Defoe’s chronicle of an earlier plague, the Four Tops, and the coming crisis for libraries: newsletter, June 5, 2020

June 7, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newsletter.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,5xx) on Friday, June 5, 2020.


One of the great thrills for a beekeeper is to capture a swarm. A swarm occurs when a hive develops a new queen, and the old queen leaves and takes part of the hive (maybe 25 to 50 percent) with her. Those bees gather around a tree limb or something similar. From there the swarm sends out scout bees to look for a new home, and within 24 hours the swarm decides where it will make its new home — often in the hollow of a tree.

If the beekeeper can find the swarm before it makes this decision, he or she can shake the swarm into a box and then put it into a hive as part of the apiary. It’s like getting a whole new colony of bees free.

I had not captured a swarm for several years, but late last week a friend call and told me she had seen one. She even sent a picture. I found the swarm, put the bees in a box, and took them home. I put them into a hive that I had quickly constructed out of some old, unused equipment I had. Unfortunately, the bees didn’t like it, so they flew out almost immediately and swarmed around a limb of a nearby tree. I left them there overnight, and in the morning I got out a ladder, shook them back into a box, and put them back into the hive. This time they stayed.

Thus, this week’s watercolor (see below) — a self-portrait, if your will.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,575 subscribers and had a 27.9 percent open rate; 7 persons unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Daniel Defoe tells us about an earlier pandemic

Since the pandemic happened upon us in March, many references have been made to Daniel Defoe’s “non-fiction novel,” A Journal of the Plague Year.

Rightly so. The book was published in 1722 and concerns the plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only about six years old. The book does not recount his own experience. Rather, it is a carefully researched account of what happened to those left in the city of London after the wealthiest had fled to other parts of England or to the continent.

And the story that Defoe tells has some striking similarities to what is happening today, as Michael Robinson writes in an article on

As described by Daniel Defoe in his nonfiction novel A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), the epidemic, rather than cutting a broad swath through London society, spared the wealthy and targeted the city’s hardest-pressed and least powerful—the workers serving the merchants and government officials whom the city quarantined and isolated. Bound to the middle-class households they served, these workers could hardly flee in the style of the care-free narrators of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353),a classic of plague literature that little resembles Defoe’s account. Source: Great Plagues Always Hit Workers the Hardest | Literary Hub

Robinson draws parallels with today when the lowest paid workers are without the resources to isolate themselves or their families and then are exploited by employers who do little to protect their welfare.

Dafoe is best remembered for his novels, Robinson Crusoe first and foremost, but also for Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, Memoirs of a Cavalier, and Captain Singleton. But Dafoe was a careful and prolific journalist and pamphleteer whose political stances were not always in agreement with the authorities during the turbulent times of his life (1660 – 1731).

Dafoe had a continued interest in economics, particularly the political structures that enforced a class system and the rise of the modern middle class in the England of that era. The role of the government in economic policy, such as tariffs, was something that fascinated Dafoe, and his writings did not always comfort the wealthy.

Dafoe wrote in a simple, straight-forward, and readable style, as exemplified by these two paragraphs in chapter 2 of Robinson Crusoe:

It was my lot first of all to fall into pretty good company in London, which does not always happen to such loose and misguided young fellows as I then was; the devil generally not omitting to lay some snare for them very early; but it was not so with me.  I first got acquainted with the master of a ship who had been on the coast of Guinea; and who, having had very good success there, was resolved to go again.  This captain taking a fancy to my conversation, which was not at all disagreeable at that time, hearing me say I had a mind to see the world, told me if I would go the voyage with him I should be at no expense; I should be his messmate and his companion; and if I could carry anything with me, I should have all the advantage of it that the trade would admit; and perhaps I might meet with some encouragement.

I embraced the offer; and entering into a strict friendship with this captain, who was an honest, plain-dealing man, I went the voyage with him, and carried a small adventure with me, which, by the disinterested honesty of my friend the captain, I increased very considerably; for I carried about £40 in such toys and trifles as the captain directed me to buy.  These £40 I had mustered together by the assistance of some of my relations whom I corresponded with; and who, I believe, got my father, or at least my mother, to contribute so much as that to my first adventure.

