Thursday, May 25, 2006

Stetson Kennedy revisited, literally

I've been dabbling on this post for 3 months or so, partly because I was unsure of my goal or message. I'm still not sure but I know that I just want to tell a story. Learning of journalist Anton Zuiker's StoryBlogging effort helped me commit to finishing it.

Let it suffice to say that I have been blessed to meet a number of prominent people as of late, mostly outside of my scientific discipline. I'm trying to make sense of their coming into my life as I recognize that I have truly settled back into Southern culture, tradition, and lifestyle. So much of my introduction to the South took place as a graduate student in North Florida, an area more like southern Georgia than the flashy coastal cities further south. I'm a Yankee by birth, but my relationships and experiences in Florida and North Carolina have now come full circle. I've not only married into a long-time Southern family, but my daughter is a native of the South. The South is now home.

Standing Up For Stetson
You may recall my fondness for the book, Freakonomics, and one of the key case subjects, the folklorist, author, civil rights activist, and general hellraiser, Stetson Kennedy. I already had an strong affinity for Mr Kennedy ever since I learned he went to the University of Florida at age 21 in 1937 - he then signed on to one of FDR's New Deal projects, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to catalog Southern folklore together with the venerated author, Zora Neale Hurston. Their travels are detailed in his first book, Palmetto Country, published in 1942.

In stark contrast, when a certain other 21-year-old was a UF student in the mid 1980s, his primary goal was to keep track of which nights each bar had the best beer, maragarita, buffalo wing, and oyster specials.

Well, as detailed in my previous post, ol' Stet moved on to infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and revealing their secrets in radio and other media so as to subvert their influence and embarrass racist politicians and law officers. In detailing how Stetson defused the 'information asymmetry' used by the Klan to intimidate and evoke feat, Dubner and Levitt remarked in Freakonomics that, "Had the Internet been around when Kennedy infiltrated the Klan, he probably would've rushed home and blogged his brains out."

But, recently, Stetson's firsthand accounts of Klan infiltration in The Klan Unmasked have come under attack and he now acknowledges, as detailed in this objective reassessment, that some accounts were compiled from other undercover colleagues. Nothing to be ashamed of since others didn't have the courage to have their revelations attributed to them and, all the while, Stetson was expatriated in Europe unable to have his book accepted for publication by any American house and separated from his wife and then-teenage son due to a $1,000-a-pound bounty placed on his head by the Klan.

Making Friends
Well, my vocal defense of Mr Kennedy caught the eye of his personal secretary and keeper of the flame, Jill Bowen, a self-described "God's own brat" for her luck in falling into being Stetson's caretaker and gofer. Miss Jill wrote to tell me that Mon Jan 30 was to be the inaugural fundraising event for the new Stetson Kennedy Foundation at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Dedicated to human rights, environmental protection, and folklore preservation, the SKF pretty much stands for everything I believe in. Jill elaborated further that she was the recipient of a second $500 'Inner Circle' ticket and that her dear husband Bobby was not particularly fond of dressing up and comingling with large crowds. Hence, the fine young lady invited me to come down to Florida to accompany her to a preceding reception to meet such luminaries as Arlo Guthrie, Bob Edwards (formerly of NPR's Morning Edition), Dr Anna Lomax (the daughter of the late folklorist, Alan Lomax, and amazing scholar in her own right), Dr Peggy Bulger (director of the American Folklife Center at the US Library of Congress) and, of course, Stetson Kennedy himself. Perhaps, Jill suggested, I could even stop by Stetson's house beforehand and help her organize a few things before heading over to the event.

I'm certainly not one to be so spontaneous to blow off NIH grantwriting responsibilities and readers know that I was pretty scarce in these parts around the Feb 1 deadline. But, my wife and daughter both recognized the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and pushed me out the door to go press the flesh of history. Like a deer blinded by the headlights, I was off to north Florida to the Kennedy home and his estate and state park of Beluthahatchee, on the Florida peninsula south of Jacksonville, between the St. John's River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Touching History
I arrived at the small but cozy Lindal cedar home and writer's den of Stetson Kennedy. His two decks overlook a live oak hammock and 20 acre wetland that had been a lake before Hurricane Frances blew out the dam that Stetson had built with his father. The home is a national historic literary landmark in that Woody Guthrie spent several spans of time with Stet writing over 80 songs and completing his autobiography, The Seeds of Man. In fact, if you're a Woody Guthrie fan and have either of the Billy Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue collaborations, the image on the disc of Woody playing a guitar on a felled log was taken in 1953 by Stetson at Beluthahatchee. Here's the image again on the cover of a collection of Mr Guthrie's Beluthahatchee works that sits on the coffee table as you enter the house.

