though, Intro frequently used primary sources in translation, from various early civilizations east and west, and tried to foster critical thinking during discussions of the textbook, primary sources, and videos.

The department’s first required course, History of the Ancient World, a one-semester offering for sophomores, treated Roman history, the beginnings of Christianity, the so-called “Middle Ages” in Europe, and Asian civilizations.  Once more, the emphasis was on trying to keep a balance between the teacher’s “sage” and “guide” proclivities, though, in my classes at least, the “guide on the side” predominated.

* * * * *

In upper level history courses, required or elective, older students were expected to build upon the foundations laid in earlier classes.  A key element in these offerings was the distinction between “regular” and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

AP classes are supposed to be taught “on the college level,” yet the most significant grade, the score on the standardized, end-of-year, comprehensive, content-driven exam, does not affect the student’s final average in the course. While AP offerings do not require an AP teacher to be a “sage on the stage” every day, the emphasis remained on presenting content through lectures.  AP history exams also include a documents-based essay question (DBQ) that assesses a student’s facility with inquiry-based assignments grounded in primary sources.  An obvious way to prepare students for this part of the exam is to have students tackle old DBQs at appropriate chronological points.

Even if a school encouraged stronger students in “regular” European or American history classes to take the AP exam (as mine did), teaching regular classes still provided room to experiment with more “guide on the side” activities, including a few DBQs, while also employing lectures, discussions, projects, and videos.

* * * * *

 It is also true, as Professor Arnold states, that, like other aspects of life in the classroom, curricular “guidelines” and “reform” efforts for secondary schools history programs are frequently created, not by historians, but by “education” professors, who might not have been in an actual history classroom for quite some time.   Yet, once their ideas take off, these pearls of  “scholarship” tend to be handed down as received wisdom, at least for a season.  This leads to a final point. . . .

Education “reform” efforts are both cyclical and faddish.  They come along as the “next new thing,” flourish for a season, and are eventually superceded by a new “reform” effort.  Oh, and then these discarded movements manage to return—again and again—pushed by younger professors and usually with different labels attached to them. For example, “inquiry” based instruction, like SoTL?  Been there, done that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. . . .  “Interdisciplinary instruction”?  Don’t get me started. . . .  Lecturing?  You betcha!  Few of its proponents call lecturing a “reform,” at least not with a straight face, but they do love, every decade or so, to remind us how crucial the lecturer’s proficiency as a “story teller” is to passing on the wisdom of the ages to students, around that ol’ classroom campfire, whether students enjoy lectures and whether the lecturer bothers to try to keep students interested in the material.

In other words, if your favorite instructional technique falls from favor, do not despair; it will return after a few more turns of the history curriculum merry-go-round.


David Arnold, “Kill the Professor and Save the Teacher:  History Professors and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Part I,” The American Historian, Number 10 (November 2016), 10-15.

___________, “Kill the Professor and Save the Teacher:  History Professors and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Part II,” The American Historian, Number 11 (February 2017), 28-34.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


Posted in "Education Courses", American History, Education, Elective History Course for 9th and 10th Graders, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, memoir, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Skip James, “Emotional Hermit” of the Blues (Blues Stories, 26)

A Review of

Stephen Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James + the Blues. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2008.

His music was the defiant product of an emotional hermit: “I wanted it different all the way—I always have had that intensity, to go contrary to the rest.” (p.19)


* * * * *

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born on June 21, 1902, on the Whitehead plantation, near Bentonia, Mississippi.  His mother, Phyllis, was cook and babysitter for the Whitehead family; his father, Eddie, was a guitarist and bootlegger. Described by Calt as a “local lowlife,” (25) Eddie James fled the area about 1907, abandoning his family and creating in young Skip “daddy issues” that would dog him for most of his life.

James became a self-taught guitarist, using an instrument purchased for him by his mother. Hoping to sound forlorn, he also adopted his distinctive falsetto early on.  Baptized in his early teens into his mother’s fundamentalist denomination, Skip didn’t let his religious bent interfere with either his way of living or his blues playing, though it would trouble him later. Her son’s flirtation with “the Devil’s music” did not seem to upset Phyllis James, for she arranged for him to take piano lessons from a cousin.

Evidently, young James hoped to use his musical skills to earn enough money to become a pimp, and he largely succeeded.  This, um, skill, along with bootlegging, would allow him to survive the Depression without any real need to earn big bucks as a bluesman. Skip dropped out of school and left Bentonia in 1919, working as a laborer, gambler, and pimp, and revealing a violent disposition when challenged in any of these endeavors.

Five years later, when Prohibition shut down “barrelhouses” and “juke joints,” reducing opportunities for blues players, not to mention pimps, James returned to Bentonia, where he acquired a bootlegging “franchise” from Kirk Whitehead, owner of the plantation on which Skip had been born and grown up. James claimed that he could make $60-$70 a week as a bootlegger, and enjoy Whitehead’s protection from revenue agents, so playing the blues became merely a sideline.

During the 1920s, James honed his skills as a piano player, and, whether performing on the guitar or the piano, his instrumental skills were more of a draw than the songs he wrote, sang, and played. In the late ‘20s, James married a clergyman’s daughter, Oscella Robinson, who helped organize “house frolics” in Bentonia where Skip not only performed but also peddled his bootleg whiskey. This marriage was short-lived—Oscella abandoned Skip, dealing his ego a blow, helping to convince him that women were untrustworthy.

* * * * *


Perhaps trying to stoke his bruised self-esteem, Skip James drifted reluctantly into making records. A   talent scout, H.C. Speir, was so impressed that he arranged a recording session in 1931 with Paramount Records in Grafton, Wisconsin.  James’ reputation as a blues singer would rest on the eighteen tunes he recorded there.

The timing of James’ Grafton sides could not have been worse: the Depression was in full swing, and Paramount was on its last legs. Consequently, few copies of James’ 1931 sides were sold, and he would not record again for more than three decades.  His biographer contends, though, that even without the Depression Skip was doomed to fail as a blues player.  He was not much of a “performer,” and the songs he sang revealed an alienated, tortured soul with few friends and fewer prospects, the “emotional hermit” referred to above.

Surely the best known of the eighteen tunes that emerged from the Grafton session was Devil Got My Woman, one in a long line of blues songs featuring satanic imagery and thus reinforcing the belief held by many religious African Americans that the blues was “the Devil’s music.”  To Stephen Calt, James was ambivalent on that issue: he regarded “satanic possession” as “little more than a figure of speech,” (111) yet “considered the blues the product of Satan.” (118)

* * * * *

Shortly after Skip returned from Grafton, his father came back into his life, after twenty years.  Now a peripatetic minister, Eddie James asked his son to join him in his religious mission. Skip finally agreed to abandon the blues, for “a patron, a protector, and a father” (167), yet his “religious conversion” was neither sudden nor complete.

The younger James might have surrendered his guitar, played piano for his dad’s church, even organized a short-lived gospel group, but he continued his battle with Demon Rum, played pool, and accepted financial support from a local prostitute.  In 1936, when Eddie moved to Birmingham, his son returned to the Whitehead plantation, bootlegging, and the blues.  A year later, though, Skip rejoined his father in Selma, becoming for a few more years a “kept man” in Eddie’s seminary before the two drifted apart again.  (204)

Skip James was finally ordained to the ministry, but wanderlust once more overtook him and he abandoned religion.  After marrying his second wife, Mabel, a cook in a labor camp, James traveled around Mississippi doing farm work. In the early 1950s, he joined a cousin working land on a plantation, but that venture died when James ran out on his partner and returned to the blues, performing on piano and acoustic guitar.

While James was acting out his Hamlet-like “God or the Blues” drama, disparate groups, composed mainly of whites, rediscovered “old-fashioned music,” including folk songs and the blues, though of the acoustic variety, not the electrified version associated with post-World War II Chicago. Moreover, by the early 1960s, a few young white blues fans were prowling the South attempting to locate survivors of the early “race record” era that had died in the Depression.  Two notable “rediscoveries” by these long-haired “talent scouts” were Son House and Bukka White.

