Archive for March, 2016

The Time John Lennon Went Too Far

Posted in African American Interest, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Rock and Pop, Women with tags , , , on March 31, 2016 by travsd

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Hey, it’s still Women’s History Month! I bet you forgot all about women, didn’t you? I know that you did.

In the spirit of our St Patrick’s post which savaged “The Luck of the Irish“, we treat today of another ill-considered song from John Lennon’s 1972 Some Time in New York City LP, the Song Whose Name May Not Be Mentioned in Polite Society. Why have I been in such a Lennon-beatin’ mood lately? I dissed him a few weeks back when George Martin died, too. Maybe it’s because I loved him so much when he was ineffably himself, and there were so many times when he was led around by the nose by whatever crackpot commanded his attention. But I’ve always criticized him on that account. The Elephant in the Room is that I am now old enough to be Beatle John’s father, and I find myself now having the clarity to see many of Lennon’s mistakes for what they were: the follies of youth. Those who die young are like Peter Pan, imprisoned forever in youth.

Now, everyone has their own personal “Time When John Lennon Went Too Far.” For some more conservative folks it might be much earlier. It might that Jesus remark in 1966, it might be “Revolution #9”, or hanging out in a bag with Yoko in a press conference in Toronto, or returning his MBE, or for even existing at all. For McCartney it seems to have been the song “Cold Turkery” (a mistake on his part, I think. Lennon’s solo single of it is amazing, truly interesting, and really pushes the expressive power of rock ‘n’ roll into some unprecedented places. It would have been a credit to the Beatles had they recorded it).

But I think we can all agree that the time Lennon went too far for EVERYBODY is when he released “Woman is the Nigger of the World” (there, I said it). I have never, in all my travels, met a single person who didn’t shake their head in wizened scorn and bewilderment when it comes to this song.

Let us not, as so many are wont to do, blame Yoko for this egregious lapse in judgment, coherence, sensitivity, and taste. I find her to be a genuinely interesting artist. Up to a certain point she was a good influence on Lennon, I think. The intersection of Japanese minimalism and rock ‘n’ roll is not only interesting and original, but it clicks. It really works. Songs like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Don’t Let Me Down” , much of the White Album, and Lennon’s first two solo LPs are all quite remarkable and they bear her influence.

But for someone who is so associated with leadership and domination, Lennon could be peculiarly passive and susceptible to the voices of others. It seems as though this was particularly the case in the mid to late 60s when several years of daily ingestion of hard drugs had broken down his ego and turned him into something like an existential vessel or void. When you hear many of his great songs, you often hear the voices of othersLewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Bob Dylan. But in Some Time in New York City, I think it is safe to say that voices of others (not just Yoko’s but those of the east Village radicals he was hanging out with) grew too strong. Lennon had always been at his best when he was somewhat elusive and ambiguous, hard to pin down, hard to figure out. Now he was literal, on the nose, obvious. That quality had been a virtue when he was dealing with his own emotions and his demons in the early solo work. It came across as raw, painful honesty. But when it came to social issues and politics, he was no longer saying broad, universal things (e.g., “All You Need is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance”) he was saying “It ain’t fair, John Sinclair…we got to, got to, got to, got to set him free.” While his music itself was often interesting and great, the lyrics were now strident and boring and singularly unrewarding to play more than once or twice, and DEFINITELY embarrassing to sing along to.

Now his voice was not even his own. He was playing second fiddle on his own album. One of the most gifted popular wordsmiths of the late 20th century, he was ceding control of that gift, sitting back and letting other people do the literary driving. And we can’t blame anyone but Lennon for that weakness. It’s his name above the title.

The phrase “Woman is the Nigger of the World” had come from Yoko. She had said it to Lennon in a conversation, and most of the lines in the song sound like things she had said to him as well. And well…to be charitable these “thoughts” could have done with the contribution of an editor. They are undigested; they have not been turned into lyrics. Many or most thinking people sign off on the thesis that women have been second-class citizens placed in a role of subservience for millenia in nearly every culture on earth. And most agree to one degree or another that change is in order. The objection is to HOW these thoughts are expressed. Most of the phrases in the song (including above all the title) sound like what they are: the kind of “brilliant revelations” potheads have when they are having a “heavy discussion”. Some of them are dubious. “We make her paint her face”? With apologies to Naomi Wolf, try and STOP some women (and some men) from putting on make-up. Who’s making BOY GEORGE paint his face and dance? That’s a different issue from being brutalized and kept down, I think. Ugh, and the self-important way he instructs us to “Think About It”. It’s unbearable.

