Author Archives: Stan Deaton

Visiting Scholars: Dr. Robert Stephens

With the reopening of the Georgia Historical Society’s newly expanded and renovated Research Center, GHS is again getting visits from scholars, students, and researchers from all over the world researching and studying a wide variety of topics. Off the Deaton Path would like to introduce our readers to some of these visiting scholars and share with you what they’re working on and what they’re finding at GHS.

This week we’ll spotlight Dr. Robert Stephens, a Professor of World Music at the University of Connecticut.

Tell Us About Yourself:  I was born in Savannah and spent my formative years there, graduating from A. E. Beach High School and Savannah State, where I received my B.S. degree. After graduation, I spent several years teaching public schools in Florida and Georgia, intersected by a tour in Vietnam. Who could have known that Army service would alter the trajectory of my career path? I certainly did not, because my service allowed me to pursue an M.A. in music education and M. Ed. in Educational Administration from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Music and Ethnomusicology.

My teaching career ranges from public school marching bands, the introductory course in World Music, guided student research experiences on the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona, Havana, Matanzas, and Santiago de, Cuba. I have taught various graduate courses and courses exploring African-American History and Culture. My teaching at Montclair State University and the University of Connecticut helped forge my research interest in the sacred drumming of Santeria, spending some ten years studying and writing about the tradition in Cuba and the United States.

My current interest includes collaborating with the Balinese scholar Dr. I. Made Bandem on a work focused on the Balinese Gamelan. My most recent research on sound, movement, and word, looks to tie Gullah expressive culture to divine contact, social commentary, and psychological battles won during enslavement, not with force but with the most potent tools available, resilience and creativity. This work grows from five competitive awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Landmarks in American History funding “Gullah Voices: Traditions and Transformations,” a workshop for elementary-secondary school teachers I led with my colleague Dr. Mary Ellen Junda.

Tell Us About Your Current Project:  My work explores new ground using creative expression. My role is to examine the history, stories, beliefs, and creative practice of the Gullah, critical antecedents to a subsequent African-American culture, and its role in the broader American mosaic. 

A barbershop on West 45th street operated by Mr. Ulysses Davis sparked my interest in a culture widely known in the area but rarely discussed in depth. Other young men in our community and I received the “scriptures from a Savannah Barbershop.” He was the storyteller/ artist, and we, the listener/learners. This was not an ordinary barbershop. But getting a haircut was one piece of the pie. Other tasty slices include the stories he told of Africa, its kingdoms, rulers, and beauty supplemented by his hand-carved sculptures. It was a remarkable contrast to the Africa portrayed in Tarzan movies. My friends and I always looked for the same thing in his stories, to learn new things and bask in the pride of an Africa we could barely imagine. Mr. Davis knew that. And he was always ready to reveal his carefully gathered evidence for doubters at a moment’s notice. Mr. Davis lit my Gullah/Geechee fire, and for that, I will forever be grateful.

Research at the Georgia Historical Society has helped me probe connections between context and function in African and Gullah creativity. To put it another way, as my investigation unfolds, I am beginning to see how external factors fueled seen and unseen changes in Gullah life. For instance, how expressive space built around sorrow, joy, hope, and fear fades the line between the real and imagined; how sound, image, gesture, movement, and material objects communicate their interrelatedness and give voice to the emotions of the lived experience. There is little doubt that the relationship between sound structure and social structure is key to understanding Gullah’s expression, a point that has not received wide scholarly attention.

Cultural survival relies on compliance with the authority of customs, ways of life, and tradition. A heavy responsibility hangs over those who use sound to translate customs and life depicting feeling into expression. Because “words under words,” as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye describes them, carry meaning resting in meaning and can instigate or change decisions. Material culture—where people create objects and images and attach importance—like words, unravel the complex lives of those who make them. No matter the tool, the creative voice of the Gullah community is as encompassing and as powerful.

Cornelia Bailey, the matriarch of Sapelo Island, was fond of saying, “if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” That “come from” history informs my interest. Knowing “where you’re going” not only prevents getting lost on the way, but it also explains religion, art, music, and movement, prescriptions for living. At the same time, the imagination creates alternative geographies in mind-broadening perspective and informing practice. These collected factors are the foundation for the book that will emerge from this research. The uniqueness of this approach, in my view, not only explains how different we are but also how much we are alike while simultaneously encouraging a fuller understanding of the American experience.