The trio that had found Bukka White also located Skip James, in a Tunica, Mississippi, hospital, where he was being treated for cancer.  James initially did not trust these emissaries from the “Blues Revival of the 1960s,” who were mainly interested in making money off what remained of his talent. As had been the case three decades earlier when his father re-entered his life, though, Skip eventually gave in, and he soon was on his way to the Newport Folk Festival.

* * * * *

It was at Newport in July 1964 that Skip James met an eighteen-year old blues groupie, Stephen Calt.  He agreed to allow Calt to interview him at length and record his thoughts; these tapes ultimately became the primary source for this biography.  Sounds like serendipity, right?  Not according to Calt, who writes, “Had I known how our lives would intersect over the next four years, I would not have initiated that first conversation.” (265)

James’ medical issues did not disappear with his re-emergence on the blues stage.  By early 1965, a cancerous tumor on his penis led to castration.  (Skip characteristically attributed the cancer to a former girlfriend.)  James also used his “rediscovery” as a blues man to abandon his wife Mabel and move to Philadelphia, where he took up with a widow named Lorenzo Meeks, a fervent member of the “sanctified church.”

James’ amateurish managers were unable to guide him to the promised pot of gold at the end of the “blues revival” rainbow, so he sought new, more professional help, but without much luck.  Skip sold the rights to his songs to a new manager’s company, but the album produced under his direction sold few copies.  His next manager secured a two-record deal with Vanguard for him, but those albums also did poorly. James was unhappy with both the money he made and the underwhelming reception he received from the largely white crowds in coffeehouses.  He asked young Stephen Calt for help, and Calt arranged a few gigs for the blues man on more receptive college campuses.

The “folk blues” movement succumbed to rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1960s, with much of the damage done by hirsute rock “guitar heroes” who appropriated songs and guitar techniques from the old blues guys without compensation.  Fortunately, Eric Clapton and Cream brought James a financial windfall, crediting him as composer of “I’m So Glad” when they covered that tune on their million-selling album Fresh Cream.  Even so, Skip, like his rediscovered contemporaries, still struggled financially, which placed a strain on his relationship with his wife.  Calt even claims that James spoke to him of making a new will leaving his estate (what there was of it) to Calt and his sister.

Skip’s guitar skills atrophied because he disliked practicing and increasingly withdrew into a shell of cold self-interest.  Then, in late October 1968, he was readmitted to the hospital, diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and sent home to die.  James interpreted this latest setback as divine punishment, and he vowed that, if God saved him, he would play only spirituals thereafter.  Skip James died on October 3, 1969, his passing receiving little notice, his funeral sparsely attended.  Stephen Calt came, of course, and offered James’ cousin a shot at interpreting the arc of Skip’s career:  “He woulda been better, but see, what messed him up was—people tried to shame him outta singing the blues.” (351)

* * * * *

This work lacks both notes and bibliography. Calt relies heavily on five years of taped interviews with James, supplemented by a few with other blues men, either by the author himself or by researchers Gayle Wardlow and Edd Hurt.  Calt also insists that what he collected from James were “discourses” rather than interviews, because Skip enjoyed rambling and did not like interruptions.  Like many white fans who interviewed old blues performers in the 1960s, Calt doesn’t always assess the plausibility of his subject’s assertions, and his heavy reliance on a single acknowledged source occasionally magnifies the weakness of this approach. Moreover, that Calt himself becomes a “character” in the book while recounting the last five years of Skip’s life also can be problematic.

Every now and then, Calt inserts a chapter that sketches in the larger context of blues history, but again the lack of a bibliography makes it difficult for the reader to evaluate some of the generalizations offered by the opinionated biographer.  For example, he denigrates the Chicago blues as essentially “easy listening” music, “studio blues” cranked out by a series of “facile lyricists.” (199-200) He also dislikes the “country blues” label often attached to unaccompanied, acoustic guitar performers like James, denying that there were any significant geographical differences in blues “styles” growing out of performers’ places of origin. (217-223)

Likewise, Mr. Calt rejects the notion that Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s hits on Chicago’s Chess label in the early 1950s sparked a revival of “down-home blues,” arguing that other record companies didn’t rush to emulate Chess, and that only “payola” to disc jockeys accounted for their success. (227)

Calt also emphasizes how small the community of “hard-core blues enthusiasts” was in the early 1960s; to him, the “Blues Revival” was largely the creation of mass-market and blues specialty magazines.  He argues, correctly I think, that the term “revival” was relative—at its peak, the blues had about 1% of a mostly white music market, because African American music fans had moved on to rhythm and blues or rock.  As he writes tartly, “The blues ‘revival’ of the 1960s actually represented the placement of blues upon a white respirator.” (249)

James’ biographer is not a fan of ‘60s “folk music” either, describing it as “characterized by a pretentious loftiness, consisting largely of an affectation of purity.” (256)  Maybe, but thanks to the “folk movement,” old bluesmen like James had a chance for a “second act” in their careers.

In short, although Mr. Calt might have intended to produce a “warts and all” biography of Skip James, his emphasis seems to be mostly on the “warts”; the “all” is harder for the reader to discover.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Books, Delta Blues, History, History of Rock and Roll, Popular Culture, Skip James, Son House, Southern History, Stephen Calt, The Blues, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

BETTS, A MOTHER’S MEMOIR, 1923-1964, Part VII: After Words–Betts on Family, History, and Family History

[NOTE: When I posted Part VI of this series, I thought it was the concluding installment.  And then I returned to a notion advanced in Part I:  Betts had been a “late-blooming historian.” I still wondered about her decision to undertake what would turn out to be a two decade detour into the past.  So, I returned to a cache of letters from Betts written at various points along that twenty-year odyssey.  Who better to shed additional light on her motivation in deciding to unearth her family’s history–and her own–as well as her view of the past, than the author herself?]

* * * * *


June 1987 (at the end of “Dobson-Knighton Family” essay)

This, I am sure, is not a complete history of our family, but I have attempted to put a few things down on paper for future reference since our children and grandchildren are bound to want to know something about the history of our family.  I hope this proves to be interesting to family members—as it was interesting [to me] to try to finally write it—quite a challenge.  Had planned to do this after I retired, but figured this was a good time to do it since I could give copies of it to the family members who attend the picnic [in Alexandria, Va.] this year.

October 13, 1994

I am enclosing information on our family.  Honestly, it seems like I will never finish it.  Luckily, Uncle George [Knighton] is doing a lot of research on the family at the Mormon Church Genealogy Center at Alexandria, Va., where he lives.  Also, . . . Rick [Lamplugh] and his wife did some searching on the Knighton-Lamplugh families when they were travelling through Utah this summer.  Like I told my brother George, even though no one else in the family is really interested, I get a great satisfaction out of knowing that I did this.  Still ha[ve] more info to search [for]. . . [which is proving] hard to do because most of the relatives are now deceased and the younger members of the family (in my age group) do not have much info.  Well, we are doing all we can. . . . [Included in the packet containing this letter was a 1987 version of the “Dobson and Knighton Family” as well as printouts on the Dobson-Knighton families from the Mormon Center.  For more on George and the other Knightons, see Part II.]

Rus and Betts (December 1944)

November 14, 1994

The enclosed baby shoe was yours, Rus, and I thought you might enjoy seeing it.  I had to clean out the bedroom closet and found it in a bag of “memories.”  I had sent you and Rick (and Judy) the family pictures that I was lucky enough to keep all these years but forgot to send the shoe—guess you could say it was an antique? . . . Seems like I can’t throw away very many things—sentimental, huh?

March 28, 1995

I am sending a far from perfect bit of [my] life. . . . Kind of started in the middle—but maybe if I can think back a lot further I may be able to do something about my (our) early years.  We will see.  Am I on the right track—or is there some other way to do this[?]  Kind of feel like a lot of things are best forgotten.  [Included with Part 2 of Betts’ memoir, “Slub of Slife,” which carried her story from 1945 to 1964.]

Betts (holding Judy) and Rus, in 1947

April 5, 1995

. . . After you called last week I checked to see if I had Ginny England Bachman’s address—and I did.  I called her on Sunday and really did surprise her.  Haven’t talked to her since 1989 when her brother died. . . . [S]he gave me [her sister] Betty’s address and I wrote to Betty—maybe we will find out that she really did teach you to tie your shoes.  It amazed me that you remembered that.  Memory like an elephant, like me, huh? [See Part IV for Ginny and Betty England’s role in Betts’s life during World War II.]