Lastly, and most importantly, there’s the clumsy and callous and clueless trivialization of the N word, which to me seems like it ought to be equally offensive to both women and people of color. It’s also a singularly weird use of language, which I suspect can be partially attributed to the fact that English is not Yoko’s first language. This may have made it seem original and provocative to Lennon, but it’s really just kind of inept.  African Americans and women are two separate, traditionally subjugated groups of people. Using one as a metaphor for the other makes no sense. It’s like saying “lemons are the limes of this fruit bowl” — not that they’re equivalent but you can’t deny that in the context of this conversation they are similar. And it blows off the plight of black people even as it insults them by using a derogatory epithet to describe them. It’s, like, wrong in about 100 kinds of ways. Which is why radio stations didn’t play it…and you may have never played it or even heard of it, although it’s on most Lennon “best of” collections.

On the other hand, the sax player is great. If you’d like to play it go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtY5bv-oxLE. I’ve stopped embedding youtube clips here because they have a way of asserting themselves PAST my post links when I share them on social media.

For Women’s History Month: 15 Famous Females in My Family

Posted in HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Women with tags , , on March 31, 2016 by travsd

I was going to post this on March 1 for the launch of Women’s History Month, but I have been very pokey on the blogging front lately. I’m no less pokey today, but let’s consider this a second chance at redemption. Besides, as so many have said, a celebratory month or holiday is a rather lame bone to throw half (actually slightly more than half) of the human race. Reparations would be giving them dominance for the next 10,000 years; justice would be giving them full equality everywhere from now on. So we post this on the last day of Woman’s History Month as a reminder to consider the contributions of women EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR.

Here are several important women to whom I have discovered connections in my family tree. I’ve skipped some of the older ones I’ve learned about for the reason that they are so far back that nearly every European or every Briton can claim relation or ancestry. Lady Godiva is supposedly my (29th) great grandmother; Eleanor of Aquitaine a (22nd) great grandmother, but these are practically like claiming a relationship to Eve.

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Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)

Religious dissident and leader and one of the founders of Rhode Island. She was my (12th) great aunt. More on her and my Rhode Island family here. 

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Abigail Adams (1744-1818)

One of our most remarkable (and best educated) first ladies, and close adviser to her husband John Adams. We are distantly related via our common ancestors in the Boylston family. More on the Adamses and other presidential relations here. 

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Jane Austen (1775-1817)

I am related to the author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility via our common descent from Sir Thomas Leigh (1504-1571), London businessman and alderman and, briefly, Lord Mayor.

 

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 Sarah Helen Whitman (1803-1878)

While I was delighted to learn I am related to so many of my 19th century literary heroes (see list here), I was disappointed to know that I’m not connected to one of my absolute favorites, Edgar Allan Poe. So it came as a wonderful consolation prize to find out that I am related to one of Poe’s closest friends, the Providence poet Sarah Helen Whitman, whom we first learned much about from our friend Rory Raven. Rest assured we’ll blog about her in future once I’ve read more of her work.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

As Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of my favorite novels, I was extremely happy to recently learn I was related to her through a common ancestry with my (7th) great grandfather Richard Lyman and (9th) great grandmother Elizabeth Charde. My earlier post about her is here.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

As we blogged about here, our maternal grandmother was a Cady, and the famous abolitionist and feminist hero was of the same family. She is one of the personages on this page we are most closely related to. Read the full blogpost here.

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 Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

I probably share the most early colonial ancestors with this icon of woman’s rights, including John Russell, Philip Sherman, Simon Stone, William Carpenter, Humphrey Atherton and John Titus.

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Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

I discovered this great poet in my late teens via a girl I was crazy about who considered her one of her favorite writers. I looked for ages to find a family connection. It seemed impossible I didn’t have one, although I do have fewer relatives in the western part of Massachusetts. But I did finally find one common ancestor, my (10th) great grandfather Richard Wright

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Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

Believe it or not, I never read Little Women until quite recently, convinced to do so by the Mad Marchioness’s enthusiasm for it, which I now share. The Alcott name was originally rendered “Alcock.” My (10th) great grandfather Thomas Alcock is where we align.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957)

As we blogged here, Edmund Ingalls is our common ancestor. My brief post on Little House on the Prairie is here. Naturally, I am also related to Wilder’s daughter, the writer Rose Wilder Lane, an equally interesting character.