I enjoyed a lovely afternoon with Jill showing me all of Stetson's memorabilia, feeding raw catfish to "Blue Boy," the resident blue heron, and speaking with Dr Lomax who had awoken from a respite for a cold she was fighting. Bob Edwards had been by in the morning and Stetson was already gone with him for some interviews and pre-production work at the UNF auditorium.

I got a real tangible impression that Beluthahatchee was a crossroads for all thoughtful, progessive people who had ever been part of Stetson's work and legacy. I'm not a writer, but the sense I got of Beluthahatchee was much like others have written about the late Hunter S Thompson's Owl Farm kitchen in Woody Creek, Colorado (minus the acid and ammunition) - a community gathering place for whatever influential folk were coming through town, where ideas were exchanged and debated and plots hatched. Relaxing and pristine in its beauty of a Spanish moss-draped Florida hammock, it also seemed very much a nerve center. Sitting on the back porch overlooking the wetlands, I could understand how such a natural setting could inspire great idealistic thoughts and actions.

But the real world crept back in and Jill was frantic on the cell phone upon learning that Arlo Guthrie had not yet made it to the UNF auditorium - he was supposed to sing another of his Dad's songs about Stetson called "Beluthahatchee Bill" at the reception (Stetson's given name is William Stetson Kennedy). It was a hoot to watch Jill go through her address book (no newfangled Palm Pilot for this Florida gal) and sift through all of the entries for "Guthrie" until she was able to locate a relative who had a cell phone number for Abe, Arlo's son and band member. I'm an amateur guitarist myself and had made an effort to learn the Billy Bragg/Wilco version of "Stetson Kennedy" from Mermaid Avenue vol. II just in case I was needed. It was amazing to actually see the lyrics in Woody's handwriting that Messers. Bragg and Tweedy had used to write and record the song, composed originally by Woody to commemorate Stetson's 1950 write-in campaign for the US Senate battle between Claude Pepper and George Smathers. In fact, Woody had written "Mathers" instead of "Smathers" in his indictment of the former Florida senator and the comfortable business relationship enjoyed with the executors of the DuPont estate.

Off To The Show
So, then, off to the reception with Jill and Anna Lomax in my rented Caddy, a fitting vehicle to transport Stetson's assistant and the president of the Association for Cultural Equity to the University of North Florida. I had a good laugh driving Dr Lomax, knowing that she is the same "little 22-month-old Annie Lomax" referred to by Woody Guthrie in the liner notes of his album, Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child, that I routinely play in the car for my own daughter.

I am not famous, nor do I normally keep company with people who are. I've always wanted to meet famous people who I admire: Springsteen, Branford Marsalis, Elvis Costello, Bill Clinton - but more as dinner guests to discuss their views and how they got to where they are. I had one brush with fame, standing at a urinal next to Nobel laureate, Dr George Palade, at a 1986 Johns Hopkins memorial symposium for Dr Albert Lehninger - kind of awkward in that I didn't want to shake his hand at the time, nor say something like, "Dr Palade, you are a great man."

Well, the Stetson Kennedy event had me tongue-tied and awe-struck...times ten. I had no idea where to even start talking with Anna Lomax. When we got to the reception, Jill immediately introduced me to Arlo Guthrie who had just arrived. I got to shake Arlo Guthrie's hand, all I could blurt out was, "Uhhh...I'm a big fan of you and your Daddy's music," rather than relate that my daughter loves to sing Woody's "Ridin' in My Car" with me, especially when we get to the part about the horn sound. Woody wrote these songs for his kids and I'm sure that Arlo would have been touched.

Instead, I took a few pictures and walked around, talking with Arlo's wife, Jackie, and meeting some of Stetson's family, even having my own picture taken with them for the society page of The Jacksonville Weekly ("Uh, yes, that's 'PharmBoy' spelled with a 'Ph'.") Turns out that although Arlo was there, even he hadn't ever learned his Dad's song. But local folksinger, Alvah Allen, had - dang, there went my chance to play 'Stetson Kennedy' for the admiring crowd. That's okay, I would've stumbled over my words and Alvah has a far more beautiful voice anyway.