July 8, 1995

. . . Wanted to try and mail this “work of art” today.  Will no doubt bore you to tears, but guess this is the way my childhood was.  Good thing my Mom and Dad and doctor took such good care of me, look how long I have lived.  Surely never expected to make 65, let alone 72.  [Sent with Part 1 of  Betts’ memoir,“Slub of Slife,” which told her story from 1923 through World War II.]

March 25, 1996

[My brother] George [Knighton] and I have pretty much completed the family project.  I have been told by several people who read my articles about our family [i.e., the “Slub of Slife” memoir] that I skipped a few years between part one and part two—and they are right.  Told them this is a “Mystery story.”  Maybe I will get around to finishing it but I make no promises.  Since the weather has been awful this winter, one would think I could have finished it all by now, but I get depressed and that is no time to have to think about the past, present, or future.  [Grandsons Drew and Keith, daughter Judy, and brother Bob had already moved, or would shortly be moving, from Newark.]  I feel like someone stole my “security blanket,” but I will adjust to that change as I have had to do in the past.  I HATE CHANGE. . . . Well, since I have long been accustomed to my family being on their own—and Rus & Rick and their families miles away, [Georgia and Oregon, respectively], all this should be easier.  If I was younger I am sure it would be.  My Mom and Dad had 6 children, 5 of whom lived away from this area—if they could adjust to that, I am sure I can, too.

April 4, 1996

. . . Wanted to send the article [J.B., an old friend] wrote about his time in the military (U.S. Marines) during WW II.  He said that anything he says about the Army [Rus’ branch of service] is not personal, so you should overlook that.  Also, this was not edited by any professional—so please overlook any errors in English or grammar.  That goes for any of my effort, too, but I guess you already knew that. [For more on J.B., see Part IV.]

Old friend Evelyn Jacobs and Betts (in front of 50 Choate Street)

November 8, 1997

About two weeks ago, Evelyn Jacobs and her daughter Sue came for a short visit from Baltimore.  Haven’t enjoyed myself like that in a long time.  We had a lot to talk about because we have known each other since about 1950—they were our neighbors [on Helicopter Dr., Middle River, Md.]—and more like family than just friends.  Talking over old times is always very interesting.  Ev and I agree that we are glad we raised our family back in the good old post-war days—raising children these days is like a war—tough to win. [See Part V for this period in Betts’ life.]

July 27, 1998

I thought you might be interested in this article—since it does mention Joe Lofthouse, a friend of your father’s when he was in the Maryland National Guard.  They were in the Guard around 1939-1940 and were taken into the regular Army following the Dec. 8, 1941, declaration of war.  When I met your Dad, he was stationed at Fort Meade, Md.  Eventually Joe and Ben decided they wanted to join the Paratroops and were sent to Ft. Benning, Ga., for basic training.  After basic they went to Ft. Bragg, N.C.  Ben was in the 82nd Airborne Div. and Joe ended up in the 101st Airborne Div., but I don’t know any details about Joe’s service, except that he was in the 101st during the Normandy invasion and lots of other missions.

Your dad did not remain in the 82nd because he was hurt in a “jump” and was transferred to a Field Artillery outfit at Camp Rucker, Ala.  After several months training his outfit went to Hawaii, and then on to Japan.  They expected to be involved in the war with Japan, but that did not happen.

I spent some time in Fayetteville, N.C., when your dad was stationed there—and did meet Joe Lofthouse and his wife Aggie—enjoyed time we spent there.  Sure heard a lot of stories from Joe and Ben about the time they spent in the Nat[ional] Guard and regular Army.  They really were “characters” to remember!!!

Betts and grandson David (1994)

November 8, 1999

[I] received a letter from a woman in Roswell, Ga., whose grandparents had lived in this house [50 Choate St., Newark, Delaware] back in 1915-1918.  She wanted to find out if the house was still standing.  What a surprise!!  I did write to her—short note—to let her know the house has been in our family since 1923.  When I checked the old deeds to the house, I found that her grandparents’ names were on it.  Her grandmother sold the house in 1921 and granddad [George T.] Dobson bought it from the new owner in 1923.  I plan to send her a picture of the house and some other info.  I think she is researching her family.  Also, she lives in the area near [you] and [your wife] Faith—4 postal zones away! [For more on the “back story” of the Dobson-Knighton house at 50 Choate St., see Part III.]

April 9, 2000

My brother George [Knighton] died suddenly last Wednesday [March 28]—heart attack—at age 73—would have been 74 in July.  It certainly was a big shock to all of us.  He and his family live in [the] Alexandria, Va., area.  We haven’t visited each other often but since his retirement we did keep in touch by phone, and he did a lot of the family [history] on his computer.  Hard to accept the fact that he is no longer with us.

Betts in front of her future “room” at the home of her daughter and son-in-law in Lewes, Delaware (2003)

April 27, 2000

I know I haven’t been writing as often [as] I should, but I will try to do better.  The loss of my brother George has really been tough for all of us—devastating to all.  His own family is in shock since he was not ill or anything like that.  I know we shouldn’t question this, but that is the way it is for me—I’m the oldest in our family [now], but I never expected to . . . reach the ripe old age of 77.

June 1, 2000

Holidays are kind of hard to handle since I am mostly alone at those times.  My family sure is scattered around and have their own lives. . . . Sure has been a rough year for the whole family.  Have been trying to kind of finish up on the family [history] thing I have been doing the past 12 years since I retired.  Actually, I started getting info about 20 years ago.  I have been having copies made of pictures of family members—some taken in the 1920s-1950s.  I was fortunate enough to have spent time in my life with my own parents, grandparents, and even my great grandmother.  Think it is time for me to finish it—but I have enjoyed doing all this.

Betts and granddaughter Allison (2004)

April 24, 2003

It is nice not to be alone.  Judy and Jay [Bestpitch] are very thoughtful and appreciate me because I finally realized it was time to make this decision [to sell her Newark home and move in with her daughter and son-in-law in Lewes, Delaware].  They were right–but it is hard to adjust in a way.  Newark was my home for such a long time.  I feel at home now [in Lewes]–don’t know why I was so long making up my mind.  Guess I didn’t want to give up my independence!  Guess I just had to prove I could be an independent person the past years.

* * * * *

At the Country Rest Home

Additional Sources  (Series)

Rick and Mary Lamplugh, The Best of Betts.  This is a “memory book,” prepared for Betts and her caretakers, first at a rest home and then in a personal care home.  I have drawn freely on this work, especially the photographs, to help put Betts’ words into context.

Finally, my deepest thanks and appreciation to my siblings, Judy Bestpitch and Rick Lamplugh, for their support of this project from start to finish.  I couldn’t have done it without them.



Posted in American History, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Retirement, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Hillbillies

A Review of

J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.


[NOTE:  An inveterate reader of op-eds, I was well aware of this book months before I bought it. According to commentators across the American political spectrum, Hillbilly Elegy was a work to be reckoned with; one reviewer even described it as the “Rosetta Stone” for those who were really interested in understanding the political appeal of 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to the white working class in the so-called “Rust Belt.”  Liberal and progressive columnists generally opined that Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton would ignore Vance’s findings only at her peril; conservative writers found hope that the Republican Party’s policy prescriptions might prevail, even if some of them clearly doubted that Mr. Trump could, or should, win.

And yet, this book is not about candidate Trump. Rather, as the subtitle indicates, the author is concerned with “a Family” (his own) and a “Culture” (that of the white working class in the industrial Midwest and Upper South, many ex-pats from Appalachia ) that he sees as “in Crisis.” Op-ed writers and others among the northeastern cognoscenti only latched onto Vance’s work when their own efforts to “explain” the Trump phenomenon were proven wrong.]

* * * * *

Like many Appalachian natives during the 1940s, J.D. Vance’s grandparents, Jim and Bonnie Vance, whom he refers to as “Papaw” and “Mamaw,” left home (in their case, a “holler” near Jackson, Kentucky) and moved to the industrial Midwest in search of steady work.  Papaw found a good-paying job at the Armco steel plant in Middletown, Ohio, and things looked rosy, at least for a time.