What Are you Finding at GHS? Tell us here what collections you’re looking at, what you’re finding in them, and how it relates to your project. The Lydia Austin Parrish Letters, 1947-1952 (MS 607) have been informative and allow today’s readers to visit another place differently. They paint a picture of a woman of means fascinated by old songs of the enslaved. The letters reveal many Parrish relationships whose backstories wander into the conversation, often with their sentimental views. Particularly fascinating is the structure of these conversations and what they tell about the writers and their social interactions. But Parrish is best known for her work with “The Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia” in the 1920s, later known as the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Parrish’s actions enabled the singers and others to transmit ordered bits and pieces of memory to those who follow both inside and outside the Gullah community. Generational inheritance.

Her research efforts began when she heard her housekeeper, Julia Armstrong, singing one of the old songs. That experience prompted Parrish to visit former plantations searching for other people who knew similar old songs. These efforts led to the formation of the group. The letters offer a fascinating insight into Parrish, what motivated her, and how she used the group in her social settings.

Another essential collection is the archives of Muriel Barrow Bell and Malcolm Bell Jr. (MS 1283). The Bells are best known for their work with the Works Progress Administration in 1939, documenting African Americans in coastal Georgia through photographs. These files provide essential detail on the people interviewed for the writer’s project. Malcolm Bell published important work on “Major Butler’s legacy,” where his interest is not academic categories but stories of people.

Also, the Dancy and Woods Family Papers, 1836-1940 (MS 1305), and the Keith M. Read Collection, 1770-1907 (MS 648), both provide insight into life in the compounds. William Brown Hodgson’s Notes on Northern Africa (1844) for language, and the Richard Leake Plantation Journal and Business Records, 1785-1802 (MS 485), have all been beneficial.

Dispatches from Off the Deaton Path: Wait, what? A Deep Dive into Banished Words and Phrases for 2022

Dr. Deaton reviews Lake Superior State University’s annual list of banished words and phrases and suggests additional misused, overused, and just plain annoying words and phrases we should all leave behind as we start the new year.

The Freshest Advices

Item: In this column on September 24 I noted that a very rare original copy of the US Constitution was coming up for auction at Sotheby’s and that it would likely sell for $20 million. Those estimates were wrong by half. As GHS President Dr. Todd Groce noted in the AJC, the document sold for an astounding and record-setting $43.2 million. GHS owns a draft copy of the Constitution, one of only 12 in existence, that is annotated and signed by Georgia delegate Abraham Baldwin. The copy at auction was bought by hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who will lend the document to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, for public exhibition. The museum, founded by Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, opened in 2011. And in case you were wondering, Bill Gates set the previous auction record for a book or manuscript in 1994 when he purchased the Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci at Christie’s for $30.8 million.

Item: As you no doubt heard, the Georgia Bulldogs—thanks to their undefeated regular season—have made the College Football Playoff for the second time, despite losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship in Atlanta on December 4. Yes, we all hoped this might be the year we finally beat Nick Satan and his Crimson Tide, but there’s no denying that Bama’s had Georgia’s number for a while now—seven straight losses since the last Georgia win in the series 14 years ago in 2007.

Who can blame Dog fans for thinking this was the year? Bama had looked positively human against all its SEC foes, scraping out wins over Arkansas, LSU, and Florida, taking four overtimes to beat Auburn (on the same field where Georgia crushed the Tigers), while actually losing to Texas A&M. In the week leading up to the game, the press in typical fashion dished out what Bama coach Nick Saban calls “rat poison”—hyping Georgia’s defense, yammering about Bama’s porous offensive line, even the threat that Georgia’s Jordan Davis might eat Bama QB Bryce Young like a Varsity chili dog. None of that happened. Georgia’s defense received a good-ol-fashioned butt whipping, Young looked like the Heisman Trophy winner he is, and overall Bama played like the New England Patriots.

