Martha and the Vandellas go dancing in the streets, Wordsworth’s 250th, checking on your local bookstore, and time in the workshop: newsletter, May 1, 2020

May 3, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,587) on Friday, May 1, 2020.




Whatever your circumstances are during this pandemic and isolation period, chances are there are folks who are a lot worse off than you are. Finding ways to help those folks, rather than simply amusing ourselves, should be a top goal. There are many people who are lonely, hungry, or in need of other services. Stay alive to the possibilities for helping those folks. Donate time, money, or materials to those organizations that offer such help. We are indeed in this together.

This spring has been just cool enough and just rainy enough that we have not felt comfortable planting much in our garden. That ended last Saturday morning when, despite cool temperatures and low-hanging clouds, my wife and I got into our main garden plot and managed to put in corn, several types of beans, and okra. The potatoes I planted several weeks ago are coming up, and our tomatoes will go in sometime in the next few days. Blackberry winter is still upon us, but the growing season has begun.

Whatever season you’re in, I hope that you are well, content, and safe. Keep reading and stay in touch.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,587 subscribers and had a 30.5 percent open rate; 1 person unsubscribed.

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Martha and the Vandellas: Heat Waves, Quicksand, and but always Dancing in the Street

At the very beginning, there was no heat wave or dancing in the streets. There was no Martha, and they called themselves something other than the Vandellas.

In 1957 Rosalind Ashford, Gloria Williams, and Annette Beard — plus a couple of others — were simply teenagers in Detroit, singing in different clubs in the area. They called themselves The Del-Phis. Not long after they started, one of the girls left the group, and she was replaced by Alabama-born Martha Reeves. By 1960, they had a recording contract but no hit records.

Thinking she should try to land a contract with Motown, Reeves left the Del-Phis, and in 1962 she got an invitation from a Motown executive to come in for an audition. She showed up on the wrong day, and he told her to hang around and do some secretarial duties. She did, and she was there on a day when diva Mary Wells didn’t show up for a recording session. The musicians for the session were there, so they decided to record some tracks, and Reeves was told to stand at the mike — just stand there and not to sing.

When the musicians started to play, she sang, despite her what she was told. She sang with such volume, power, and emotion that people in other parts of the building heard her and came over to listen. One of those people was Berry Gordy, who decided the song she was singing was indeed a song that Martha Reeves should record. Reeves brought in her ex-Del-Phi colleagues for her formal audition, and Gordy offered Martha and two of them a recording contract. They needed a new name, and Gordy gave them 15 minutes to come up with one. When they didn’t, he said they were the Vandellas. The group consisted of Rosalyn Ashford, Betty Kelly, and Martha Reeves, as lead singer, and eventually became Martha and the Vandellas.

Their second release in 1963, “Come Get These Memories,”  made it to number 29 pop chart and number 3 in the R&B rankings. Later that year, they recorded two monster hits: “Heat Wave” (#4 pop, #1 R&B, 1963) and “Quicksand” (#8 1963).

The next year they took a song written by Mickey Stevenson and Marvin Gaye and turned it into what became the unofficial anthem for Motown: “Dancing in the Streets.” Its driving beat, its lyrics of common enjoyment, and its democratic outlook (“it doesn’t matter what you wear just as long as you are there”) made it the signature song for the group.

The group had more hits, such as “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack,” but they were overshadowed by the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes — not because the Supremes were better or more popular but because Berry Gordy willed it so. Gordy had fallen head-over-heels in love with Ross and was determined to make her a superstar.

The Vandellas were also undermined by illnesses, egos, and their own internal conflicts — some of which spilled into their live stage performances. The group disbanded in 1973, and Reeves struck out on her own as a recording artist, but she did not achieve great success. She retired and wrote an autobiography Dancing in the Streets: Confessions of a Motown Diva.

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

See these previous posts about Motown:

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?

Please, Mr. Postman

Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family

Celebrating William Wordsworth’s 250th anniversary? Party on

The April celebration of romantic poet William Wordsworth‘s 250th birthday has been — like just about everything else in the world — canceled.

Well, not exactly. Like many other things, it has moved online. Now, rather than just being a local affair with the center of attention on Wordsworth’s direct descendants, it has become a major poetry bash with some of the best and brightest — or most sonorous — voices that you’re familiar with reading his poems.

According to this article in The Guardian:

A host of actors and celebrities have jumped at the chance to record their favourite Wordsworth poems to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, with the poet’s descendants now appealing to the public to send in their own readings to help them build a living archive of his writing online.

The project, Wordsworth 250, arose after the coronavirus pandemic put paid to his descendants’ plans to mark the anniversary with a range of celebrations in the Lake District. “After that was cancelled, I emailed everybody in the family and said, ‘Look, why don’t we all send in our favorite Wordsworth poems, we could just put those out, us recording them on our iPhones’. I thought Wordsworths reading Wordsworth would be a bit amusing,” said Christopher Wordsworth Andrew, the poet’s great-great-great-grandson. Source: William Wordsworth’s 250th anniversary marked with mass readings | Books | The Guardian

My contribution isn’t a famous or sonorous voice, but I hereby submit my humble offering — a video of my painting this caricature of Wordsworth along with a poem read by a volunteer from LibriVox:

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Rory Sutherland on the illusion of certainty – and honeybees

Rory Sutherland, a vice-chairman at Olgilvy UK, believes we should be investing more in the inefficiency of exploration and uncertainty.

