I’ve spent most of the past week+ methodically recording the contents of J’s main scrapbook. I’m only about 25 percent finished. This is going to take awhile. Fortunately, it’s easy for me to get a rhythm going if I do it while watching T20 cricket. Whatever works, right? This might sound tedious to you, but I’m a weirdo who finds this kind of thing to be ridiculous amounts of fun. Every day that I work on this mini-project, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be the caretaker of J’s legacy. Who knows how many impulsive decisions were made over the years to ensure that her scrapbooks and photos were not tossed in the trash? I’m well aware that this path was a fragile one. One false step could have resulted in an unknowable tragedy.
RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 15
VICTORY: I’m feeling gratitude this week. My victory is that this project fell in my lap.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: I am learning so, so much from the contents of J’s scrapbook. Too many amazing things to decide between.
FRUSTRATION: My writing hand hurts.
CURRENTLY READING: Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors by Sarah Stodola (for some personal inspiration)
Sorry for posting this two days late. I had internet problems on Tuesday and was too busy to fit this bit of writing into Wednesday’s schedule. Let’s get started!
And I thought that endlessly staring at online copies of census records was hard.
It turns out that poring over century-old newspaper clippings (I’m talking physical copies) is even worse on the eyes. Who knew, haha? I finally forced myself to start cataloging the contents of J’s small but mighty scrapbook. It’s tedious only from the standpoint that it is going to take weeks (I’m on page 8) to finish. Other than the necessarily slow nature of the process, it is really damn exciting. I’ve already learned a great deal more about J and her early career in Memphis. This has also, of course, opened up many, many, and I do mean many, new avenues to explore. Dozens. All by page 8. Researching a biography is hard, y’all. That’s mostly a good thing, so I won’t complain.
RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 14
VICTORY: Making it to page 8 of the scrapbook in about an hour. It’s not that impressive (the early pages aren’t very dense), but it’s a nice start.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: I’ve been able to add a few songs and engagements to J’s timeline.
FRUSTRATION: Being unable to work at this full-time.
CURRENTLY READING: I’m tying up loose ends with a couple of previously-mentioned books.
Happy New Year! 2021 will be the first full year of my research. (I only started this project about three months ago.) I’m excited to find out where things take me. I’ve already learned a significant amount of information about J, yet I know it’s a drop in the ocean of what I’ll need in order to write this biography.
RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 13
VICTORY: Cleaning and organizing my studio. It’s much easier to get absorbed in work when my surroundings are neat.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: I wasn’t as behind on my organization of research sources as I thought.
FRUSTRATION: I’m working more hours at my day job(s). It’s great being able to pay bills, but I am constantly busy…and tired.
CURRENTLY READING: A Brief History of Memphis by G. Wayne Dowdy
Last week was extra busy because of Christmas. We didn’t go anywhere, of course, because of the pandemic. There was a lot of baking and some last-minute decorating, though. I still fit in a fair amount of reading amidst the chaos. I also learned a new fact about J, courtesy of a nearly 101-year-old source. Yay!
RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 12
VICTORY: I feel as if this is something I frequently mention, but continuing my research, every day, no matter how busy I am is definitely a victory.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: A small newspaper blurb from January 1920, when J was 19, describes her as a “uke-banjoist.” This is the first indication I’ve had that she was also a musician. Another course of research to follow up on in the future.
FRUSTRATION: Sometimes I feel as if three-plus years is not enough time to research the life and career of J.
CURRENTLY READING: A Guide to Historic Downtown Memphis by William Patton
Anyone who has ever researched their family history knows that there are always branches missing from the tree. Looking into J’s husband’s past, I quickly found his first wife…or so I thought. They married in 1916. Easy peasy, right? After all, only two wives were listed on Archives.com AND Ancestry.com, J being the second. Weeks later, whilst reading a 1910 issue of Lyceumite & Talent (which is practically a pastime unto itself), I found mention of R’s wife. She was listed only as Mrs. R. Thanks a lot, early twentieth-century norms. Six full years before his marriage to supposed wife #1. Suddenly, wife #1 was wife #2, and J was moved to third position. Confusing, eh?
Who was the mystery first wife? I finally solved the puzzle last week. As I knew from that trade publication article, she was a performer. All of R’s wives, as it turns out, were actress-singers. He had a type: women of accomplishment and talent. I like that about him.
Wife #1 now has a name (and a stage name, too). Another long research road to walk down. Why is this important? As I’ve said before, J’s career was intertwined with that of her much-older husband. His performing and producing life pre-dated his relationship with her by 20 years. He worked with his first two wives, just as he did with J. I cannot talk about her professional endeavors without covering how they converged with those of R and his previous wives. Is it a mess or a blessing? Only time, and more research, will tell.
RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 11
VICTORY: I finished another book in my research process, even though the holidays are upon us.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: R’s first wife’s identity, of course!
FRUSTRATION: I’m still mending from my accident.
CURRENTLY READING: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
This was an off week. Last Tuesday, I had an accident at my day job (not my fault, for what that’s worth). Complicated research was not exactly at the top of my mind, but I managed to do a considerable amount of relevant reading. My new website, Alternative Muses, which is dedicated to J, also went live. If you haven’t checked it out since then or at all, I’ve fleshed it out a lot.
RESEARCH NOTES: WEEK 10
VICTORY: Not getting a concussion AND still being able to read for hours on end whilst stuck in bed.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: I lost out on a great e-book deal last week because I forgot to order it in time. I snapped it up a few days ago for 50% off the other already-fantastic price.
FRUSTRATION: Not being able to move enough to go upstairs to my studio.
CURRENTLY READING: Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel. Almost finished. I also started a couple of new books. I’ll cover those in upcoming issues.
Alternative Muses has been an occasional series on A Small Press Life for years. The name and the concept also fit my bio subject, J, so well that I decided to combine them into a new website. This comes with a couple of bonuses. 1) All things J will be found in one handy location 2) ASPL won’t be entirely overrun with the details of this huge project.
[R]evolving Research, however, will remain a Tuesday “tradition” here on ASPL. If that’s enough J for you, great! You’re all set. If you’d like more, then you can follow my research and biography writing adventures over on AM.
One of the first things I did at the start of my research was set up Google alerts for J and her husband R, on the off-chance that it would eventually pay off in some murky way. Since then I’ve received three relevant alerts and one false alarm. They’ve been great in helping me track professional engagements. When you are dealing with people constantly on the move, every filled-in date is helpful.
RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 9:
VICTORY: A book I had on hold suddenly became available AND the timing was perfect.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: The 100th anniversary of a small-town review of one of R’s productions, allowing me to place him in Michigan on 8 December 1920!
FRUSTRATION: Adding 30 books to my TBR list for every one I finish.
CURRENTLY READING: Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel.
HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 12
I’m reading an e-copy but here’s a nice edition available on Etsy:
This week brought our first real snow of the season, more reading (lots of it), and a new tidbit about J’s husband that should open the floodgates to a considerable amount of fresh information. All in all, it’s been a relaxing and productive period.
RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 8:
VICTORY: Reading at a pace that actually satisfies me.
HAPPY DISCOVERY: I discovered not one, but two “new” musical groups that J’s husband, R, produced. Both pretty prominent in their day.
FRUSTRATION: Directly contradicting point one: not being able to read 24/7.
CURRENTLY READING: Babbits & Bohemians: The American 1920s by Elizabeth Stevenson (see here).