One could legitimately ask, where had this Bama team been all season long? Which is the real Crimson Tide: the one that played with razor-thin margins all season, or the Super Bowl champs who dominated in Atlanta? Looming over it all is this: should Georgia get by Michigan in the Orange Bowl, and Bama beats Cincinnati in the Cotton, the two teams will meet yet again for a national championship. Could Bama really do that to us again? Surely, they can’t channel the Patriots twice in one season. Can they? All I can say is, no one of sane mind should ever underestimate Satan and the Tide. The question of the year: how much misery can Georgia fans be expected to endure in one single season? I don’t know about you, but maybe this is the year to record the game and sign up for that New Year’s Eve pinochle tournament down at the Mason’s lodge.

Item: December is upon us, and at some point this month you’re bound to hear Andy Williams’s classic Christmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Williams recorded the song, written in triple time, on September 10, 1963, and released it on his Christmas album that October. It has become a seasonal staple and has been enormously popular since its first release 58 years ago, appearing in commercials, movies, and TV shows, including in the trailer for the new Disney/Marvel series Hawkeye. But here’s the interesting part to me–the song was co-written by George Wyle, who also co-wrote the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. How’d you like to have those royalty checks? By the way, Wyle’s grandson, Aaron Levy, plays in Norah Jones’s band. Now you know.

Item: December means Dickens, and this year I’m reading the first book he ever published, Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People. Pre-dating Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Sketches is a collection of short essays that Boz (Dickens’s nickname) published in various newspapers and magazines between 1833 and 1836, when he was ages 21 to 24. I’m reading the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition with illustrations by George Cruikshank, first published in February and August 1836. It’s still astonishing to me that anyone could write with this level of maturity and insight into the human condition at the equivalent age of a freshly minted college graduate. Though it lacks the appeal of a full-fledged Dickens novel, there are still some vintage Dickensian character sketches here. You can see him limbering up, stretching himself for the great novels to come.

Item:  Speaking of Dickens, as the Season is upon us, if you’ve not seen the 1984 film version of A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott, check it out. It’s the best of all the theatrical versions of the Dickens classic, from the location setting in Shrewsbury to the perfect casting, right down to Old Fezziwig. Frank Finlay’s Marley is the best you’ll ever see, though Edward Woodward’s (of The Equalizer fame) Ghost of Christmas Present is a strong runner-up. David Warner as Bob Cratchit, Roger Rees as Scrooge’s nephew, and Angela Pleasence as the Ghost of Christmas Past top off a stellar cast. And for good measure, director Clive Donner worked on the 1951 rendition, Scrooge. Now you know that too.

Item: Speaking of A Christmas Carol, fans of audio books who want to experience the original 1843 novella in a new way should check out the versions read by Simon Prebble (whose father, historian John Prebble, authored the famous Fire and Sword Trilogy of Scottish history) and the version narrated by Dr. Frank-n-Furter himself, Tim Curry.

Item: Speaking of Old Fezziwig—and this will be the last Dickens reference in this post—if you’re a fan of great seasonal Christmas brews, you’ll be happy to hear that Sam Adams has brought back in its holiday pack both Holiday Porter (“inspired by the famous drink of London’s Victorian era luggage porters. Brewed with generous portions of Caramel, Munich and Chocolate malt, this hearty porter finishes with traditional English Fuggles and East Kent Goldings”) and—joy to the world—Old Fezziwig Ale (“Like the character that inspired it, this beer is festive and worthy of a celebration all its own. Bursting with spices of the season, its full body accompanies a deep malt character, with notes of sweet toffee and rich, dark caramel”). Old Fezziwig was missing from last year’s holiday pack, turning festive ale lovers everywhere into small-hearted grumpy grinches who refused to bang their slew-slunkers. And no, I’m not getting paid to write this, nor is Sam Adams a sponsor of this blog, but I and they should be.

Hoist a glass and enjoy the holidays. See you in 2022.

The Freshest Advices

Item: After every election, those displeased with the outcome often threaten to “move to Canada” or to secede or otherwise withdraw from American life. I thought about that when I recently began re-reading Edmund Morgan’s classic The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. I first read this book as an undergraduate in Phinizy Spalding’s Colonial American history class at UGA, and at that time I didn’t understand at least half of it. As I’ve mentioned before, I am now periodically re-reading some of the classics from grad school in order to do justice to books that got short shrift then. Morgan’s book was first published by Little, Brown, & Company in 1958 and is part of the “Library of American Biography” series.