The program was a spectacular tribute to the life and times of Stetson Kennedy. Set up like a talk show with a video screen overhead and an African musician providing drum segues between pieces, it was as professional a function I had ever seen. Stetson was interviewed first by folklorist Dr Peggy Bulger and then by Bob Edwards,

now with his own show on XM Radio. Arlo provided some commentary about his Dad and his relationship with Stetson that he had only really learned about in the last decade or so. Dave Isay, founder and executive director of StoryCorps sent a heartfelt video piece honoring Stetson's work. Isay's message was particularly poignant since StoryCorps is designed after the WPA folklore projects Kennedy worked on in the 1930s. The whole program is downloadable in this pdf and I'm still trying to find out who will be marketing the DVD of the event.

I mentioned Bob Edwards and also got to meet the NPR legend afterwards (I'm almost 6'2" and he towered over me). Despite my long-time subscription to Sirius, he fetched his producer to get me to switch to XM and sent me home with a promotional CD of his interviews with a special discount coupon if I subscribed. Edwards was a key player in the early days of NPR and seems rejuvenated by the chance to do the same in satellite radio.

My admiration for Arlo Guthrie notwithstanding, the musical highlight of the night was the Steve Blackwell/Dan Leach duet of "Beluthahatchee on my Mind," a song Steve wrote but has yet to record. Steve and Dan are stalwarts in the Florida folk music community and students of Florida folk legend, Frank Thomas, who also performed. Steve and Dan offered to meet with me on a subsequent trip to Florida to learn the song, but my schedule didn't permit. Such is the kindness and openness of folk musicians.

Back to Beluthahatchee
After all of the festivities, we retired to Stet's place. Jill had me pick an orange off one of Stetson's trees to eat and gave me a snail shell from the swamp to share with my daughter. We went back inside to set for awhile with The Man himself and his dear friend, Anna Lomax. So, here I was, sitting with two of the most important people in American folklore - just settin' for a spell like typical visitors to any home, eating quiche that Stet had warmed in the microwave and drinking Korbel to celebrate the evening. [This article tells a little more about what Stet has been doing in recent days and has a beautiful picture of him at the very table where we shared champagne and goodies.]

Again, billions of questions for them flooded my mind but I was still so stunned as to just listen to their conversation. A real journalist would have been far more prepared, but I was content to be mindful, present, and in the moment. Anna really challenged Stet on what the goal of the foundation was beyond preserving his estate and continuing environmental education programs. Dr Lomax is still deeply tied to the challenges of youth in New York City and around the world, so we all talked for awhile on what the foundation could do to improve the promise of young inner-city kids who need only for adults to believe in their desires and dreams. I have not since been in touch with Anna, but her vision for improving society seems so clear.

Nearing midnight, I took leave and wished Jill, Anna, and Stetson a good night. The Man was so gracious about me coming down to share in his honor. But all I could do is tell him that the rest of my life would be unlikely to equal what he has done to eradicate human injustice.

The next morning I woke to a magnificent sunrise over the St. John's River. My wife, ever the Internet travel wizard, had found me a great hotel room with a free breakfast. I enjoyed the most spectacular Eggs Benedict over lump crabmeat that I had ever tasted. Mentioning this to the hotel manager at checkout, she sounded surprised because I was the second person that day to comment on that dish.

As I drove to the airport, I heard on the radio the Coretta Scott King had died. The night before, Jill had tried to find me the letter from Dr King to Stetson that she had recently archived. I consider myself quite fortunate to have met a major civil rights figure of our time while he was still here to receive the accolades of admirers across several generations.


Returning home, I made an effort to catch up with Stetson's son, Loren, a major force behind-the-scenes in urban redevelopment in my community (again, another amazing coincidence). Over lunch I shared with Loren my story about meeting his Dad and how moved I was by the experience. Loren smiled knowingly and asked me what I was going to do with my new-found excitement about everything from combatting human injustice to playing folk-rock music. I didn't have a good answer; in fact, my delay in posting this story is largely because I still don't have a good answer.

