‘At one time, Ts’ui Pên must have said: “I am going into seclusion to write a book,” and at another, “I am retiring to construct a maze.” Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.’
-Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941.
When Reverend L. A. Beckman agreed in 1979, at the behest of “a number of Members of the Larger Family (initial capitals are his),” to update his 1950 Thompson genealogy, he justified the new volume’s existence with the observation that “much has occurred since then.” Indeed, among the four generations represented at the William Young Thompson family reunion alone, Beckman records 17 deaths, 56 marriages, and 109 births in the three decades between the first and second editions.
My grandfather would have been 65 at that 1979 reunion, newly retired and easing into the role of patriarch as the older generation slouched (with apologies to Yeats) toward Bethsalem cemetery. And while I don’t have conclusive proof of it, I think a case can be made that James Brice Thompson may have had as much of a hand as anyone in determining the sort of document Beckman would shape out of the surveys and letters of inquiry he mailed out in the following months. In a way, The Book became, in its second and final incarnation, my grandfather’s legacy as much as Beckman’s.
My great-grandfather Alec never knew his own grandfather, Alexander William Thompson as, the Reverend tells us, he was mortally wounded in the Civil War battle of Franklin, Tennessee in 1864, when Alec’s father, William Young Thompson, was not yet five years old. William’s mother and A.W. Thompson’s widow, Martha Elizabeth Kennedy, was the daughter of Sarah Catherine Hanna and her first husband, John P. Kennedy, of Boligee, Alabama. After the death of Martha’s father in 1845, when she was eight years old, her mother had moved with her five children to Winston County and taken a second husband, James Ross Kennedy (no relation to the first), with whom she had five more children.
Now, by rights, this is the last we ought to hear of the later progeny of Sarah Catherine Hanna; Beckman calls his book a record of the descendants of Alexander Thompson, so it might strike us as odd that he would proceed to dedicate 42 of the volume’s 375 pages to a narrative digression following the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of James Ross Kennedy- none of whom, apart from an occasional incident of cross-pollination in later generations, have an ounce of Thompson blood. But the Reverend indulges his genealogical curiosity to bring us the following:
One of the daughters from Sarah’s second marriage, Katherine (that would be my great-great-great grandmother Martha’s half sister) married a shape-note singing school teacher named William Alexander Blackwood, known to most as “Dutch.” Kate and Dutch’s eldest, William Emmett Blackwood, had three sons and a daughter of his own; the sons- Roy, Doyle, and James- along with Roy’s oldest son R.W., formed the original Blackwood Brothers Quartet in Choctaw County in 1934.
As far as I can tell- and I’m no geneticist- this makes me a third cousin, twice removed, to R.W. Blackwood, and to James Blackwood, Jr., lead singer of the current lineup of the Blackwood Brothers. Here’s a totally unscientific representation of the genes we share:
My grandfather, James Thompson, and James Blackwood, then, were third cousins, no chaser: they shared a great-great-grandparent (Sarah Catherine Hannah, buried at Bethsalem) but not a great-grandparent. Grandpa may have crossed paths with the members of the quartet in his youth- their farm on the Ackerman road couldn’t have been more than ten miles north of his father’s- but the Blackwoods were Baptists and Pentecostals, not Presbyterians. And by 1937, when the quartet landed a regular Sunday morning gig at a 250-watt Kosciusko radio station, Grandpa was 23 years old and finding his own way out of Choctaw County. Within five years, the world would be at war and James Thompson would be on a Navy ship in the Pacific. He’d return in 1945 to a wife and two sons and a job with the Mississippi Highway Department.
By then the Blackwood Brothers were representing the Stamps-Baxter music publishing company, broadcasting out of 50,000-watt KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, and releasing 78 rpm records on a small label. In 1950 they returned south to WMPS in Memphis, where they made a life-long fan of a teenaged Elvis Presley and signed a deal with RCA Victor. They made their first national television appearance on the June 12, 1954 broadcast of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, singing “Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs?”