The Puritans got their name, of course, because of their desire to purify the Anglican Church in England, and like many reformers on a mission, they could be a rather single-minded, driven, uncompromising bunch. This increasingly put them on a collision course with King James I and his son Charles I, as their demands for reform became increasingly outspoken. John Winthrop and many of his fellow Puritans could see the writing on the wall, and instead of remaining and taking part in what eventually became the English Revolution, they formed the Massachusetts Bay Company and in 1630 separated themselves from the home country by 3,000 miles.

The dilemma in the book’s title is the story of what happens when a Godly community decides to live in the world without being of the world—and the tension between the freedom of the individual and the responsibility that government has for maintaining order (reminiscent of our current controversy over vaccine mandates). Should the discontented leave and follow their own vision somewhere else, or stay and either come to terms with the status quo or tear down the system? Winthrop and his band of Puritans left to start anew, but he ended up with his own share of malcontents to deal with like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Uncompromising purity or pragmatic compromise? Winthrop didn’t figure it out, and neither have we almost 400 years later.

Item: If you’re a fan of ZZ Top and haven’t seen it, check out the 2019 documentary “ZZ Top: That Little ‘Ol Band From Texas,” on Netflix. It’s a fascinating look at how a Texas rock band rooted in the blues transitioned to become instantly recognizable cultural icons—with the help of those MTV videos—after the release of Eliminator in 1983. The beards, the cars, and the music are all here in this retrospective nominated for a Grammy for Best Music Film. Despite the death of bassist Dusty Hill in July of this year, ZZ Top is still Bad, and Nationwide.

Item: Lots of good new history and biography being published this holiday season. In no particular order, here are some of the books I’m looking forward to reading:

Fernando Cervantes, Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest (Viking, 2021)

Gordon S. Wood, Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution (Oxford, 2021)

Peter Ackroyd, Innovation: The History of England, Volume 6 (St. Martin’s, 2021)

Jay Cost, James Madison: America’s First Politician (Basic Books, 2021)

Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (Viking, 2021)

Adrian Tinniswood, Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the English Country House after World War II (Basic Books, 2021)

James M. Banner, Jr., The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History is Revisionist History (Yale, 2021)

Volker Ullrich, Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich (Liveright, 2021)

Ronald Hutton, The Making of Oliver Cromwell (Yale, 2021)

Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020)

Andrew Roberts, The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III (Viking, 2021)

Item: I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and have listened to several good ones this fall. Being the season of darker days, I always like to hear a good rendition of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Three that I would recommend are those read by Martin Jarvis (great production, reminiscent of the old radio dramas), Anthony Heald (no frills, just great narration), and Tom Mison (if you enjoy a British accent).

For those working hard to grow old gracefully, you’ll enjoy listening to Dick Van Dyke’s Keep Moving, and Other Tips and Truths About Aging, narrated by Rob Petrie himself. Van Dyke wrote this book when he was 89; he’s about to celebrate his 96th birthday and is still going strong, winner of five Emmys, a Tony, a Grammy, and recent Kennedy Center honoree.  

Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time, was a joy to read, and equally brilliant is Anna Fields’ narration of all 6 volumes. Fields was the pseudonym for Kate Fleming, an award-winning actress, artist, singer, audiobook narrator and producer who died tragically in a flash flood at her Seattle, Washington, home in 2006 at age 41. Her production of this classic biography is a lasting legacy for one of the best audio narrators of all time.

Item: Long-suffering readers of this blog know I love scary stories at this time of year. I recently read The Casebook of Carnacki by William Hope Hodgson. Carnacki is a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes, created at the turn of the 20th century at the same time that many writers were trying to cash in on the consulting detective craze set off by Arthur Conan Doyle. Whereas Holmes never ventured into the realm of ghosts and goblins (with the notable exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles), Carnacki specializes in tracking down things that go bump in the night. Sometimes the hauntings have supernatural origins and sometimes not, but they all create an appropriate mood and are great fun. This series of stories was first published between 1910 and 1912 in Edwardian-era magazines before being pulled together for book publication under this title in 1913. They all follow the same formula: Carnacki has four friends over for dinner, after which they retire to the library for brandy and cigars while Carnacki tells the story of his various adventures, with titles like “The Thing Invisible,” “The Gateway of the Monster,” “The House Among the Laurels,” and “The Whistling Room.” Hodgson only wrote nine of these stories before his death at the Ypres salient in World War I on April 19, 1918, at the too-young age of 40. Happily, the Carnacki stories are back in print as part of the “Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural” series published by Wordsworth Editions. Check it out.

