ISSUE TWELVE [R]evolving Research: Newspaper Clippings and Eye Strain

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.
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 11

Until next time!

ISSUE TEN [R]evolving Research: The 100-Year-Old Musical Instrument

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
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 13

Ad from 17 July 1919.

Until next time!

Introducing Alternative Muses

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.

You can check it out here.

The first post is already up.

Thanks so much!

ISSUE SEVEN-[R]evolving Research: The 100-Year-Old Review

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:

HARD TIMES BY STUDS TERKEL. AVAILABLE AT WOODENVINE BOOKS ON ETSY. $6.95.

ISSUE SIX-[R]evolving Research: The 103-Year-Old Singing Groups

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).
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 10

Until next time!

ISSUE FIVE-[R]evolving Research: A Flurry of Reading

Some weeks involve direct research about J or her family; other weeks are devoted to general history reading. I’m currently in a flurry of the latter activity. I learn a lot during these times, just not about J. It’s all necessary and enjoyable work. Time well spent.

After I’ve finished my current book (see below) the pendulum will likely swing back the other way. I love history, but I might just love J even more. That is saying something.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 7:

  • VICTORY: Waking up every day and doing the thing regardless of what the days threw at me.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: None. I’m okay with that because I learned tremendous amounts of historical information.
  • FRUSTRATION: Also none. That’s a win.
  • CURRENTLY READING: A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 7

Until next time!

ISSUE FOUR-[R]evolving Research: The 110-Year-Old Magazine Spread

Researching J also means researching her husband, R, and his career. Being twenty-one years older, his advent as an entertainer and theatrical manager nearly coincided with his future wife’s birth. Later, their showbiz careers were inextricably connected for the two decades preceding his death.

Going down all of these necessary by-roads and highways is one of the reasons I expect my research to take around five years.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 6:

  • VICTORY: Once again carving out “enough” time for my research.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: A three-page spread about R and his various theatrical and musical companies, in a 1910 issue of Lyceumite & Talent.
  • FRUSTRATION: Not being able to read all the things all at once.
  • CURRENTLY READING: Frommer’s Nashville & Memphis
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 7

Until next time!

ISSUE THREE-[R]evolving Research: The 98-Year-Old Notice

This last week was extremely busy for non-research reasons. After years of hard work, my mom’s little tea/coffee shop/bookstore/art gallery/bar finally opened. It has been all hands on deck since last Wednesday. I couldn’t dedicate as much time as normal to my bio subject, J, managing about 30 minutes each day. That is the absolute minimum time that I’m happy with, preferring to dedicate at least 10 hours per week to this project. As busy as I’ve been, though, I’ll consider this a victory.

I’m still doing tons of reading. Books and periodicals. Once I get through this week, it’ll be back to regular morning “office hours” up in my studio. I’ve found that’s the best way to plow through big information searches/dumps. It’s tiring, at first, for this night owl but, hey, that is what a big cuppa is for.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 5:

  • VICTORY: Not falling asleep whilst reading late at night, haha.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: Finding a brief notice of J in a 1922 issue of The Music News.
  • FRUSTRATION: So tired. Overworked. Not doing all the things.
  • CURRENTLY READING: The August 1910 issue of Lyceumite & Talent
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 3 1/2

Until next time!

ISSUE TWO-[R]evolving Research: The 102-Year-Old Diploma

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”-Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young

How many lists can a person make about writing lists? I’m not sure, but I believe this project is going to test existing limits for me. And I say this as someone who is a lifelong list producer. 

Of the many lists I worked on this past week, one is head and shoulders above the rest as the most epic and time-consuming. It’s still a work-in-progress and will require near-constant updating for, well, years. This list contains pages and pages of books I’d like to track down and read, in any format I can get my hands on. Books about Memphis and its history, books about the 1920s-1940s, books about the early 20th century, books about 100-year-old stage musicals…just for starters. I might have to transfer this list into a separate journal. Sigh.

Incidentally, this was also the week that I more or less gave up on the very idea of reading for pleasure. Fortunately, I honestly love all of the subjects I need to research whilst bringing J and her world to life. It’s not a problem, exactly; but, rather, a temporary pivot to a new and differently fulfilling mindset.

RESEARCH NOTES WEEK 4:

  • VICTORY: I’ve not missed a day of research in the first month of work.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERY: I found J’s high school diploma for sale on eBay. For real. From 1918!
  • FRUSTRATION: I have yet to purchase the above diploma due to weird COVID-era finances. Sob.
  • CURRENTLY READING: The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby
  • HOURS SPENT ON RESEARCH: 7

School photo. From my collection.

**

Until next time!

ISSUE ONE-[R]evolving Research: The 98-Year-Old Dog

“The difference between doing something and not doing something is doing something.”-James Corden, May I Have Your Attention, Please?

As some of you know, I am in the early (and I do mean early) stages of researching material for a biography. The best-case scenario has me completing said research in about three years. Say, the end of 2023. It is the biggest, grandest, scariest, and most exhilarating project I’ve ever contemplated. A few weeks in, and I am having a helluva good time. Let me explain.

Since learning to read–way back when at age three–I’ve adored reference materials and all related paraphernalia. Dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias. Dates, facts, figures. All marvelous. Sigh. Good thing, that. Why?

Because I could not imagine trying to tackle the life of an obscure musical theater performer (whose career started 100 years ago) without this weird native penchant for unearthing mundane or evasive details. This project is hard, y’all. Daunting. Elephantine. 

And all the more rewarding when I discover a tiny puzzle piece, such as her purebred dog’s birth date and parentage, 98 years after the fact. He was an Airedale, in case you were wondering. Black and tan. I imagine he looked like this:

Not really her doggo. This is a 21st-century good boy. Public Domain.

Maybe I will eventually find a photo of her actual good boy. I’m already in possession of some of her archives (an origin story for another post). Anything is possible in the world of biography, right?

Speaking of those puzzle pieces, dozens are already in place. Those mostly belong to the outer edge. Inside? One here, a couple there. Largely unconnected but waiting to be joined to the rest. An exciting concept. Can’t wait. Only approximately 9,957 pieces to fit in place. Or more. Who knows? I certainly don’t.

I spent the first couple of weeks poring over dry historical records: census, birth, death, marriage. Obituaries, burial info. All helpful in forging connections, resulting in several spontaneous aha moments! I know I’ve not seen the back end of those. Not yet. Not for a while. Weeks? Months? Years? Who knows? I certainly don’t. 

Going forward? Archives are about to be this girl’s best friend. My subject, J, performed in 45 states, lived in a couple. Traveled for pleasure. There’s so much to learn.

I plan on sharing a tightly curated version of my research journey here. What does that mean? A weekly post will go up every Tuesday, with the periodic stand-alone piece appearing as needed. Should be fun.

**

RESEARCH NOTES WEEKS 1-3:

  • VICTORIES: I plotted out her family tree and know (almost) everyone’s vital statistics.
  • HAPPY DISCOVERIES: J’s dog’s pedigree; her son’s college yearbook; a ship’s manifest from 1931; a newspaper blurb from 1930 about her recovery from a “serious” surgery.
  • FRUSTRATIONS: Her children are largely enigmas.
  • CURRENTLY READING: The Lyceumite & Talent issues from 1910.

“I get intrigued by a puzzle, and writing a book is the best way to solve it.”–Anthony Storr

**

Until next time!