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Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

As we blogged here, Eleanor Roosevelt’s great grandmother, like myself, was a Stewart.

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 Ruth Hale (1887-1934)

Both my great grandmother and a (3rd) great grandmother were of the southern Hale family, which stretches back to Richard Hale of Virginia, our common ancestor. Although not well known today, Ruth Hale was important to feminism by being a co-founder of the Lucy Stone League, which championed the right of married women to use their own given surnames, among other issues. She was married to the writer Heywood Broun. 

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Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)

I am related to this proud New Englander and Hollywood icon through the Mayflower’s Brewster family (via marriage) and share many medieval ancestral connections.

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Bette Davis (1908-1989)

Bette Davis, like Hepburn, was from Connecticut. We share several medieval connections, notably the Beauchamps. Other classic era movie actresses I am related to include Jean Arthur, Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter and Elizabeth Taylor. 

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Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

I am especially proud of this association. Although Joplin was from Texas, she had many colonial New England ancestors. We share common descent from the Winthrops, the Shermans, and John Russell among others.

James Cruze: Of Wagons and Waterfronts

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Native American Interest, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on March 27, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the legendary James Cruze (Jens Vera Cruz Bosen, 1884-1942). Cruze’s early life sounds like excellent preparation for his most famous film as director, The Covered Wagon (1923). Born on an Indian reservation near Vernal, Utah, he was part Ute Indian, and raised in the Mormon faith.  (While his stage name sounds Spanish, he was mostly of Danish extraction. The “Vera Cruz” part of his given name was in honor the Siege of Veracruz, an action in the Mexcican-American War).  Cruze ran away from home as a teenager because he disliked farm work. He is said to have performed in medicine shows, and later worked as a fisherman to earn his tuition for drama school.

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Cruze made his fame first as an actor, becoming one of the top stars of the Thanhouser Film Company between 1911 and  1916, in films ranging from classics like David Copperfield (1911) to cliffhangers like the serials The Million Dollar Mystery (1914) and Zudora (1914).  While at Thanhouser, he married another of the studio’s stars Margueritte Snow.

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A shake-up at Thanhouser in 1916 resulted in Cruze being let go. He continued acting with various studios for a couple of years, and by the end of the decade he was a director at Famous Players-Lasky, soon to become Paramount. He went on to become one of the most successful directors of the silent era. In the late teens he directed several Wallace Reid pictures; then most of Roscoe Arbuckle’s features in 1920 and 1921; One Glorious Day (1922) with Will Rogers; then his breakthrough western epic The Covered Wagon (1923), one of the most successful Hollywood movies of the silent era. He divorced Snow that year; in 1925 he married actress and frequent collaborator Betty Compson. There came the first screen versions of the Kaufman and Connelly comedies Merton of the Movies (1924) and Beggar on Horseback (1925). He made more historical epics, like The Pony Express (1925) and Old Ironsides (1926). In 1926 he shot a comedy with Raymond Griffith called The Waiter from the Ritz which was never released. In 1927, there was the racy The City Gone Wild with Louise Brooks.

Like many of the people he worked with (Brooks, Reid, Arbuckle), Cruze was known for being a Hollywood hell-raiser, partying wildly and raising the roof through the heights and depths of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Unlike most of the characters about whom that can be said, Cruze suffered no catastrophic downfall. He divorced Compson in 1930, but he continued to direct films nearly ’til the end of his life.

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The work of the sound era was solid, if less exalted. There was the delightfully strange The Great Gabbo (1929) a deranged ventriloquism romance starring Erich Von Stroheim and Compson (read my account of it here). He contributed to the multi-partite comedy If I Had a Million (1932). He directed many pre-code gems like She Knew What She Wanted (1930) with Compson and Lee Tracy, and Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932), also with Tracy. Probably his best known sound picture is the gritty crime thriller I Cover the Waterfront (1933). One of his last pictures (1938) was an early attempt to bring Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York to the screen in a script co-written by Sam Fuller for low-budget Republic Pictures.