He’s written a short piece for The Spectator about that, and it’s well worth the three minutes it will take you to read it. Included:

Indeed one reason why the world is in a mess is because, for a long time, the ratio between ‘explore’ and ‘exploit’ has been badly out of whack. Entities like procurement have been allowed to claim full credit for money–grabbing cost-savings without commensurate responsibility for delayed or hidden costs. The shadow of this is everywhere, from Grenfell Tower to PPE shortages. Source: The illusion of certainty

His main example: honeybees. That’s where it gets interesting.

How is your local independent bookstore doing?

Before the pandemic struck, local bookstores nationwide had been making something of a comeback. The numbers had gone from 1,400 in 2009 to 1,800 today, according to the American Booksellers Association.

They had survived, even thrived, by being committed to the community, innovative in their practices, and agile in their operations.

That progress is now being threatened, according to this Bloomberg News article by Dana Hull:

With much of the nation under strict stay-at-home orders, independent bookstores—which rely largely on foot traffic, browsing, and impulse buying—are struggling like never before. Amazon .com Inc. has long dominated book sales, and many independent shops are Luddite operations that lack robust websites, much less e-commerce operations. Source: Independent Bookstores Offer Curbside Pickup to Beat Coronavirus – Bloomberg

How is your local bookstore doing?

If you don’t know, you should. Mine here in Maryville will let you in to browse by appointment, but the folks there have turned their attention to their cafe. They are providing a daily menu of call-ahead and take-out dinners and curbside service. They are also partnering with a local commercial farm to do a twice-a-week pop-up farmers’ market. (Check out Southland Books and Cafe.)

Another service is Bookshop LLC, which allows bookstores to create an online store if they don’t already have one.

The big box stores will survive this thing. So will the fast-food and restaurant chains. The local, independent businesses are the ones we need to pay attention to, and if I have to pick one I want to survive, it’s the bookstore.

Pandemic time in the woodworking shop

With much less to-ing and fro-ing in my life these days, I’ve had more time to spend in the woodworking shop, and pictured here are some of the results of my efforts. If I do nothing else, I turn pens. But my wife suggested that I try making some serving trays. After viewing dozens of YouTube videos, I found a couple of designs that I liked and modified (fancy word for “made them easier”) them to my liking.

I love wood, which is good because we have a lot of it. I particularly like to work with walnut, cedar, oak, maple, cherry, and others found in abundance in East Tennessee. The tray on the left is made from silver-leaf poplar that comes from a tree that blew down across the road from our house about two years ago. I wasn’t especially pleased with the way this piece looked when I finished it, but I do like the design of the tray.

I will probably make both trays again using different combinations of wood.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Mike P.: This is a very pleasant newsletter. Thank you.
Vicki G.: I was born on April 24, 1946-so I grew up with Mad Magazine AND  Motown. I still enjoy both occasionally. They both conjure fond memories of my youth. At 74 years old I am the family matriarch, which seems funny to me. I’m rambling (must be my age LOL) but my point is, if you keep your mind and spirit young, you’ll never grow old. I just want to thank you for your constant reminders of the past. 
Elizabeth F.: Thanks again, Stovall, for reminders to carry us from KAP (Katherine Anne Porter) to Berry Gordy!  I actually met Porter when I was a young American Studies student.  I have also been reading a lot about viral epidemics…history, literature and newspaper chronicles tell various pieces of the story.  
Vince V.: I grew up in Memphis in the 1950-60s when the “Memphis Sound” was being developed by Stax Records, Ardent Studios, etc. It was only a little behind Berry Gordy’s Motown Sound. I was doing some freelance writing then and queried a national magazine if they would be interested in a piece that explored the differences in the Memphis Sound and the Motown Sound. Good idea but lousy execution. With my lack of a musical background, about the only thing I could come up with is “you’ll know it when you hear it.” Later on in my career, I talked with a Rolling Stone contributor who had a quick answer. “Easy man,” he said. “With Memphis it’s the horns and with Motown it’s the bass.” I started listening to the music that way and he was spot on.

Bill G: Thank you for the link to the Shakespearean productions. They are fascinating.  Most are ZOOM presentations, but there was one 18 minute movie of TAMING OF THE SHREW set in a Viking Village.  It was a shorter version of Kate and Petruchio meeting.  It was wonderful!

Thanks for the link  I have copied it so I can re-visit it when I am bored – now a daily occurrence.  

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: On the coast of Scotland
I’m a member of a Facebook group called Purely Watercolor. Occasionally, a challenge is issued with a picture, and we are supposed to respond with a watercolor interpretation of that photo. The painting doesn’t have to mimic the picture; the picture is just the starting point. This week, the photo was of a scene on the east coast of Scotland. I will do a full post, with pictures, on how this watercolor developed.

Best quote of the week:

“He that Opposes his own Judgment against the Current of the Times, ought to be back’d with unanswerable Truths; and he that has that Truth on his Side, is a Fool, as well as a Coward, if he is afraid to own it, because of the Currency or Multitude of other Men’s Opinions.” Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) English journalist, pamphleteer, novelist, poet and historian

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The queen of pandemic literature, Motown’s founding father, Shakespeare online, and reader reaction: newsletter, April 24, 2020


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