Dafoe is another of those authors whom you probably read at some point in your life and whose work is worth revisiting, particularly in this year of our plague.

The coming crisis for libraries

What will libraries be when we are rebuilding our society and social structures after the pandemic?

“Essential” is one of the words that Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, uses.

Marx, in a recent New York Times article, writes:

. . . it clear to us that libraries must invest — or continue to invest — in digital and virtual technologies and expertise. There is so much more we can do. Every library should aspire to provide the broadest possible digital access to all books and the world’s accumulated knowledge, not just the snippets now available on the web. The digital public library is a piece of necessary public infrastructure that must be built with the same care, collaboration, and adherence to values — including privacy — that we have used to build and run our branches. Source: Opinion | After the Coronavirus, Libraries Must Change – The New York Times

But libraries must to more than invest in digital services. The traditional physical services are also important. Providing an open, safe, and calm environment for people to come, read, work, and think; offering computer services to the digitally deprived; stretching and encouraging programming into new and uncharted areas — these are just a few of the roles the public library must play.

Unfortunately, as with every other institution in the public sector, library budgets are being devastated by the pandemic. And many public officials do not consider them “essential.”

Taking this attitude imperils the community, and those of us who love libraries need to gear up for the crisis ahead.


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

The Four Tops: polished performances and fierce loyalty

After years of pursuing them, Berry Gordy in 1965 had finally signed the Four Tops. The Detroit group had been together for a decade, had recorded singles and albums, and had developed a stage presence that was slick, professional, and appealing.

But Gordy knew that they could be much better — and more lucrative — if they were part of the Motown stable of stars.

When Gordy heard that the Four Tops’ previous record label, Columbia Records, was about to release a new version of their songs “Ain’t That Love,” Gordy put the Motown machine into high gear. One morning in July, he assigned his ace songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland (brother to Brian) — known collectively as HDH — to write something for the Tops to record. By noon they had it. That afternoon the group rehearsed it, and by that evening they and the backup musicians were laying down the tracks.

Three days later, “It’s the Same Old Song” was released by Motown on the same day that Columbia brought out “Ain’t That Love.” The old song fell flat, and the new song rocketed into the top 10 of the pop charts. Just a couple of months before that, the group had done “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” and after “It’s the Same Old Song,” they would put together a string of hits including “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” (1966), and “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” (1966). 

The next two years saw even more memorable hits: “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette,”  “7-Rooms of Gloom”, and “You Keep Running Away.”

The Four Tops had a look and a sound that was pure Motown, but in many ways they were different from most of the groups and the artists that Gordy had recruited and nurtured.

Originally calling themselves The Four Aims,  Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Lawrence Payton, began performing together in 1953. Stubbs was the lead singer, but he was a baritone, not a tenor, and that gave the group a distinctive sound from the very beginning. They changed their name to the Four Tops when they signed with Chess Records in 1956, and for the next seven years they produced records for several labels without any notable success.

They were a highly popular and polished stage act, however, and they toured with Billy Eckstine. Gordy began recruiting them for Motown in the early 1960s. He was impressed by their music and their act, but something else about them struck him. From the very beginning, they had remained together — no personnel changes — and they were fiercely loyal to one another.

Gordy believed that if he could get them, they would be loyal to him, too. It took him more than two years to reel them in. But when that finally happened, the payoff was huge.

The HDH writing team composed many of the group’s hits, but they made a critical decision that put distinction into the Tops’ sound: even though Stubbs was a bariton, they wrote many of the leads in the high part of his range, bringing an urgency to his singing that he would not have had otherwise.

When Gordy moved Motown to Los Angeles in 1972, the Four Tops decided to stay in Detroit and shift their recording to another label. They did not have the hit-after-hit success that they had enjoyed in the 1960s with Motown, but they were able to explore different musical ideas and formats, and they continued with their energetic live performances.