Yet, as had been the case a generation earlier, when thousands of African Americans abandoned the Jim Crow South for economic opportunities in Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, white Appalachian migrants like the Vances experienced culture shock that they never outgrew.  The elder Vances had brought their “hillbilly” culture with them.  They clung stubbornly to the American dream, especially their faith that education would improve the lives of their three children, but cultural dissonance and family dysfunction were everywhere.

And, if that wasn’t enough, those “good jobs” eventually disappeared, thanks to technological innovation, automation, globalization, the steady decline of labor unions, and business decisions made in the interests of corporate and shareholder welfare, no matter their effects on the workforce.

J.D. Vance describes “hillbilly” culture as “a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism” that could produce “a sometimes explosive mix.” (41)  For example, Papaw was a violent drunk while his wife proved to be a violent non-drunk.  Mamaw once threatened to kill Papaw if he ever came home drunk again, but he ignored his wife’s warning.  The next time Papaw passed out on the sofa, Mamaw set him afire with gasoline; although Jim Vance survived the ordeal, his marriage was fractured.  Papaw moved to another house in the same neighborhood but still spent time with Mamaw, and their grandchildren moved easily between them.

J.D.’s mother, Bev, was also a piece of work. She became pregnant while still in high school, married early, and embarked on a life featuring a series of husbands and boyfriends, as well as regular bouts of drug addiction.  J.D. and his older sister Lindsay looked out for each other as best they could and found support from their grandparents when their mother was indisposed or otherwise unavailable.

Papaw died when J.D. was thirteen; his sister Lindsay married shortly thereafter; his mother’s addiction kicked in again; and his life threatened to careen out of control. Mamaw eventually allowed J.D. to live with her so he could finish high school, which he believed saved him, and he was also taken in hand by a teacher, who reinforced Mamaw’s maxim about the importance of education if he were to “make something of himself.”

And did he ever!  Feeling unprepared for college, J.D. chose after high school a tour of duty in the U.S. Marines, just as the first Iraq War broke out. Basic training replaced the “learned helplessness” of Vance’s youth with the “learned willfulness” of the Corps, and enabled him to “live like an adult,” even in the face of Mamaw’s death and his mother’s continuing escapades with significant others, drugs, and time spent in rehab.

His military service behind him, Vance attended Ohio State University, where he graduated in less than two years, thanks to his military-induced self-discipline, truly impressive work ethic, and native intelligence. Then it was on to, of all places for this self-conscious “hillbilly,” Yale University Law School, where the generous financial aid package he was offered made his acceptance a foregone conclusion. Three years later, the newly-minted attorney and his wife Usha, a law school classmate who had taken him in hand and “civilized” him, became law clerks in northern Kentucky.  Thereafter, Vance took his talents to Silicon Valley, where he was very successful financially.

* * * * *

In trying to draw from his own experiences broader lessons about the culture in which he had been raised, Vance does more than simply assume his family’s experiences were typical.  He frequently draws upon studies in sociology and economics that place “hillbilly” culture in a broader context. Vance rejects as insufficient the usual argument that the Rust Belt’s white working class was suffering solely from “economic insecurity.”  He describes instead “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it,” producing “a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” (7)

His grandmother’s insistence that J.D. hold down an after school job taught him a lot about American society, or so he believed.  He saw evidence of class divisions everywhere, and he gradually came to resent those of his fellow “have-nots” who lacked a work ethic, learned how to “game” the welfare system, and seemed “content to live off the dole.” (139)  That belief led Vance to formulate an alternative explanation for the decisive swing from the Democratic to the Republican party by Appalachian and southern whites who saw the world as he did:   This seismic change, he contends, had less to do with the Democrats’ pro-civil rights stance or the influence of Evangelical church leaders than with the Democratic commitment to continue the welfare state.  To Vance, the “hillbilly elegy” is “a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” (145)

Vance also maintains that hillbilly patriotism, or “love of country,” was unfathomable—perhaps even funny—to “people on the Acela corridor.” (189)   Barack Obama was viewed from Middletown as an alien, a President who “strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities.” Moreover, when the mainstream media defended Obama against the ridiculous accusations of the “birthers” that Obama had not been born in the U.S. and was thus not eligible for the presidency, people Vance knew in Middletown believed that “the free press—that bulwark of American democracy—is simply full of shit.” (191-192)

In looking towards the future, Vance returns to the social sciences, this time citing a study showing that “no group of Americans [is] more pessimistic that working-class whites,” and another finding economic opportunity and the prospects of social mobility for children in the United State unequally distributed geographically, with kids in the South, the Rust Belt, and Appalachia continuing to struggle.  Among the factors cited to explain this are the prevalence of single parents and income inequality, which suggests to Vance that social services need to be reformed so that they can actually help children like the ones he grew up with.

Vance concludes that “the government” cannot “fix” every problem, and that it does no good simply to blame either the President or the government for this systemic failure.  Rather, he argues, it is more important to “ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” (265)  And Vance seems ready to take his own advice:  he is, according to recent reports, planning a move to Columbus, Ohio, to launch an organization to tackle the opioid epidemic in the region where he grew up.

* * * * *

Whatever one thinks about J.D. Vance’s prescriptions for administering public policy CPR to the Rust Belt’s white working class, this book is an engrossing read.  The account of growing up amid family dysfunction, clashing cultures, and economic decline is powerful—and at times scarifying.  The reader eagerly follows Vance’s quest for social and economic redemption, a decent chance to live out the “American Dream,” wondering how he will avoid the fate of so many of his friends and relatives caught up in the clash between “hillbilly culture” and the declining Industrial Midwest.

And, when Vance actually does make it from Middletown and the Rust Belt to the Marine Corps, Ohio State, Yale Law, and Silicon Valley, he is careful to point out landmarks along his escape route:  the influence of certain family members (especially Mamaw, Papaw, and Vance’s older sister Lindsay); Usha, the woman who helped him through law school, taught him to function among the upwardly mobile, and became his wife; the importance of finding a mentor or two along the way; the power of networking; and unusually good luck. Although it seems unlikely that many of those Vance is determined to help will be able to duplicate his success, the story of his escape to a better life remains both eye-opening and inspiring.


* * * * *

Additional Sources:

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016); Chapter 10 (especially, pp. 256-261)

J.D. Vance, TED Talk, “America’s Forgotten Working Class” (Sept. 2016)

Vance, NYT op-ed, “Why I’m Moving Home,” Mar. 16, 2017

Vance interview, “Washington Journal,” CSPAN, Dec. 18, 2016

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)



Posted in American History, Books, Current Events, Education, family history, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Popular Culture, The "Great Migration", Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

BETTS: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR, 1923-1964, Part VI: An Independent Woman, 1964-2013

john-quincy-adams-picture[For earlier posts in this series, see Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.]

Betts’ work as family historian and memoirist ended in 1995, with the completion of her memoir, which carried the story of her life and that of her family through the autumn of 1964, when, as she wrote, there “came changes which affected all of our family.” This was as close as Betts came to telling readers that in September 1964 she and Ben angrily separated and subsequently divorced.  She was forty-one years old; for the next half century Betts was a single mother, or, perhaps more accurately, an independent-minded single woman.

* * * * *

Betts lived at first with her parents, but eventually she moved to an apartment in a private home between Newark and Wilmington, Delaware. After the passing of her mother in 1973, Betts returned to Choate Street to help her widowed father, and, following his death in 1980, the family home passed to her.

To support herself, Betts resumed her role as receptionist for Dr. Perry L. Munday until his retirement, at which time she moved to Christiana Hospital, near Newark, where she worked in the office of a radiologist. She walked to work at Dr. Munday’s office and rode the bus to Christiana Hospital.

Betts was a member of the first generation to have access to Social Security, and her years in the work force coincided with a time when it was generally understood that the retirement age was sixty-five.  And that’s what Betts did when her time came.