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Another Don (Some Stock Taking Inspired by “Mad Men”)

Posted in BUNKUM, ME, My Family History, Television with tags , , , , , on March 25, 2016 by travsd
This has to resonate with anyone with a dad from this generation

This image has to resonate with anyone with a dad from that generation

Today is my late father’s birthday

I got the idea for this post as we binge watched Mad Men for the umpteenth time in preparation for the series finale a few months ago. My father was around the same age as the fictional Donald Draper, and was also named Don. He came from a similar rural, poverty-stricken Depression-era background, served during the Korean war, was a man’s man with movie star looks (a bit of Robert Mitchum, Elvis and Rock Hudson) and then wrecked his appearance with alcohol, bad food, and chain-smoking. But most importantly, when he was young, he had taken correspondence courses to be a commercial artist.

When I was a kid, I used to sneak into the old carriage house/ barn we used as a garage and look through trunks containing my father’s youthful artistic efforts. Some of them were samples of advertising art he’d done during the 1950s, on poster board, depicting gleaming refrigerators, televisions with rabbit ear antennas, and smiling housewives serving tv dinners and jello. (In his aspirations, dad was thus more like the character of Sal than the pitch man Don Draper). My father’s draftsmanship was sometimes a little off, but he drew with a great deal of wit and personality. He had even been accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design.

For reasons that remained mysterious my father turned drastically away from a career in art, even commercial art, some time before I was born. All he would say was something about relatives (his mother? his brother?) accusing him of being a “sissy” for pursuing art. But surely the hang-up was all his, because if you were really talented and really wanted to do it (both seemed to be true of him) you wouldn’t let that stop you. But my father was also very strange about questions of duty, obedience and tradition. I really think if one of his parents had asked him to jump in front of a moving train, he would have done so. His people were extremely clannish, and really about the only socializing I ever saw my father do, at least on his own initiative, was with extended family. I think he would really rather do anything in the world rather than alienate his family, including deny his own identity, whatever that may have been.

But he was not one of those quiet sufferers. We heard about his sacrifices daily, and his resentments expressed themselves in violence with regularity throughout my childhood. The hyper-awareness that comes with fear was my constant companion. You become alert to every warning sign, every facial or body movement was like a tell for potential explosion. When I was quite young — seven maybe? — I decided that while I loved my father, I also hated him. For a great many years, I only hated him, feigning the love as a dumb-show of duty.

He gave ample reason for me to be standoffish, thus I could never let him know that I was interested in his art or cared about it. In reality, I was of course thrilled and mesmerized by it, inspired by it, it determined the whole course of my life in certain ways, but I could never show him more than a polite, perfunctory interest. And then he would be stung and hurt that I didn’t do jigs and cartwheels to show my approval. Mostly because he needed it so badly and it was one of the few powers I had over him, who had such sway over me. It felt necessary to hurt the old man and hurt him hard. I mainly regret it now because at a certain point he moved to a smaller house and chucked out most of his old art and of course now I would love to have ALL of it.  I only have a couple of odd doodles I managed to swipe in earlier years, and some of his later painting (in his retirement he finally allowed himself to return to his art). Many people never knew he had ever been an artist. To others, he would often let it slip out, and then be mysterious about it. But in retrospect, he was always leaving things around for people to find, doodles and things. He wanted his talent to be seen and admired, but he was afraid to take the risk.

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One huge difference between dad and Don Draper was my father’s lack of polish, and a seeming disinterest in conventional markers of success. My father remained the farm boy, and constantly professed hatred of all rich guys, elected officials, bosses and (from his military days), officers. The films of John Ford have helped me understand this contradictory, almost pathological attitude of his: he understood his role in life as to slavishly do your duty and be obedient and follow orders — and to hate and resent the people in power who gave those orders. This is an antique attitude, sort of unique to Southerners, I think. “I hate having to follow these orders, but there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll do it. I don’t ask any more of life than the shortest possible exposure to this misery.”

But this is America. Of course there is something you can do about it. You can BECOME the boss. You can get an education, even if it’s a self education, and gain experience and confidence, and talk yourself into better situations in which you’re not quite so powerless. To be fair, my dad did make a half-hearted attempt to climb the ladder out of manual labor. When I was about ten he began taking business courses on the G.I. bill at Johnson & Wales college. This was on top of a full time day job in the stock room at Woolworth’s, and having a family and all the responsibilities that go with that. The stress was too much for him; he melted down before graduating. And that was that. I’ve often wondered what he would have been like if he’d managed to trade his forklift for a white collar job. His appearance as a grown college student was a little unsettling. With his brief case and nerdy shoes, he gave off a vibe not unlike Charles Whitman. When he got really spruced up, he looked like he was from Bugtussle: an off the rack suit from Penny’s, and lots and lots of cheap cologne. My father was a smart guy. I have often thought his natural bent was philosophy. But he didn’t know how to play the role. 