I live a modestly comfortable life just miles away from some pretty serious poverty, drug dealing, and gang violence. I've always tried to use my good fortune as a laboratory director and educator to help kids and adults from underrepresented minorities get experience to make a better life for themselves. But should I be doing more? I'm extended pretty far between work and helping my wife raise our daughter, but people much more busy still find time for substantial community service. Is my community service the use of my lab and teaching skills to help those less fortunate to make a better life for themselves?

I don't know - sounds pretty weak to me. When you meet people like Stetson Kennedy, people who have literally put their life on the line to stop the persecution and terrorizing of the black community, anything else you do pales in comparison.

But perhaps the lesson is that we don't have to be a Stetson Kennedy - every step one makes to aspire to be a Stetson Kennedy is a step that, when combined collectively across a community, makes the world a better and more compassionate place.

I can't wait to bring my family back to Beluthahatchee to meet Stet for his 90th birthday celebration later this year.

[This post is dedicated to my new friend, Jill Bowen, personal assistant to the author and civil rights legend, Stetson Kennedy. Everyone should be so fortunate to have a Jill Bowen in their life.]

Cross-posted from Terra Sigillata.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Six String Café to re-open in Raleigh

As a big fan of acoustic-based music, I had been hoping the David Sardinha would launch a new version of Cary's defunct Six String Café over here in the Bull City, maybe downtown or in the American Tobacco Historic District.

Well, as announced earlier this week on the Six String Yahoo listserv, Raleigh wins:
Helios Six String Café

Helios Coffee Company
413 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, NC

is merging with

Six String Café and Music Hall
Formerly of MacGregor Village, Cary, NC

For Release May 16, 2006

Helios Coffee Company and The Six String Café and Music Hall have announced a joint venture that will combine the two companies. The combination brings together Raleigh's premier coffee house with one of the Southeast's leading music venues. This summer construction will begin for the new Six String Café Music Hall on the second floor of Helios Coffee's building at 413 South Glenwood Avenue. When the
expanded facility is ready this fall, customers will be able to enjoy:

- the finest coffees and espresso in the Triangle (AOL On Line, 2006)
- a state-of-the-art music performance venue, featuring Six String's stable of national class musicians, playing acoustic music ranging from bluegrass and folk to rock to jazz and blues
- an upstairs bar overlooking Glenwood South, with all ABC permits, serving top shelf mixed drinks, fine wines, and beers on tap
- an expanded menu, featuring tapas and fine desserts

The joint venture that brings together Helios Coffee and The Six String Café is being created by Gray Medlin, who started Helios in 2002, and David Sardinha, who founded The Six String in 2001. Ann Robinson-Stiles has been named General Manager of Helios Six String Café and will be in charge of day to day operations.

Gray Medlin commented, "We started Helios to be Raleigh's meeting place for social gatherings, culture and business in a friendly, relaxed, yet artistically vibrant atmosphere. From the beginning, art and music have been an important part of Helios. In coming together with The Six String and its roster of internationally known
musicians, we are confirming our commitment to excellence, whether it's the finest espresso in town or the very best in acoustic music. Our expanded facility will give us more room for our customers to enjoy fine coffee and great food and drink in a setting that offers the best in art and music. We couldn't be more excited."

Dave Sardinha added, "This joint venture brings together the best of both of our worlds. We had our challenges at our old Cary location, both in the space we were using and in the facility itself. The Glenwood South facility is just what we needed: a great location with two separate spaces, one focusing on music performance and the other, a place for folks to gather and have fun. Over the last five years, more than 1,200 musicians asked to play The Six String because of its national reputation. We are delighted to be bringing them to a high quality establishment like Helios."

Construction of the second floor music room and bar is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2006. Clearscapes, P.A. of Raleigh are the architects for the project. Medlin and Sardinha plan to begin producing live shows on a limited basis in Helios existing first floor space this summer.

For more information, please contact:

Ann Robinson-Stiles, General Manager
Gray Medlin, 919/828-8200
David Sardinha, 919/522-7965 or

Six String fills such a great musical void in the Triangle for smoke-free acoustic music that I'll gladly take the ride over to Glenwood South.

Congratulations, Dave, and to Helios for making an investment in what I predict will be a superb collaboration.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Good news and inspiration from Duke

I just saw this link posted by Bora at Science & Politics. A truly heart-warming story about the kind of things that go on at Duke University 99.9% of the time:

Patient's Family Says 'Thank You' For Saving Life

DURHAM, N.C. -- For three years, Ara Everett has been treated for Stage 4 breast cancer and a brain tumor. But she has survived longer than she and her family ever expected.