Like many retirees before and since, Betts was ambivalent about leaving the working world and shortly became restive for “something to do” that would enable her to maintain daily contact with people.  She hit on “volunteer jobs” as a way to fill at least part of what had once been her work week: Betts volunteered in the office of a museum consortium headquartered in Newark, and later worked behind the scenes in a grocery co-operative, also located in her hometown. Once again, the close-in location of these activities was absolutely crucial to Betts, who, remember, did not drive.  Just how important these “volunteer” activities were to her became clear when one of them ended:

The office . . . will be moving to the Baltimore area the end of the year, probably                 in November, so I will be finished there.  Sure was a lifesaver 10 years ago when                 I was wondering what I was going to do with retirement.  Seemed to me they did               a lot toward saving my “sanity” and I have always appreciated that.  Worked for               some very nice people and hate to see it end.  But guess all good things must end,                 huh?

* * * * *

Rus, Rick, Betts, and Judy

Rus, Rick, Betts, and Judy

Betts’ children visited when they could. Her daughter and grandsons lived for quite a while in Newark, so they saw her frequently. On the other hand, Betts’ sons lived far away, in Oregon and Georgia. When their children were born, Betts cultivated a late-life love affair with commercial aviation, which enabled her to travel great distances relatively quickly so she could see those grandkids.

Betts, Judy and Jay, Rick, and a selection of grandchildren and great grandchildren

Betts, Judy and Jay Bestpitch, Rick, two grandchildren, and one great grandchild

Changes came, and sometimes proved unsettling. For instance, in March 1996 she wrote:

Since the weather has been awful this winter, . . . I get depressed and that is no time to have to think about the past, present, or future.  [Grandsons Drew and Keith, daughter Judy, and brother Bob had already moved, or would shortly be moving, from Newark.]  I feel like someone stole my “security blanket,” but I will adjust to that change as I have had to do in the past. . . . My Mom and Dad had 6 children, 5 of whom lived away from this area—if they could adjust to that, I am sure I can, too.

For someone who was treated as physically “delicate” until she graduated from high school, Betts enjoyed relatively robust health as a wife and mother and reasonably good health for almost two decades following her retirement. Midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, she began to experience blood pressure, mobility, and memory problems that eventually led her to sell her beloved home, which had been owned by the Dobson-Knighton family for more than eighty years. Diagnosed with dementia, Betts relocated to Lewes, Delaware, where she lived with her daughter and son-in-law for a time. As her memory and general health further deteriorated, she was moved to a rest home, and then to a personal-care home, where she died on December 29, 2013, ten days before her 91st birthday.

* * * * *

As a teenager, Betts had entered the workforce part-time, and she could hardly wait to graduate from Newark High so that she could get a fulltime job.  By 1940, when Betts found her first “real” job, the proportion of women in the workforce was about 25 percent. (Vandenberg-Daves, 28)  Yet, female employees like Betts were expected to work only until they married and began to have children, at which time they were supposed to leave the workforce and become “fulltime homemakers.”

That began to change, and quickly, during the Second World War, when, with men fighting abroad, their mothers, wives, and daughters filled many occupations not previously considered “women’s work.” (Sholar, 42)  As Betts’ experience shows, this “patriotic” endeavor called for sacrifice, creativity, and time management skills, especially with children in the house:

Imagine: four women and three babies sharing the same two-bedroom apartment! Our neighbors marveled that all of us could share an apartment, but it really was a case of survival —we were working mothers with babies, but not much money.  This was a long time before “Women’s Lib.” [Pt.IV]

At war’s end, husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers came marching home hoping to reclaim their jobs, and there was a societal expectation that women workers would “do the right thing,” quietly give up their jobs, and cheerfully return fulltime to home and children.  Betts did exactly that for a decade or so, but she never forgot the early independence that working outside the home had provided—and, of course, with a growing family to support, additional income was imperative.  Almost as soon as her youngest child entered elementary school in 1954, Betts went back to work.

Her first fulltime job was with the family doctor.  When Betts told Ben the news, he was less than thrilled, predicting that she “would last about a month in that job.”  Her later comment on Ben’s attitude was classic Betts:  “I believe that was the only reason I stayed with Dr. Rombro, except for the fact that I really enjoyed the office work and the contact with people.” Moreover, Betts understood that her taking a job also struck at Ben’s perception of himself as the family breadwinner: “[I]f a woman worked outside the home, it ‘proved’ that her husband could not provide for his family.  Well, I must have been among the first ‘liberated women,’ because this was the 1950s.” [Pt.V]

* * * * *

In retrospect, it seems clear that Betts attributed her evolving independent streak to the rheumatic fever and subsequent heart issues that had kept her from doing things other girls her age did.  In reminiscing about a girlfriend, for instance, Betts recalled that, in order to attract boys, Mickey “decided to learn to roller skate, dance, etc.  All the things I was never permitted to do, remember—I told my doctor that I was going to have fun, no matter what!  Guess you know that went over big.” [Pt.IV]

For Betts, then, work and marriage enabled her to become an independent person, one who was fully capable of thinking for herself, regardless of what her parents, her physicians, or her husband might have wanted her to do:

I was surprised that I had become a person who could make her own decisions.  When I was growing up, decisions were always made for me, by my parents or by the doctor. . . . When we married, I was a dependent individual who always had someone else tell me what to do.  I expected to be able to lean on your Dad the way I had my parents, but I found that he was not around enough for that. . . . I had a lot of responsibility in the home, and I learned to make my own decisions.  As your father always said, I became “too d—– independent”!  I was always told that we do what we have to do, and this was the first step.  I have had to live with my decisions. [Pt.V]

An Independent Woman (1985)

End of Part VI

Next–After Words:  Betts on Family, History, and Family History

Additional Sources (Part VI)

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, “Twentieth-Century American Motherhood:  Promises, Pitfalls, and Continuing Legacies,” The American Historian, No. 10 (November 2016), 26-32.

Megan A. Sholar, “The History of Family Leave Policies in the United States,” The American Historian, No. 10 (November 2016), 41-45.

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)














Posted in American History, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

A Happy Fourth, from Antebellum Georgia!

I know some of you may find it hard to believe, but a personal financial site, WalletHub, has decided, in its wisdom, that the number one major American city in which to celebrate the Fourth of July is:  Atlanta!  (This according to our local fish-wrapper, which perhaps had reservations, running the story on the first page of the “Living” section, not on the A section’s front page where stories about “the ATL’s” wonderfulness usually appear.)

I’ll bet at least some of you are wondering how (in the world) the folks at WalletHub arrived at their startling conclusion.  Glad you asked.

According to the article, rankings for Fourth of July celebration-worthiness were based on–ta-da!–“five key dimensions (celebrations; affordability; attractions and activities; safety and accessibility; and Fourth of July weather forecast)”; AND ALSO–ta-da!–“18 relevant metrics . . . , including legality of fireworks, number of festivals and concerts, walkability and prices of beer, hamburgers and more.”

Those of you who doubt WalletHub’s conclusion must not have been reading our paper’s run-downs of “free, family-friendly Fourth of July activities” that have occupied the front page of the “Living Section” over the past week:  every town, big and small, in the Greater Atlanta Area has scheduled parades; races (including the Peachtree Road Race, Atlanta’s signature event on Independence Day for forty-eight years); barbecues; face-painting; and, of course,  ubiquitous fireworks extravaganzas.

But, has the Fourth always been celebrated this way?  In a word, no.  The nation’s birth has been commemorated in a variety of fashions over the past 241 years while shambling towards today’s combination of “free family-friendly events” and consumerism.

To look at this process in microcosm, let’s take the state of Georgia as a case study and the years between 1787 and 1832 as the time frame.  (Oh, by the way, those of you with small children should not try most of these activities at home. . . .)

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The Year of “Betts”: “Retired But Not Shy” at Seven

[NOTE:  I launched “Retired But Not Shy” in June 2010, a couple of weeks after hanging up my whiteboard following a long career teaching History at an Atlanta prep school.  At that time, I had what I thought was a great title and a cool avatar, but only a dim idea of what I hoped to do with the blog.

The closest I could come to a “mission statement” in 2010 was the blog’s subtitle, “Doing History after Leaving the Classroom.” This seemed clear enough on the general subject of my musings, yet sufficiently vague to give me room to maneuver as I looked for “blog-worthy” historical topics.  And so, I sailed into the blogosphere, eager but without a clue what lay ahead.]