A month earlier, Bill Haley and his Comets had released “Rock Around the Clock” as a B-side, to little fanfare. In July, Presley would record “That’s All Right, Mama” at Sun Studios in Memphis. And in Clarksdale, an hour and a half down the road, as the Blackwoods shot to national attention and the music that was to become rock and roll was still- for the moment- the province of the darker side of town, my grandfather was pulling together the Thompson Brothers Gospel Quartet.
Just eighteen days after Godfrey’s show (and four and a half years before a similar incident would rock the world of popular music), R.W. Blackwood, bass singer Bill Lyles, and Johnny Ogden, the son of a concert promoter, were killed when their Beechcraft airplane crashed in Clanton, Alabama before a gospel festival they were to co-headline with the Statesmen.*
That summer, the ink was still wet on the 1950 edition of the Thompson family history; with the Blackwood Brothers in far off Iowa for much of the ‘40s and little of their music finding its way back to Choctaw County, I doubt they would have merited a mention in Beckman’s book. But by the publication of the second volume in 1981- the year James Blackwood, as lead singer of The Masters V, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Performance- my family of would-be gospel superstars would have been remiss in not devoting a 42-page dogleg to the line of James NoRelation Kennedy.
Comic book folks call this kind of revisionism retcon, short for “retroactive continuity”: DC requires a stable of new, but identifiable, characters, so they fudge the timeline of the destruction of Krypton to make room for more survivors than Kal-El, the child who’ll grow up to become Superman. The cast is expanded to include supervillain General Zod; a cousin, Supergirl; and even the family dog, Krypto.
Maybe a more apropos illustration can be found in the first seventeen verses of the New Testament, Matthew’s catalog of 42 generations of Jews connecting a child in a manger with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth, David, and other heroes of the Hebrew scriptures; giving Jesus (or his adoptive father, at least) such a pedigree establishes his significance- his place in the world- even before his arrival.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Bible publishers invited home audiences to play along with Matthew by including family record pages- with designated spaces for births, deaths, and marriages- between the Old and New Testaments. In the two centuries before ancestry.com turned genealogy into a series of clicks and small credit card payments, the stock-in-trade of an amateur historian was often a well-kept family Bible.
Who knows what sources the gospel writer used to track down Christ’s lineage- particularly the fourteen dark generations between the Babylonian exile and the year zero. L.A. Beckman had only to look three generations back to encounter the link between my grandfather and gospel music royalty. Being related to royalty is kind of the same as being royalty, if I understand it correctly: if Sarah Catherine Hanna were the Queen of Winston and Choctaw Counties, then it stands to reason that her great-great-grandson James would be somewhere in the line of succession- fifteenth in line, maybe twentieth. Perhaps he would have a duchy or a viscountcy.**
In an alternate universe- another trope of comic books and speculative fiction (not to mention quantum mechanics)- a young James Brice Thompson might have gotten a wild hair and enrolled in a singing school with his Baptist cousins up the Ackerman road. Perhaps he picked up the tenor or baritone spot in their evolving lineup, and strode into a Kosciusko radio station and sold the owner on the idea of broadcasting a program of four-part Gospel Music across the countryside. He and his boys might have gotten their names and pictures on paperback songbooks, to be distributed wherever singing conventions sprouted up.
Grandpa may have rocketed to fame and earned the respect of his peers, and his name would have been spoken with weighty reverence in Gospel circles long after he’d sung his last note. In that alternate universe, elderly southern men at desktop computers are learning to upload videos onto youtube, so that other elderly southern men might have a place to tap out sad sincere love letters to James Thompson’s gorgeous vocals on a number performed on a long-forgotten television program some sixty years ago.
In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the sinologist Stephen Albert posits an early theory of alternate universes- it’s worth noting that Borges’s fictional account predates the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum physics by sixteen years. “When a man is faced with alternatives,” Albert tells the story’s narrator, “he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses- simultaneously- all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times.”
