Music, courage, treachery, and the spark for modern genealogy research: newsletter, August 27, 2021

August 29, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, August 27, 2021.

One of the great mysteries of our lives—one that in some sense I hope we do not “solve” is the effect that music has on our intellect, our emotions, and our general well-being. No one that I know of dismisses music from their lives as meaningless.

I was reminded of that this week when I read about Clemency Burton-Hill, the 39-year-old mother of two small children who in January 2020 was struck by a catastrophic brain hemorrhage that left her unable to see, speak, or move. Burton-Hill, a DJ for the BBC and a lover of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, has been using Bach’s music to claw her way back to the life she once knew. (The essay I was reading is by Maria Popova on her website

In her essay, Popova quotes Burton-Hill as saying, “We are a music-making species — always have been, always will be — and music’s capacity to explore, express and address what it is to be human remains one of our greatest communal gifts.” It is for that gift that I am particularly grateful, and I hope that you have a wonderful and musical weekend.

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Courage and treachery during World War II

World War II continues as a touchstone of our thinking about such concepts as courage and treachery, even though the war ended 76 years ago. Two recently published books that I have encountered (but have not had a chance to read) demonstrate that. One is a tale of courage of heroic proportions. The second is treachery that has long been covered up by people who should have known better.

As the Nazis came to power and prepared for war in the late 1930s, a group of individuals eventually known as the Red Orchestra formed, bound by their common intellectual interests as well as their opposition to Nazism. They were far more interested in the German language, poetry, and literature than they were in politics. But for a short time, they provided vital military and economic information to Germany’s foreign enemies and aided in the rescue of Jews from the clutches of Hitler and his gang.

Their leader was Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and her German husband, Arvid Harnack. A new biography of Fish-Harnack has been published and reviewed by the New York Times. Its title is All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, and it was written by Rebecca Donner, her great-great-niece. According to the review:

Between 1932 and 1942, Mildred and her collaborators built a network of objectors in Berlin who hoped to stop Nazi power. Idealistic and passionate, she lived her life according to her principles. Her marriage to Arvid, a German she met while a student at the University of Wisconsin, also led her to act. Arvid was born into a family of well-known scholars and theologians, many of whom were involved in the resistance.

The group believed that the Soviet Union offered the best resistance to Fascism, although some of its members had their doubts about Communism as an economic system. The group shared its information with the western Allies as well as the Soviets.

Inevitably, however, the group was betrayed, and Mildred and Arvid were arrested in 1941 and tried for treason. Arvid was sentenced to death and executed on Christmas Eve. Mildred received a six-year sentence to hard labor, but Hitler refused to approve the sentence. Instead, he ordered her re-tried. She was executed and beheaded in February 1942.

After the war, the heroism of Mildred, Arvid, and their compatriots was muted in the West because of their Soviet connections. As the Cold War has dissipated, we have gradually come to recognize their valor.

The second book relates a far different story—one that you might think you already know. In 1935, Edward VIII, king of England, gave up his throne to marry “the woman I love,” American Wallis Simpson. Their story morphed into one of the great romantic tales of the 20th century. Author Andrew Lownie is here to tell us that nothing about this story and its aftermath is as it seems, and the truth about Edward and Wallis’ so-called “romance” and their post-reign life is a sordid narrative indeed.

Lownie’s book Traitor King has been published in Great Britain but is not yet available in the United States. Lownie has given an interview with the BBC’s History Extra podcast, which you can listen to at this link. The story he tells is a fascinating one.

First, there is strong evidence to believe that Wallis Simpson was never truly in love with Edward Windsor. He was obsessed with her, and despite her urgings to him to keep his crown, he determined on his own to give it up. In fact, Lownie says, he threatened to kill himself if she did not marry him. Not exactly what we have always heard.

Lownie contends that during the decade after giving up the throne, Edward and Wallis actively collaborated with Nazi Germany. The collaboration continued even after war between Great Britain and Germany had been declared with Edward, at one point, encouraging the Germans to bomb London in order to bring the British to the negotiating table.

The Windsors’ treachery was well-known to the British and later to the Americans, and it probably would have been covered up completely had not a cache of Nazi documents been found soon after the war was over. These documents were proof positive of the Windsors’ activity, and Winston Churchill fought desperately to have them destroyed or suppressed.

Lownie lays out the whole mess in his interview, which sheds a harsh light on what many still believe to be one of the great love stories of all time.


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

Alex Haley and the roots of modern genealogy (part 2)

During the mid 1970s and before, genealogy was a pretty hard slog, not to mention a lonely one. The few people who took an interest in researching their family’s history found that family stories didn’t square with the facts (they rarely do), family records often did not go beyond a few entries in the family Bible, and official records were scattered and inaccessible—if they existed at all.

Finding a gravesite meant putting on a pair of hiking boots, following vague directions, and discovering a set of stones that contain little or no information.

Nothing was online. We didn’t even know what the term meant.

Most frightening of all to modern genealogists: there was no back in 1975.

Alex Haley changed a lot of that. Haley’s mother’s family of former slaves, tenant farmers, and small-scale artisans had been located in the West Tennessee community of Henning, and Haley had spent a great deal of his boyhood there, listening to the family stories. Haley’s experience was no different from many other children, Black and white, of his era. The family stories could be interesting and fun, but generally they were of no historical value.

That was particularly thought to be true of Black families, whose records—if they could be found—might include only first names or vague descriptions. Even pre-1870 census records were not that much of a help. There was a history there, but it was lost.