* * * * *

Over its first twelve months “Retired But Not Shy” attracted a total of 657 hits.  Not that I had known what to expect, but the number seemed underwhelming, even to me. Still, I figured that a newly-created blog was bound to require time to grow.  Moreover, I was  having a great time, regardless of the size of my audience, so I plunged onward into year two. In an effort to, um, “drive traffic” to the site, I linked it to Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.  I even created a “subscription list” of friends who’d indicated they were at least willing to read the blog; small at first, the number of names on this group e-mail gradually increased.  I regularly notified my “subscribers” that I’d put up a new post and a little bit about the topic; embedded a link; and reminded them that “comments are welcomed.”

The number of visitors to “Retired But Not Shy” has grown steadily over the past seven years, from less than 700 in year one to more than 4000 in year seven.  Does this growth mean that my blog now is “wildly popular”?  Not hardly, but at least it has developed a loyal following.  So, thanks to all who’ve found your way here since June 2010.  I hope you’ll continue to stop by!

* * * * *

I began this blog hoping to put up a monthly post of around 2000 words.  As I got into the habit of posting regularly, and continued to enjoy doing so, my only question was, “what will I write about next”?  The answer, as it turned out, was: “as many interesting, history-related topics as I can find!”  Within a few years, I built up a sizeable backlog of essays, and I was able to begin posting twice a month, a pace I’ve maintained ever since.

By the end of year seven, I’d published 142 posts, so many that I’d begun to worry about the ease with which a visitor could find items of interest on the site.  A viewer could  check the blog’s “archives,” but that involved either going through month by month or using the  “categories” function, a crude sort of index, that I doubted many visitors even noticed.

Consequently, in yet another attempt to guide visitors to posts of interest, I added this year, at the top of the homepage, a series of topical “pages.”  Currently there are eight of them: Blues Stories; Dead Georgians; Historical Reflections; Interdisciplinary Work; Prep School; Teaching History; The South/Civil Rights; and The Vietnam Era.  Clicking on any of these topics brings up a “page” listing all posts in that category, with each title linked to the specific post in the archives.

* * * * *

“A Citizen of Georgia”?

Another significant feature at “Retired But Not Shy” over the past two years has been the return of  “long form” posts.  An eight-part “historical problem” from post-Revolutionary Georgia history, “Who Was ‘A Citizen’? (Georgia, 1783-1788),” began mid-way through year six and finished in August 2016.  This year’s series, “Betts: A Mother’s Memoir, 1923-1964,” is based on the writings of my late mother; four parts were published in year seven, with the rest scheduled to appear early in year eight.

Betts in 1942

Viewers’ reactions to these two series have been quite different.  The “historical problem” didn’t receive many “hits,” but that was fine with me.  I had developed the “problem” to revisit a conundrum I’d tried unsuccessfully to resolve during my dissertation research more than forty years ago, the identity of a pamphleteer who signed himself “A Citizen.”  And, despite the apparent lack of interest from my readers, the exercise allowed me finally to “solve” the problem, or at least get closer to a solution than I’d been able to do as a grad student.  (For the introduction to the “Historical Problem,” go here.)

The “Betts” series, on the other hand, which takes my mother and her families from 1923 to 1964, has been warmly received.  I had long promised Mom that I would “do something” with her memoir once I retired, but that assurance took longer than I’d expected to fulfill, so long that she didn’t live to see it.  Still, Betts’ story obviously resonated with many of you out there in the blogosphere, and I appreciate your visits and your comments.  (If you need to catch up in “Betts: A Mother’s Memoir,” here’s a link to part one.)

* * * * *

Perhaps the most surprising thing revealed by the statistics wordpress.com furnishes on activity at “Retired But Not Shy” is the continuing appeal of several very early posts.  To give some idea, let’s look at two “top ten” lists, the first for year seven, the second for years one through seven:

Year Seven (June 2016-May 2017)

  1. Teaching Prep School with a Ph.D., I
  2. Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin
  3. Bobby “Blue” Bland
  4. Teaching History Backwards
  5. The Chitlin’ Circuit
  6. Son House
  7. John Lee Hooker
  8. Life—and Death—on a Cherokee Plantation
  9. Betts, II
  10. Georgia Governor George R. Gilmer

Cumulative (June 2010-May 2017)

  1. Teaching Prep School with a Ph.D., I
  2. Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin
  3. Teaching History Backwards
  4. Son House
  5. Mississippi John Hurt
  6. The Chitlin’ Circuit
  7. Muddy Waters
  8. Georgia Governor George R. Gilmer
  9. Bobby “Blue” Bland
  10. High School, Now—and Then: Reflections on a Fiftieth Reunion

Notice how many of the “pages” (or topical indexes) are represented in both lists—Blues Stories; Georgia History (those “Dead Georgians”); Historical Reflections; Prep School; and Teaching History.

If you know anything about the Blues, you’ll also recognize that lots of Blues fans have found their way to “Retired But Not Shy”:  four of the top ten posts from this past year, as well as half the posts on the cumulative list. This continuing interest in the Blues posts still surprises me, though after seven years you’d think I’d be used to it.  Thank you, Blues aficionados!

The most popular post on each list, “Teaching Prep School with a Ph.D.: Is It for You?,” has been “the little engine that could” for this blog. Its appeal has been so strong that I eventually added two posts on other aspects of the same topic (go here and here).

As a Georgia historian, I had expected those of like mind to visit regularly, and they have. The “Dead Georgians” posts consulted most often concern the state’s treatment of the Creek and Cherokee Indian nations in the 1820s and 1830s as Georgia worked with grim determination to move the Native American tribes out.  This helps explain the enduring popularity of posts on two Georgia governors during the era of Cherokee Removal, Wilson Lumpkin and Governor George R. Gilmer; as does, I continue to believe, the research topics meted out by Georgia history teachers in secondary schools and colleges throughout the state.

One item on the year seven top ten list and one on the cumulative list can be found on the “Historical Reflections” page:  Part II of the “Betts” series; and “High School Now—and Then,” which I wrote after attending my 50th high school reunion, pondering both similarities and differences in the quality of the education offered by my public high school in Delaware in the early 1960s and by the prep school in Atlanta where I taught from 1973 through 2010.

Finally, from the “Teaching History” page, “Teaching History Backwards” describes a different approach to my History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement course and how that turned out.  The title admittedly suggests that the post is a broader treatment of the topic than it actually is, but even a visitor disappointed by my approach can still pick up at least a few tips.

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)





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BETTS: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR, 1923-1964, Part V: Trying to Make It in Postwar America


[Note:  This segment of Betts’ memoir carries her family’s story from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s.  For earlier installments, go here, here, here, and here.]

* * * * *

Shortly after our second son, Rick, was born, on November 11, 1948, Ben went to work in the maintenance department at Cities Service Oil Company and continued to work also for Richter Trailer part-time.

Rick (1949)

I’m sure you remember the story about the “green glasses,” how your Dad got angry at someone at work who was trying to make him hurry and finish a paint job.  Ben would not be hurried, since he prided himself in doing things right the first time.  Anyway, Ben told the guy who was harassing him that he would paint the man’s glasses green if he did not leave him alone.  The man continued to harass Ben, so he did as he had promised and painted the guy’s glasses green!

* * * * *

27 Helicopter Dr., Victory Villa, Middle River, Md. (recent photo)

27 Helicopter Dr., Victory Villa, Middle River, Md. (recent photo)

There are lots of stories about our life in those days, but I won’t go into that because I would have to write a book!  We had friends in our neighborhood, and I am sure you remember the Jacobs family, the Carneses, and the Striplins.  We tended to spend what little social life we had with some of those folks, outside, talking, enjoying a cold beer, or eating steamed crabs at the picnic table in someone’s back yard.

We became the proud owners of our first television set in January 1949.  I think it was our anniversary present to us!  Our friends the Striplins also had a TV.  We often had company in the evenings, watching programs like the “Ed Sullivan Show,” Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater,” and whatever else we could find to watch.  Television was limited to three channels, and there was not much to choose from.  I think programming ended about midnight and didn’t begin again until around 6 a.m. Also, it was black and white, not color.