Then it occurred to me that the Don (I am also named Donald) who possessed the missing Don Draper ingredient was me, a generation later than the one who matched him in age and background. It was me, the actor, who liked to put on a fitted suit and tie and shed the earthy trappings of my class, and spoke with attempted erudition at parties, and married a congressman’s daughter, and landed a job that put me on speaking terms with nationally important journalists and historians, and allowed me to move among the likes of Henry Luce III and David Rockefeller and get to eat dinner with the Patakis and my colleagues at the Governor’s mansion. If you didn’t grow up in this environment, playing it cool takes a lot of energy, and looking backwards breaks that cool, so you do it as little as possible.

What is that thing that allows you to do that, that allows you to invent another self? No one of any depth is completely okay with it. It causes an internal tension. Successful actors and other show biz people are the most visible people who do this; I made it a sub-theme in No Applause for a reason. The private lives of performers are often a shambles, I think maybe because, having invented one self, they continue to keep inventing others when the new situation doesn’t work according to fantasy, and it’s almost like trying to outrun your own shadow. They’re in the habit of discarding old lives they don’t like. But it’s not possible in this world to have a gleaming, perfect, fairy tale one. You will hit more bumps. This is reality. So an invented life is not a solution. There really isn’t one. My father hated himself, stewed in his own juices and in some respects that bad energy killed him. Don Draper’s solution was to hate himself, then invent other, better selves only to self-destruct again many times.

And yet there were moments on Mad Men when glimpses of a third way, and a possible path to happiness emerge. There’s that scene at the end of season six where Draper shows his kids the dilapidated house of ill-fame where he grew up. There’s the scene (in the same episode) where he drunkenly spills his whole life story during a pitch to Hershey’s, which, yes, does jeopardize his professional life but does have the purgative virtue of him spilling the truth.  And while it is hinted that he does eventually come back to being the old Don Draper we see a path he might have taken.

Like so many people I know (hundreds maybe) I’ve been trying for many years now to be a brand because we’re told this is a nation driven by marketing and that’s how you get ahead. But I’ve been really chafing at the expectations and restrictions of trying to be that brand for a long while.  It has repeatedly interfered with and occasionally even hurt my art. It’s unsatisfying and false and even really boring at this stage. Inanimate, insensate THINGS are good at living up to their brand. Coke? That’s a brand. You’ll always get the same bottle of Coke, every time. But human beings (at least any worth knowing) are complex and rich and contradictory, like all products of nature. An “image” or a reputation is like a straight-jacket. It is less than the reality, and it is false. Artists need to transcend that garbage, know who they are, and be it.

Paul Specht

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of big band leader Paul Specht (1895-1954). Much like Paul Whiteman, his contemporary and competitor, though he often used the word “jazz” to describe his work, his was both a pre-swing sound, and a post-New Orleans one. It was mainstream dance music in a predominantly white culture which had only just emerged from Victorianism. It was fun, it was even sometimes peppy, but never “low-down”, “dirty”, “feverish” or some of the other adjectives  that are often used to describe other forms of jazz.

But it was wildly popular, especially during the 1920s and 30s. In addition to live performances in ball rooms, night clubs and big-time vaudeville, Specht’s bands recorded for Columbia records, and had shows on ABC radio with The Three X Sisters. He even played the 1929 inaugural of President Herbert Hoover.  Originally from Pennsylvania, Specht started his career in 1916 and led bands through the 1940s. In later years he worked as an arranger in the broadcast industry.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

A Night of 1,000 Vaudevillians! (A Benefit Show for “I’ll Say She Is”)

Posted in Contemporary Variety, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , on March 23, 2016 by travsd

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Much afoot! We’re nearing three milestones: 1) the 20th year of Trav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre; 2) the 1,000th vaudevillian to be profiled on Travalanche; and 3) the brand spankin’ new production of our hit 2014 production, the Marx Bros.’ “I’ll Say She Is” coming your way to the Connelly Theatre, May 28.

To celebrate, we’ve looped it all into one event, with an all-star roster of talent not to be believed!