Haley, thinking about his own family, decided to try to find it. His efforts were monumental. The results—after years of research, writing, travel, and frustration—were phenomenal. It is no exaggeration to say that they changed American culture.

By the late 1960s, Alex Haley could count himself as a successful writer. He had spent 20 years in the Coast Guard, earning for himself the first rating as a “journalist” that that service had ever offered. When he retired from the Coast Guard in 1959, he worked first for Reader’s Digest and later for Playboy, where he invented and developed what became known as the Playboy interview. He had conducted ground-breaking interviews with famous characters such as Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Muhammed Ali (then Cassius Clay), George Lincoln Rockwell, Jim Brown, and Johnny Carson.

Haley’s interview with Malcolm X led to a collaboration that resulted in the book,The Autobiography of Malcolm X (published in 1965), a powerful state of the Black activist’s life and attitudes that eventually sold millions of copies and would be considered one of the most important books of the 20th century.

By the time this book had come to fruition, Haley was in hot pursuit of his lifelong obsession, his family’s history, and he made that fact well known. He lectured at libraries and universities about his research and the difficulties of finding records of slave families. He gave interviews about his ancestor, Kunte Kinte, the name the family had inherited as their first African to be brought to America in the 1750s. An excerpt of the book appeared in the Reader’s Digest in 1974.

By the time Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published in full in 1976, it had become a much-anticipated literary event, and it immediately soared to the top of every bestseller list and stayed there for many months. The book was officially classified as “fiction” because Haley had to fill in so many gaps in his research, but many readers—and many booksellers—put it in their non-fiction category. The book won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and became the basis for a mini-series broadcast on ABC that made television history for the huge audience that it drew—an audience estimated at 130 million viewers.

In 1979, a follow-up series, Roots: The Next Generations, continued the family’s story into the modern era and showed dramatic scenes of Haley’s research, particularly his visit to Africa. Haley himself was played by various actors in the series, including James Earl Jones.

Haley’s efforts are credited with many changes in American attitudes, not the least of which is the igniting of the modern interest in genealogy and the sensitivity with which officials began to keep records and make them more accessible.

Haley continued to work on various projects for the next 15 years. He spent a great deal of time in Tennessee, particularly in East Tennessee where he had purchased a farm. He remained in great demand as a speaker, and it was on one of these speaking trips that he collapsed and died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 70.

The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)

A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:

HAG, n. An elderly lady whom you do not happen to like; sometimes called, also, a hen, or cat. Old witches, sorceresses, etc., were called hags from the belief that their heads were surrounded by a kind of baleful lumination or nimbus—hag being the popular name of that peculiar electrical light sometimes observed in the hair. At one time hag was not a word of reproach: Drayton speaks of a “beautiful hag, all smiles,” much as Shakespeare said, “sweet wench.” It would not now be proper to call your sweetheart a hag—that compliment is reserved for the use of her grandchildren.

HALF, n. One of two equal parts into which a thing may be divided, or considered as divided. In the fourteenth century a heated discussion arose among theologists and philosophers as to whether Omniscience could part an object into three halves; and the pious Father Aldrovinus publicly prayed in the cathedral at Rouen that God would demonstrate the affirmative of the proposition in some signal and unmistakable way, and particularly (if it should please Him) upon the body of that hardy blasphemer, Manutius Procinus, who maintained the negative. Procinus, however, was spared to die of the bite of a viper.

HALO, n. Properly, a luminous ring encircling an astronomical body, but not infrequently confounded with “aureola,” or “nimbus,” a somewhat similar phenomenon worn as a head-dress by divinities and saints. The halo is a purely optical illusion, produced by moisture in the air, in the manner of a rainbow; but the aureola is conferred as a sign of superior sanctity, in the same way as a bishop’s mitre, or the Pope’s tiara. In the painting of the Nativity, by Szedgkin, a pious artist of Pesth, not only do the Virgin and the Child wear the nimbus, but an ass nibbling hay from the sacred manger is similarly decorated and, to his lasting honor be it said, appears to bear his unaccustomed dignity with a truly saintly grace.

HAND, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of the human arm and commonly thrust into somebody’s pocket.


Check out last week’s newsletter 

Tom A.: About cosmic clowns . . . The sad aspect of cosmic clowns is that sometimes they are like train wrecks in progress—we can’t stop watching—and even while the wreck is still in progress and is being covered extensively, they are elected to office. Shame on all of us. The narcissist cosmic clowns themselves, those who won’t stop talking about them and those who think they are harmlessly humorous.

Vic. C.: Thanks for the Abraham Lincoln mystery; it was thoroughly enjoyable and, at the same time, a little sad that there were no more of them.  I used to watch the Jeeves movies when they showed up on late night TV.  I find them, now and again, on some of the cable channels and enjoy the timeless humor where no one is humiliated as part of the fun (which seems to be de rigueur, today.)  Coming home from college one afternoon, I turned on the TV and was truly surprised to find that Arthur Treacher, who played Jeeves to such perfection, was the announcer on Merv Griffin’s TV show.  I can still hear his voice announcing Griffin, his English accent making Griffin’s name sound like “Mehhvvvvin.”

From there, my mind jumps to Isaac Asimov’s “Black Widower” series of mysteries and, especially, the individual who solves each mystery…Henry, the waiter.  I never thought to ask Asimov (when I briefly spoke with him) whether or not there was any connection between the two characters.  I can’t help but think that there might have been.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Sonya’s Market


Best quote of the week:

There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball,

and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.

Ogden Nash, poet (1902-1971)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, 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: Alex Haley’s pre-Roots success, the everlasting Jeeves, and Abe as mystery writer: newsletter, August 20, 2021



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