Daytimes, Norma Striplin and I got together to watch the “soaps,” while the kids ate lunch, napped, or played outside.  One of our favorite “soap operas” was “Love of Life,” which our kids called “Slub of Slife.” [Note: the origin of the title of Betts’ two-part memoir] The “soaps” were a change of pace from laundry, housework, changing diapers, and “baby talk,” among other things, and they added variety to our lives.  Guess they still do.

In those days, we also had a coal furnace in the kitchen.  I always seemed to let the fire go out—your Dad always said, “You walk by this thing a million times a day.  Don’t you ever open the door and check to see if it is still working?”  Ben did not realize that I did not really understand what I was supposed to do when I did open the door to the furnace.  My father had always taken care of the heating situation in our house on Choate Street.  Sometimes, I wished I knew how to do everything!

There is another story that I tell quite often, about Norma Striplin and I trying to build a fire when we had neglected to check the status of the heating.  Since I knew your Dad’s opinion of me as one who did not keep a watchful eye on the heat, I always tried to build another fire before he got home from work.  Well, needless to say, I was hardly ever successful.  If there was no kindling, I would get the hand saw and try to cut some small pieces of wood.  Even the children thought that was really funny!

After all these years, I am sure you now realize how unhandy I really am, and I was lots worse when I was a younger woman.  Anyway, one day, Norma came over and said that her furnace was out, and they did not have any wood to start the fire.  I scrounged around for some wood but could not find enough to help in this situation.  We went over to her house, and Norma finally decided to go up to the attic and see what was up there that she could cut up.

Norma was a farm girl, so she could climb, and also handle a saw or anything else that was needed for her family.  Certainly a lot different from me at that time!  When she came down from the attic, Norma had a few pieces of an old chair, and as it turned out, the rest of the wood was part of the braces that held up the roof of the house!  I was amazed, but we did finally get a fire started.  Years later, when I went back to visit in that area, I was surprised that the house was still standing and still had a roof on it.

* * * * *

During these years, I not only had the children to take care of but also a couple of dogs, because every child needs a dog–for Mom to take care of.  That was the way it turned out at our house.  Actually, later on, after we moved to 312 Endsleigh Avenue in 1955 we had a cat, too.  I guess my children remember “Tom” the cat best.

312 Endsleigh Ave., Ballard Gardens, Middle River, Md.

312 Endsleigh Ave., Ballard Gardens, Middle River, Md. (recent photo)

We inherited Tom thanks to Judy.  Personally, I could not stand to have a cat around, but Judy had rescued this kitten in our back yard; a dog had it cornered.  She chased the dog and brought the kitten into the house. I insisted that she take the kitten outside, but Judy cried and said the dog would get the kitten, and of course her act worked.

I told Judy to take the kitten to the basement, but “out it goes in the morning.”  As it turned out, we had Tom for six years or more.  The children got attached to him, and, even when our doctor said we should get rid of Tom because of allergies in our family, we kept him.  I told the doctor that the children would rather get rid of me and keep the cat—enough said!

Rick and "Tom"

Rick and “Tom”

Ben went to work for Gibraltar Trailer Manufacturing Company building house trailers, around 1950.  He worked in the plant and also did service work for the company.  Jim Fyle, the owner of the company, enjoyed hydroplane racing.  Whenever he was going to race, Fyle always asked Ben to go along to pull the boat trailer.  When the races were held locally, we could go with him, but that didn’t happen very often.  Hydroplanes were racing boats that just skimmed across the water, and I always considered them dangerous as well.

In 1954, Ben again changed jobs, going to work for Ottie Gowl at Atlantic Trailer Company.  Ben was a supervisor and also a maintenance man.  This meant that he traveled for the company whenever there was a problem with one of the trailers after delivery.  Ottie had been employed at Gibraltar Trailers but finally went into business for himself.  He had a lot of faith in your Dad’s ability and considered him a very good worker.

Ben Lamplugh

* * * * *

Before we moved to Endsleigh Avenue, we lived in Victory Villa, where all the children started school—Rus in 1950, Judy in 1952, and Rick in 1954.  They walked quite a distance to Victory Villa Elementary, but they were with the rest of the children in the neighborhood, and usually mothers walked with them until we felt sure they did know their way to school.

When we moved to Endsleigh Avenue in1955 our children had to change schools.  They went to Martin Boulevard Elementary School, which was about two blocks from our home.  One reason for moving was to have the children in a school close to home.  After the kids were in their new school, I helped there, substituting in first-grade classes or assisting the nurse with paper work or screening tests.  This filled up some time for me, since I really missed having my children at home.

I also worked part-time for Middle River Realty Company but found sitting at a desk too confining, even on a part-time basis.  In the fall of 1955, I started work in the office of our family doctor, Dr. Marvin Rombro.  I worked there part-time from 1955 to 1959.  When I told your Dad I was going to work in our doctor’s office, he said I would last about a month in that job.  I believe that was the only reason I stayed with Dr. Rombro, except for the fact that I really enjoyed the office work and the contact with people.

* * * * *

I had not worked for about ten years, and it felt good to have something to do outside the home.  The fact that I went to work did not help your Dad’s and my “relationship” (as it is now called), because in those days “a woman’s place was in the home,” and, if a woman worked outside the home, it “proved” that her husband could not provide for his family.  Well, I must have been among the first “liberated women,” because this was the 1950s.

Times sure have changed, and I admit that I have changed a lot, too.  When we married, I was a dependent individual who always had someone else tell me what to do.  I expected to be able to lean on your Dad the way I had on my parents, but I found that he was not around enough for that.

I had a lot of responsibility in the home, and I learned to make my own decisions.  As your father always said, I became “too d—– independent”!  I was always told that we do what we have to do, and this was the first step.  I have had to live with my decisions.

* * * * *

37 North Chapel St., Newark, Del. (recent photo)

37 North Chapel St., Newark, Del. (recent photo)

We moved to 37 North Chapel Street in Newark in December 1959.  Your Dad worked at your Uncle Bill’s gas station in Wilmington for a while and then for Deemer Steel in New Castle as a maintenance man.  When he took us to see where he was going to work, Rick said, “That place sure needs to be fixed up.”  Steel plants never are clean and neat, are they?

Your Dad continued to work part-time for Uncle Bill, depending on his work schedule at Deemer.  I worked at the University of Delaware from March to September 1960, then went to work for Dr. Perry L. Munday from September 1960 through January 1962.  At this time, Rick was attending middle school and Judy and Rus were at Newark High School.

Ben become discontented with his job at Deemer Steel and decided that he wanted to go back to Baltimore.  I was not happy about another change in 1962, because Rus was to graduate from high school in June and was already enrolled at the University of Delaware for September 1962.

Rus, Betts, Judy, and Rick (1962)

Rus, Betts, Judy, and Rick (1962)

* * * * *

We did move back to Baltimore, and Ben went back to work for Jim Fyle at Gibraltar Manufacturing Company.  We lived at 9100 Philadelphia Road, in Rossville, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore.  We were again neighbors of our good friends the Jacobses, and that was one good thing about the move.

9100 Philadelphia Rd., Rossville, Md. (recent photo)

9100 Philadelphia Rd., Rossville, Md. (recent photo)

Rus remained with his grandparents in Newark so that he could graduate with his class at the high school.  Meanwhile, Rick was enrolled at Golden Ring Junior High, and Judy went to Overlea Senior High School, so they were bus students for the first time in their lives.  I worked at Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore from April 1962 to September 1964.

Then came changes which affected all of our family.

End of Part V

Next: Part VI:  An Independent Woman, 1964-2013

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chasing the Delta Blues: The Mississippi Blues Trail, Part 2 (Blues Stories, 25)


[This is the second and concluding post about the trip the Willowy Bride (AKA, the WB) and I took along the Delta portion of the Mississippi Blues Trail in May 2013.  For Part 1, go here.]

* * * * *

May 23, 2013

Today was the most “Blue(s) Highways Vacation Trip” we’ve had:  it was leisurely and we left Route 61 several times in pursuit of scenic “attractions.”  (Not something I’m famous for on vacations, by the way.)  Still, we put less than 120 miles on the odometer, winding up in Tunica, a little over 60 miles from Cleveland, where we had spent last night.