They give the credit to Dr. Heather Shaw, an oncologist at Duke University Medical Center.

Everett's daughter, Erica Green, wrote to NBC17 to ask Triangle Wishes to honor Shaw and the medical staff that have provided such personal care for her mother.

"How do you say thank you to doctors, the people that save your life?" Green wrote in her e-mail. "We hear all of the bad stuff about doctors these days. It's time to thank them for the awesome work they do to benefit so many."

Triangle Wishes arranged for Piper's Tavern to provide a luncheon for Shaw and the Oncology Department staff at the Duke Medical Center.

"We just wanted to say, from the appointment coordinators who greet her and see her standing, struggling and say, 'Sit down, Ms. Everett, we got it,' to the nurses that whisk her back and take care of her and bring her crackers and soda if they see she's jittery to Dr. Shaw and all the surgeons, we just really wanted to say thank you to everybody in a big way," Green said.

The video of the story can be accessed here.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Civility and dialogue in the blogosphere

Cross-posted from Terra Sigillata.....

Okay, so this is turning into Bora Zivkovic week at Terra Sigillata. I can't help myself because he is one of the most influential bloggers in my short career.

Today's is Bora's 40th birthday - go on over and wish him a happy birthday.

Bill Hooker's lead in the shout-out for assistance to Bora and his family has resulted in some very nice posts and contributions. Bora, being who he is, is now asking to spread the wealth since he'll now be able to make the family's electricity payment this month.

But the title of this post came from a comment I had to post in response to an exchange between Bora and Kim of Emergiblog. Kim also tops my list of nursing bloggers (if I ever get around to revising and categorizing my blogroll). The show of mutual respect here and here between these two religiously- and politically-opposed bloggers led me to leave Bora the following comment early this morning:

I, too, share a deep respect for Kim's skills as a blogger and humanitarian for reasons somewhat similar to you: because PharmMom started her 30-year nursing career in the ER and her influence led me to a career in research (although she would have been happier had a become a "real" doctor). Kim has an incredible gift for bringing us there.

But, Bora, you point to a larger issue that is ever so refreshing in our little part of the blogosphere - civility and mutual respect. At a time when anyone who holds views different from you is labeled a traitor, nutcase, terrorist-lover, etc., I find that many of us sci/med bloggers who hold different political and religious viewpoints can still respect each other for the ideas and experiences to further our discussions. Perhaps it is because in science and medicine, we are forced to interact with (and even care for) people of other beliefs and cultures, whereas many other bloggers (and pundits) can safely write from the confines inside the Beltway or in a NYC highrise without ever having to interact with people different from themselves.

Locally, the Duke lacrosse rape case is one that has polarized our community and, in some cases, taken civility out of discussion of real problems that deserve so much more attention than namecalling can give. I was very impressed by the efforts of a small group in Brevard, NC, whose framework for community dialogue was published this past Sunday in a part of the Raleigh News & Observer's Q (opinion) section. It appears that these rules are also promoted by a Durham-based leadership development organization called Wildacres Leadership Initiative. Their bottom line is, "Dialogue is about inquiry and learning, sharing our perspectives and beliefs, and broadening our understanding of the different perspectives and beliefs among us. The result of dialogue is shared meaning, not influence to a certain outcome."

Anyway, my own bottom line is to thank you and Kim for being great examples of mutual respect in the sci/med blogosphere and illustrating the goodness that can come from blogging.

Yeah, yeah, Pharmboy, let's hold hands around the campfire and sing "Kumbaya." (Well, actually, it wouldn't hurt because it might serve as an educational moment about African and Gullah culture.)

No, what I'm saying is that while namecalling and labeling those with opposing or dissenting views might increase votes, site traffic, or fill college auditoriums, it does little to advance discussion in a way that solves the critical problems facing our society. For example, I would love to have a civil discussion with a supporter of the current US presidential administration who won't call me a traitor, heathen, or tell me I'm aiding the terrorists. I just want to understand why an intelligent person would hold such a view to find out if there's a way to bridge the divisiveness facing this country.

Of course, I am not so naive to think that compromise on every issue will solve every problem of poverty, crime, racial and gender inequality, health disparities, immigration, etc. But I do have faith that mutual respect and and an attempt at true understanding will move us further than we are today.