Save this Date for The Night of 1,000 Vaudevillians: April 20, 7:30pm

At the One and Only Slipper Room, 167 Orchard Street, NYC

On the bill we have none other than the following STARS:

TAMMY FAYE STARLITE!
MOLLY POPE! (with WILL HALL at the piano!)
JO “BOOBS” WELDON!
ZERO BOY!
JONNY PORKPIE
CARLA RHODES & CECIL SINCLAIRE!
NELSON LUGO!
THE CAST OF “I’LL SAY SHE IS”! (including MELODY JANE, NOAH DIAMOND AS GROUCHO, & et al TBA)

Hosted by the one and only TRAV S.D. (abetted and assisted by his diabolical yet unindicted co-conspirator Mr. PINNOCK. )

Magic! Comedy! Ventriloquism! Song! Dance! Burlesque! and Celebrity Impersonation! If we ain’t got it, it ain’t vaudeville!

Not to mention which WHO THESE PEOPLE ARE. So much star power, so much talent, I am afraid the stage will collapse beneath the weight of the supernova.

Tix are $10 general admission/ $25 for preferred seating. Get ’em here:http://www.slipperroom.com/event/1134553-guest-event-night-1-000-new-york/

The Stewart Story, and I’m Sticking To it

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History with tags , , , on March 22, 2016 by travsd
Perth, Scotland

Perth, Scotland

Well, I believe I have solved a mystery I had been laboring on for over a year, and even if no one is the slightest bit interested I have to get it out. The mystery I’ve been moaning and mooning about (here, here, here and here) was that though I knew quite a bit about hundreds of my relatives going back for many centuries, nothing was known of my father’s patrilineal line further back than around 1800. That drove me crazy! It’s too recent! And unfortunately many of the records from the area in question (Tennessee) were destroyed in subsequent fires. So there may never be the definite “proof”, in the form of physical records. But I believe I have finally solved it via clues: geography, family names, historical movements, and so forth. At any rate, I have solved it to my own satisfaction. It is logical enough for me to believe (even if it starts out on a rather fabulous note, with founding characters who strike one as almost semi-mythological. But the facts are attested all over the place.)

New York, 1673

New York, 1673

Amazingly enough, since half of my family are New England Yankees and the other half are Southern farmers of one kind or another, the story of my branch of the Stewarts in America seems to start in New York City.  Originally from Scotland (possible Perth), Dr. John Stewart (1667-1704) wound up in New York by the 1680s. Where he married a granddaughter of the first Italian American. I wrote about Pietro Cesare Alberti a little bit here. A scion of a Venetian banking family (his mother was a Medici), he was in New Netherland (as it was called before the British took it over) before 1642, where he married Judeth Jan Menjie, a daughter of Dutch colonists. The two eventually settled in Brooklyn! (or as it was known back then, Breukelen). (The exclamation point is because I have lived in Brooklyn myself for over 20 years). The pair were killed by Indians in 1655.

At any rate, Dr. John Stewart married Elizabeth Alberti (whose mother was a Scudder. I can’t help wondering if they’re related to John Scudder, from whom P.T. Barnum bought the American Museum. How many Scudders could there be?). John and Elizabeth moved to a large plot of land in Hempstead, Long Island in 1691.  This was a working farm, although John Stewart also earned additional income as a cooper and as a surgeon, hence his title. (Being a “surgeon” was not as fancy as it is today. No formal education was required. It was mostly about things like lancing boils, cutting off corns, and…sawing off the occasional limb.) Still it appears to have brought in enough income that John could forever be buying up big parcels of farmland, and so could his children. From Nassau County, he moved to what is now Jamaica, Queens in 1694 (again, not the “city”). Then he moved to Monmouth, New Jersey in 1697. There he  was elected High Sheriff, a position he held until 1702. Then he moved the whole family (which was getting quite large by now) to Sussex County, Delaware, where he died in 1704.