We left our motel about 8:30 a.m., which meant that we had about 1 1/2 hours before the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, our planned first stop, opened for the day.  Since Clarksdale is probably only 30 miles or so from Cleveland, we were in no hurry.  Consequently, we made a few detours and stops en route.

One place I wanted to drive through was the historically all-Black community of Mound Bayou, founded after the Civil War.  I figured that, given its unique history, there’d be a museum or tourist information center, but there was not much to see, because a fire had destroyed much of the downtown in the 1940s. (My thirst for information on Mound Bayou would be slaked the next day at the Tunica River Park Museum–see below.)  We also followed signs that took us off Route 61 in pursuit of Mississippi Blues Trail markers.  One, in Wintonville, was on the former site of the “Harlem Blues Club.”  Another, in the nearby town of Shelby, commemorated Blues pianist Henry Townsend.


We arrived in Clarksdale shortly after the Delta Blues Museum opened and spent a couple of hours browsing through it.  The museum has continued to evolve since our first, abortive trip there several years ago, when the gift shop was open but the museum itself was closed for the installation of a new exhibit.  Like the B.B. King Museum, this one has added an extension to its original home, an old train depot.  The plan is to add a series of exhibits tracing the history of the Blues from Africa to the present.


Unlike the King Museum’s addition, this one, though completed, is fairly empty as the museum conducts a fund-raising campaign.  Still, the end section of the addition is temporarily the home to a Muddy Waters exhibit that features one of Muddy’s Ford sedans and–drum roll, please!–the restored cabin where he was born on the Stovall Plantation. There also was a life-size model of Muddy, seated and playing his guitar, in that same area. As my church friend had said, the Delta Blues Museum is not nearly as interactive as the B.B. King Museum, but it does feature a few video clips, plus lots of striking photo exhibits, stage costumes, donated instruments, posters, and biographical information on a ton of Blues musicians, both famous and otherwise.


After our visit to the Delta Blues Museum, we strolled through parts of downtown Clarksdale, and we discovered the “Rock ‘n’ Roll and Blues Heritage Museum,” based on the holdings of a former Dutch banker who is so enamored of the Blues that he even released an album of his own titled something like “Dutch Blues”!  The “Rock ‘n’ Roll and Blues Heritage Museum” reflects the eclectic tastes of its founder.  While there are a few donated items (e.g., a teacher’s desk from the Tupelo Middle School attended by Elvis Presley), most of the artifacts were acquired by the owner, beginning in the Netherlands when he was a young man.

The Dutch collector was big on record albums (and the records themselves), posters, guitars signed by Blues players, some photos and prints (including several by John Lennon of Yoko Ono that were only sold as prints–and in very limited quantities–in Holland).  The collection is organized chronologically by decade, starting after World War II and continuing into the late 20th century.  We spent perhaps an hour and a half in the museum and in the “gift shop,” which had so many interesting records, cds, and dvds that it reminded me of a scaled-down, Blues-only version of Wuxtry Records over near Emory University in Atlanta, where both of our boys loved to spend time.  I actually bought a cd by local Bluesman “Pat” Thomas, whom the WB and I had met yesterday at the Old Highway 61 Museum in Leland, as well as a dvd about a film crew traveling through Mississippi in search of the Blues.


We ate in Clarksdale at the Ground Zero Blues Club, which is across the street from the Delta Blues Museum and co-owned by Hollywood’s Morgan Freeman, a native of the Magnolia State.  The food was OK, but it was really the funky, bluesy atmosphere of the place that made it memorable.  Oh, and the custom of visitors inscribing messages on every vertical surface in the club!


From Clarksdale, we drove thirteen miles up Highway 61, then took Route 49 West across the Mississippi River to another Delta Blues mecca, Helena, Arkansas.  Our destination was the Delta Cultural Center, on Cherry Street, just opposite the town’s levee.  At present, the Center has two museums across from each other.


One, in an old train depot, is mostly about the River and its impact on Delta life–and vice versa; the other has space for a traveling exhibit (this time, on Lincoln and slavery), and the music of the Delta, mostly Blues but with some attention to Gospel.  In that section of the Center also is the “broadcast studio” where an elderly disk jockey still conducts daily versions of the “King Biscuit Show,” the original of which made Rice Miller, AKA Sunny Boy Williamson II, a radio Blues icon; the modern version, however, is streamed over the Internet.  This particular museum “complex” wasn’t too impressive, but it would have been a shame to have been so close and not stopped to see it.  Plus, I think the Willowy Bride wanted to be able to say she had crossed the Mississippi River on this trip, so Helena certainly filled that bill.

May 24, 2013

After checking out of our motel, we found a Blues Trail marker honoring Son House, at the Clack Road site formerly occupied by a train station.  Next, we drove 10 miles south to Tunica, where we walked for perhaps an hour.  Tunica has gussied up about a three-block stretch of downtown so that at least some of the stores and restaurants might have a chance to draw tourists.  Central to the area is a little park, separated by a fairly new U.S. Post Office into two parts:  one section is mainly grass with some trees; the other includes an “American Veterans Memorial” and another patch of grass and trees girded by a quarter mile macadam walking track.  All in all, a pleasant venue with a real “small town” feel.


We then drove back the way we’d come–and on Old Highway 61, a two-lane road with four-way stops about every mile–not the more modern Highway 61 with its four lanes, grassy median, and a 65 mph speed limit, at least until the road reaches each town, when the speed limit drops to 45 mph.


We stopped at the Tunica Museum for what we thought would be a quick visit, but we ended up staying for over an hour, I guess.  This was another nice museum–clearly arranged around a variety of topics, interactive in places, and surprisingly successful in its efforts to be more inclusive, especially regarding the contributions of African Americans.  Two exhibits caught my attention:

1)  On the Blues (surprise!)–set in the reconstructed corner of a “juke joint.”  The audio portion featured an interview with Sam Carr, son of Bluesman Robert Nighthawk and a Bluesman himself, in an endless loop, but with each repetition bracketed by different Blues songs.

2)  On integrating Tunica’s schools–a video presentation wherein a series of talking heads, Tunica residents–black and white–offered their perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for school integration in the city.  Once again, a nicely balanced treatment of a prickly subject.

We ended up in the Tunica casino resorts area, where we spent the night.  (No, we didn’t plan to try our luck at slots or poker, so we avoided the, um, “resorts.”)  Seems that, after constructing 6-8 casino/resort complexes, the powers-that-be decided to invest some of their earnings in a project that was not about gambling.  This was the Tunica River Park  Museum, which, according to the brochure, included a nature walk in the wetlands bordering the Mississippi River; the aforementioned Museum; and a river boat, the “Tunica River Queen,” which offered ninety-minute rides on the river to interested visitors. Ironically, there has been so much rain this year that the river was high, so the nature walk was temporarily unavailable.

The museum was pretty interesting, though.  I especially enjoyed the aquarium; a series of panels on the history of the Mound Bayou settlement that we had driven through the other day (which helped explain why the town itself seemed barren of historical sites); a video on the Delta and the Blues; and several panels and a video on the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927.

Towards the end of the tour, there was a video on the coming of the casinos and their impact on the economy of Tunica County.  Yes, the narrative seemed to be a joint production of the local Chamber of Commerce and the corporations that owned the casinos, but there seems to be no question that the casinos have brought jobs and money to the county (26% unemployment before 1991, less than 4% when the video was made, for example).


The Willowy Bride had mentioned wanting to ride the riverboat, but by the time we’d finished our visit to the museum, we were both ready to eat and decided to pass on the River Queen.  We drove back to Tunica once more, to have dinner at the locally famous “Blue ‘n’ White,” which serves southern comfort food in a former Pure gas station.  Great barbecue, funky, down home atmosphere, reasonable prices.


One Blues Trail marker on today’s itinerary underlines another irony in the history of Tunica County.  Posted in the heart of casino-resort territory, according to the Mississippi Blues Trail map this sign marks the site of the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation, where Blues legend Robert Johnson grew up.  That’s right:  the former plantation area of Tunica County, where any number of famous Blues performers, including the legendary Mr. Johnson, grew up, worked on cotton plantations, and performed, today is busy raising another, more lucrative crop–gambling palaces–and “picking” tourists instead of cotton!

* * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

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