Till next time—and Happy Thanksgiving.

One Night Only, 40 Years Later

Forty years ago, on October 26, 1981, the Rolling Stones brought their North American tour to the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Tickets went on sale—less than 5,000 of them—about two weeks earlier, at 2:30 in the morning, only at the Fox box office. Most were snatched up by sleepy Georgia Tech students. When Atlantans woke up the next day, they heard that the Stones were coming, the show was already sold out, and you had a better chance of seeing Bigfoot than scoring tickets to the show. While almost all the other shows on the tour were in stadiums or large arenas, the Stones chose the intimate Fox for the Atlanta show.

Thanks to my brother Jeff—who stayed up all weekend before winning tickets by being the 93rd caller to an Atlanta radio station on that Monday morning—I turned out to be one of the relatively few people who saw that legendary show. As long-suffering readers of this blog know, it was one of the foundational nights of my life. My first Stones concert, and coincidentally also the first for Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who has become a key component of their ongoing success.

40 years later, on Veterans Day, 2021, Jeff and I decided to re-live the magic by closing the circle and seeing the Stones together again, this time at a slightly larger arena—Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This was my 11th Stones show, the 5th in Atlanta.

This was the first show I would hear without beloved Stones drummer Charlie Watts. He’d been with the band since January 1963, and until their first show on the current tour the Stones had never played a gig without him in 59 years. How do you replace the irreplaceable? Not to mention—but I’ll mention it anyway—Mick Jagger is now 78, Keith Richards is 77, Ronnie Wood is 74. Isn’t this supposed to be a young person’s game? The Wembley Whammer was fittingly remembered just before the show with a video tribute on the gigantic screens that tower over the stage.

Not to keep you in suspense, but the Stones—and I would call them “the surviving Stones,” but with these guys that’s been true since the death of Brian Jones 52+ years ago—were as good as it gets. Better than ever. Maybe even better than that. How is that possible? From the opening and unmistakable chords of “Street Fighting Man” through the buzz-bomb bass notes of “19th Nervous Breakdown,” through “Shattered,” (shadoobie) and “Satisfaction” the Stones did what they do and that no one else can.

After nearly 60 years, they still set the gold standard. Mick ran and pranced and “wiggled his bum,” as Charlie used to say. Keith wore a beanie throughout like the Grand Old Ghoul of Rock n’ Roll that he is, playing louder than ever, smiling and loving every minute. Ronnie was Ronnie. They even threw in 1967’s “She’s a Rainbow” (from Their Satanic Majesties Request), allowing Chuck Leavell to showcase his keyboard chops. Steve Jordan on the drums brought an energy and vibe that honored Charlie Watts while putting his own unique stamp on the music. They are still playing with an energy and a love for performing that defies reason. Like every other Stones concert I’ve witnessed across four decades, I didn’t want the music to end.

Seeing the Stones 40 years ago was already, at that time, seeing history. The Beatles had been broken up for a decade and John Lennon was dead. Led Zeppelin had dissolved two years earlier. Elvis had been gone for 4 years. Other founding acts of early rock had already long since vanished or gone into hibernation.

The Stones rolled on, aging but never growing older, continuing to play, dismissing the critics, and with every passing decade they passed milestones that seemed impossible. Touring at 50 in the 1990s? Ridiculous. Having another go at 60 in the early 2000s? They’ll embarrass themselves. Are they really going out on the road at 70, in the 2010s?? What will they call it, the Walker Tour? The Roller Derby?

Now they’re approaching 80, and are at a place no band has ever reached. No one now even remembers the British invasion, but watching the Stones is to remember the shock of their early appearance with long hair, their surly attitudes and rebellious sneers, and their anti-establishment pose. They still have something to prove, and they clearly enjoy trying to prove it.

It’s bound to end sometime, isn’t it? Surely Jeff and I won’t be seeing them again in 40 years—or even 5. But as we walked out of the arena, there on the big video screen was a message from the Stones that—true to form for them—teased and tantalized, but that I fervently hope was true:

“See you soon.”