My (7th) great grandfather David Stewart (1689-1717) was John and Elizabeth’s middle child. Not much is known of him. He appears to have been a carpenter and not much of a world-mover compared with both his father and his son Samuel (below).  He died at the young age of 28. But not before leaving these items to his family in his will:

Item his wearing apparel 4 pounds 6 shillings 6 pence

Item. 2 dear skins 7 shillings

Item One old black hood 7 shillings

Item four knifes and a fork 2 shillings 6 pence

Item four long tooth combs & a parcel of needles 1 shilling 9 pence

Item 2 Testaments and three primers 7 shillings

Item a tobacco box, snuff box & a buckle 1 shilling 6 pence

Item a bonett 5 shillings

Item 5 pictures 2 shillings 2 pence

Item a Sword 2 shillings 6 pence

Item a Bed, bed cloaths & bedstead 4 pounds 10 shillings

Item a chest 7 shillings 6 pence

Item an old trunk, a dozen spools & four bottles 8 shillings

Item a grindstone 8 shillings

Item a horse bridle & saddle 5 pounds

Item a two year old mare 1 pound 15 shillings

Item	a Tract of land 100 acres more or less   20 pounds---------------------
With the improvements

TOTAL 38 POUNDS 12 SHILLINGS 6 PENCE

Thankfully, the portion of our story which takes place in Delaware is relatively small.

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David’s son Samuel Stewart (1711-1768) is a crucial piece of the story. He’s the one who brought the family South, in a couple of large leaps. First, they moved to Augusta County, Virginia around the 1730s. He obtained large land grants in Rowan County, North Carolina in 1757. In 1766 he sold his Virginia lands to one David Copeland, so he moved to North Carolina at some prior to that. Old Samuel died in 1768.

Then, circa 1779-1780 (16 years prior to statehood) the by now enormous extended family of Stewarts (including my 5th great grandfather Joseph Stewart) went over the hills to live in the eastern part of what would become Tennessee. As I wrote in this post, this generation of my family seems to have been heavily involved in the religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening, in founding a series of the first Baptist churches in the area, and finally pioneering the area that would become Overton County, Tennessee. (For more context, there’s this post I wrote about my family’s role in pioneering the whole region here).

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By now, I believe we have transitioned from those huge farms of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina to small subsistence backwoods farms, with some cotton on the side as a cash crop. For reasons I have outlined here, I believe Joseph’s son John served in the Creek War portion of the War of 1812, which would have taken him to the southern part of the state and on into Alabama. (Fayetteville, where the family lived for many generations was a mustering point.) While he was still living in Overton County shortly before he died, he is known to have bought and worked land in Bledsoe County, which is not so far from Fayetteville, Lincoln County, where William Campbell Stewart and Mary Hannah Hale (my [3rd] great grandparents) appear around the 1830s. I have a little dope on them, gleaned from public records, just enough information to be both intriguing and illuminating.  Campbell was an illiterate farmer, among the reasons so little can be gleaned about him. There are no letters or family Bibles or the like, just a handful of census records, deeds, and so forth. They had about 50 acres, and 6 kids, with an age spread of about 20 years from oldest to youngest. There’s a possibility that he’s the same William Stewart who served with the Tennessee Volunteers in the Seminole War in 1818 and in the Cherokee Wars (removal, is more like it) of 1836-1839, which mustered at Ross’s Landing, not far from his farm. Sounds pretty hardscrabble, and pretty fierce.  I have taken enormous liberties in linking Campbell to John (there is no hard proof, but I’ve outlined all my reasons for doing so in this blogpost and its addendum. )

As I wrote here, my great-great-grandfather James Calvin Stewart (1836-1888) was just the right age to serve in the Civil War, but he didn’t, I believe because he had a new baby at the time (and the Union retook Tennessee quite early, making it fairly easy I would imagine to duck service if you really wanted to.) But as we wrote here, his older brother William Carrol Stewart did serve in the Confederate army and was wounded at Gettysburg.

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As we wrote here, James Calvin died at the relatively young age of 52, orphaning my 13 year old great grandfather who was raised with his mother’s family, a tribe of wild back-country moonshiners named the Patricks. Virgil (1875-1938), my great grandfather, managed to become a fairly substantial man in Huntsville. Many of his kids went on to lead happy normal middle-class lives, all living independent of farms.. But as we wrote here, my grandfather Ezra (1906-1976) was a black sheep. He lost a good job at the Alabama Power Company (discharged for drinking) and he and his family became the “poor relations”, tenant farming in the backwoods during the worst days of the Depression.

Then, my grandfather, who’d never seen an ocean, enlisted in the navy during World War Two. He was stationed in Rhode Island….where he remained. It was kind of an unusual journey, kind of like climbing back into the womb. As I study the family tree, most of the movement, when there is any, is west, to places like Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. My grandfather was swimming upstream. But at any rate, because of it, I was born a Yankee, only 150 miles East of Dr. John Stewart’s farm.

 

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