The Tops performed and recorded into the 1990s, and in 1997, Lawrence Payton died of liver cancer at the age of 59. The group had stayed together for 44 years without any changes. After Payton’s death, the three remaining members performed for a while as The Tops, and in 1998 they recruited former Temptations member Theo Peoples to fill out the fourth spot. The group kept performing during the new century. Stubbs died in 2008, and eventually the group broke apart.

Their talent, distinctive sound, and stability had set a high standard for all other Motown groups.

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

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

Temptations: soulful voices, close harmonies, and choreography that made you want to dance

Smokey Robinson, Motown’s founding brother

Stevie Wonder: the most talented Motowner of them all



Check out last week’s newsletter

Jennifer S.: I got very caught up in your discussion of Lincoln’s photos, and it resonates particularly since we live in an era so filled with photos. It is astonishing to realize how many photos I see in a day now, thanks to social media, and to compare that number with how many photos I saw in a day in, say, my senior year of college. I was especially struck by the discussion questions you pose (oh, to have been one of your journalism students!).

I recently watched an instructional video on presenting oneself as an author. The video presenter talked about all sorts of things, from the nuts-and-bolts of microphone choices for podcasting to the use of various platforms for blogging. In a section about “The Author Portrait,” she showed two photos of herself, each taken about five minutes apart. She’d made no changes to makeup, clothing or location, but she looked, by her own fairly accurate estimation, about 20 pounds lighter in one. She talked about the subtle differences in camera angle and head tilt, and she went on to show various red-carpet photos of movie stars, explaining that they are schooled in standing certain ways, holding their heads and torsos in certain ways, techniques which make for the most flattering possible photos.

I know that major political candidates receive a lot of similar coaching, which brings me back around the Cooper Union photo of Lincoln and its likely impact on his election image. Hm. The seemingly objective eye of a camera certainly does admit of a wide variety of interpretation and adjustment, even before we get to apply the Photoshop and Instagram filters!

Elizabeth F.: I read Damon Runyon at a very young age.  He was a favorite of my father’s and in the  1950i’s his complete collection lived in a bookshelf in my room.  I began reading Damon Runyon at the age of eight and reconnected when my daughter was a part of her high school production of Guys and Dolls, a special story in its own right.  Of course, an additional story could be written about my daughter, a high school junior with a great voice, also volunteered to head the costume committee with a budget of $125 to garb the entire cast, including the numerous background singers and dancers!  I enjoyed reading your comments so much.  I went back and looked at Dad’s books, still with me. Thanka!

Vicki G.: I graduated high school in 1964, so Motown was a very large part of my life. Your articles sent me on a wonderful trip down memory lane. I found myself singing each and every song mentioned. (It’s fortunate I live alone because I can’t carry a tune in a basket with a lid on it)! I don’t remember who said it but ‘ thanks for the memories’.

Vic C.: Thanks for the Damon Runyon info.  It got me to looking for where it was that I had not so recently returned the paperback version of a collection of some of his short stories in which you would rightly conclude that your heretofore mention of the source for Guys and Dolls (“The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”) the music from which (along with other creations of Frank Loesser) occupies a cherished location in my collection and memories of the pleasure engendered of the musical itself provided some of the motivating impulse to perform “Luck Be a Lady” in front of a live cabaret audience and which was part of a medley of hits from said musical all led and conducted by my daughter.  And Jean Peters was soooo beautiful.Also, much as I enjoyed the music of the Supremes — at its peak when I was in college — I grew up with the Andrews Sisters (Patty, LaVerne & Maxene but NOT Shirley) et al. Sometime in the last several months, I heard a recording of the King Sisters performing Three Brothers using the same chart as Woody Herman did originally in 1947 with Zoot Simms, Stan Getz, Serge Chaloff & Herbie Steward and the rest of the Second Herd.  No matter which version of it I hear, I always stop and listen.  It is one of the most noteworthy performances of four musicians in absolutely perfect sync and never fails to make me smile.

And thanks, again, for your calming artwork.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Capturing a swarm

Best quote of the week:

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common — this is my symphony. William Henry Channing, clergyman and reformer (1810-1884)

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 world of Damon Runyon, a bee inspection report, and the best girl group of them all: newsletter, May 29, 2020


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