In the universe in which my grandfather follows the Blackwood Brothers’ fork, there’s little chance that I exist. Even if we eliminate every variable but the most dominant- who a person chooses to make a family with- the odds against my existence grow exponentially with each generation; if James Thompson created two diverging futures when he joined his life to Futrelle McClain’s, then each of those futures bifurcated when the next generation paired off, so that in two generations there exist four parallel futures, only one of which includes the possibility of me. Go back to Alec, and the number of universes doubles again. Go back to Sarah Catherine Hanna and I have only a one in 64 chance of existing.
Now think about that passage of begats in Matthew: punch two to the power of 42 into a calculator and, if the screen is wide enough, it provides this number:
which I can only pronounce when I spell it out: four trillion, three hundred ninety-eight billion, forty-six million, five hundred eleven thousand, one hundred and four. This means that if every male in the line of Abraham was faced with a choice between two wives-one of whom would be the ancestor of Joseph, Mary’s husband- then that string of decisions would create four trillion, three hundred ninety-eight billion, forty-six million, five hundred eleven thousand, one hundred and three futures that don’t include baby Jesus lying in a manger (heck, three quarters of them miss out on the nation of Israel).
Forgive me- I may or may not have done the math correctly.
My grandmother used to rattle off the sweethearts she’d had as a young woman in French Camp, Mississippi; she’d point to sepia-toned photographs featuring slick-haired high school boys and she would cast sidelong glances at Grandpa in his leather recliner, insinuating that the present state of affairs was the result of a temporary lapse in judgment.
Grandpa never seemed to notice those looks, or to let his mind be troubled by the existence of dozens of alternate realities in which some other farmer’s son successfully wooed Futrelle McClain. Maybe he took comfort in the idea that he had various selves of his own throughout the multiverse- some finishing college; some singing or taking pictures professionally; some, to be sure, dying in the war. I’ve got a special fondness for the universe in which he joins the Highway Department and marries my grandmother and has three sons.
I may be biased.
But I suspect that he and Futrelle came to appreciate its good points as well. The second edition of the Thompson genealogy, arriving as it did in James Thompson’s 65th year, managed to both tenuously connect him with the biggest name in Southern Gospel and quite literally close the book on the could-haves and would-haves that gnawed at him. In the end, his written legacy came down to three rather meek paragraphs in Beckman’s volume:
James Brice Thompson Mrd. Futrelle (Trelle) McClain, Dec 23, 1939. She was B. Apr 4, 1913, near French Camp, Miss., the dau. of Dr. James Robert McClain & wife, Lila Wiggins.
They have lived in Clarksdale, Miss. for a number of years. In the beginning he worked with the Miss. State Highway Dept. for several years. For many years he was Field Representative for the Graeber Brothers, Inc., selling Gas and Oil to the farmers around Clarksdale.
James has now retired. He loves Photography, and is very capable in that Art. Each year he takes pictures of our W.Y. Thompson Family Reunion, which is held on the first Saturday before the frist [sic] Sunday in Aug. He has gotten many calls to do photo work at weddings, and other gatherings. He served for a number of years as Choir Director of the First Presby. Ch., Clarksdale.
*Anything I might have to say about the Blackwoods would be at best incomplete and at worst plagiarized from more knowledgable sources.
If you’d like to know what the big deal was about the Blackwood Brothers (and it’s a pretty darn compelling story), I urge you to go here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for gospel music historian John Crenshaw’s exhaustive Grand Ole Gospel Reunion write-ups (fair warning: these pages were created in ‘06, but look more like ‘99; I’ve linked the entries separately because there is no internal navigation).
Then, if you’re still thirsty for more about Southern gospel as a whole, check out Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, by James R. Goff Jr.
**Incidentally, 1981 was also the year a scion of the Blackwood line married Miss America 1980, Cheryl Prewitt. I like to think of it as the Choctaw County version of The Royal Wedding.