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  • Writer's pictureWade Bell

Updated: Sep 21

For my family, Piper, Abbey, Jesse, Emma, Jenn, Julia

We have an ancestor who was directly responsible for the shape and sound of the music that brightens our mornings and lightens our nights.

She did this by ensuring that the songs American slaves created in the tobacco and cotton plantations were not forgotten when slavery was outlawed.

These songs came to be called gospels. That is, music born of gospel stories sung by forced laborers to provide rhythm for their backbreaking work.

And to help keep them hopeful for everlasting happiness, or at least relief from toil and pain.

Our ancestor was the daughter of a Christian missionary and educator named Milo Cravath. Milo grew up playing host to runaway slaves at his parents’ house in New York State.

Before the Civil War freed the slaves, their house was a station on the Underground Railway. Not a real railway, of course. This one took the escaped slaves from safe house to safe house, usually by night, across the Southern States to freedom in the Northern States and Eastern Canada. The journey could be thousands of miles.

The savage Civil War (more people killed than in any other U.S. war) lasted from 1861 to 1865. Milo Cravath was an army chaplain for the northern forces in battles in Tennessee and Ohio.

Following the war, with slavery outlawed, Milo and two other men established Fisk University, the country’s first university for black people.

Milo purchased land in Nashville, Tennessee and a building was built. He was its initial president and remained president for twenty years.

But back to Milo’s daughter. (I wish I knew her name) Listening to the first Fisk students sing their work songs, she thought to start a choir. She named the choir the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It was made up exclusively of former slaves, some still in their teens.

Milo’s daughter was a go-getter. She toured the choir ambitiously. Skeptical white audiences who attended performances for their novelty value were quickly won over.

The choir was a great success. It toured Europe. Everywhere they went the singers were celebrated for the rhythmic power, vocalizations and profound emotion of their field songs and hollers, and as representatives of the first black university.

Her Fisk choir established gospel music as an American art form. Today it can be heard enlivening congregations, those primarily black and those primarily white.

So, in the cotton and tobacco fields gospel was born. Out of gospel came the blues. Out of the blues evolved jazz, soul, rock and pop. Mixed with traditional British folk ballads brought by settlers to the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas, gospel also developed into country.

Our ancestors played an influential role in the development of America’s music. As educators, they played roles in the struggle for human rights throughout the United States.

Milo Cravath and his daughter were antecedents of Margaret Cravath, your great and great-great grandmother. Their conduct and attitudes influenced Margaret to study to be a teacher. In 1900 she became the first woman to graduate from the University of North Dakota.

I knew her well. She would have been extremely proud of you.

Fisk University still exists. The latest incarnation of the Jubilee Singers still tours the world. To hear them and to learn more about Milo Cravath, search Wikipedia or Google Fisk University’s history.

And as you listen to your music, whatever style fits you, give a thought now and then to our family’s gift to it.

Addendum: Now I know her name. It was Bessie (Elizabeth). The information in this blog post comes mainly from family documents.

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  • Writer's pictureWade Bell

“The mind’s flirtation with the real” – Robert Hogg

Red bird nestled on a radio. Chair with broken black backs’ plastic leather cracking. Birthday cards. One from a dog named Beckham.

Telephone sleeping, dreaming of beaches, waits for a call from Puerto Vallarta. A table with notebooks. Bookcases full. Stereo off. Television off.

A road atlas of Iberia. A Canadian’s backpack stride on hot dusty paths. Port Bou, Dalí’s Cadaques, Margarita’s Costa Brava villa, The House of the Americans in Vulpellach. Ana Cris’ piso in the barrio of Gracia, Barcelona.

A slow boat’s tour of the coast. Valencia, Alicante. Lemon trees and orange trees. Malaga. Just east of Gibraltar, east of Cadiz, warmest waters ever.

West some. Slip north paralleling Portugal’s back yard. Bow to the universal memory of bombed Guernica.

Crossing the Pyrenees to France in an open-air railway carriage. Scenic. Cool at altitude. Perpignan and a print shop run by Spanish Anarchists.

Back into Spain by bus smuggling anti-Franco, anti-fascist pamphlets with intrepid Miriam, 1976. Barely breathing at passport control. They search backpacks but not bodies. The dangerous words an inner layer of clothing.

A maroon taper lit once the evening he heard Miriam died. That was years ago. Standing guard against forgetfulness it tells him of a cello silenced, brilliance snuffed out…

Introducing "Sunday Morning in the Beltline" by Wade Bell

We are thrilled to share an excerpt from a new short story, "Sunday Morning in the Beltline," by Wade Bell. The piece captures the essence of a quiet Sunday morning, evoking nostalgia and contemplation in equal measure.

Through Bell's poetic language, we are transported to a scene filled with eclectic objects and memories. A red bird perched on a radio, a chair with cracked plastic leather, birthday cards, and a phone waiting for a call from Puerto Vallarta. The story takes us deeper into the author's personal experiences, as we follow him on a bus smuggling anti-Franco, anti-fascist pamphlets and feel the tension of passing through passport control. "Sunday Morning in the Beltline" weaves together memories, travel, and emotion in a way that lingers long after reading.

If you're a fan of poetry and literature, we highly recommend checking out Wade Bell's "Sunday Morning in the Beltline." You can read the full story and more of Bell's work on The Typescript, where he regularly contributes pieces on arts and literature.

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In his answers to the Proust Questionnaire, Wade tells Open Book about the brashest flowers, the toughest shade of orange and tiger nuts.

What is your dream of happiness?

Good love, good food, good fortune.

What is your idea of misery?

Enduring the end of a deeply-rooted love affair while undergoing chemotherapy.

Where would you like to live?

Where creativity is the currency and the air is warm.

What qualities do you admire most in a man?


What qualities do you admire most in a woman?


What is your chief characteristic?

Intuitive understanding.

What is your principal fault?


What is your greatest extravagance?


What faults in others are you most tolerant of?

Their foibles and fetishes.

What do you value most about your friends?

Their generosity of spirit.

What characteristic do you dislike most in others?


What characteristic do you dislike most in yourself?

Chronic shyness.

What is your favourite virtue?


What is your favourite occupation?


What would you like to be?

A nineteen year old FI racing car driver.

What is your favourite colour?

Harley-Davidson motorcycle orange.

What is your favourite flower?

Big, brash, uninhibited Bird of Paradise. Also the dandelion, that bright, persistent outlaw.

What is your favourite bird?

Red-winged blackbird.

What historical figure do you admire the most?


What character in history do you most dislike?

Any of the swollen-headed, heart-shriveled psychopathic slaughterers.

Who are your favourite prose authors?

Joyce, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Orwell, Thomas Wolfe, the early Tom Wolfe, Duras, Bolaño, Monbiot.

Who are your favourite poets?

Chaucer, Donne, Marvell, Olson, Ondaatje, John Newlove, Bob Hogg.

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?

The ardent if confused narrator of The House of the Americans. And the anti-heroes: Macbeth, Bloom, Raskolnikov, Fritz from Fritz the Cat, even Bardamu from Journey to the End of the Night.

Who are your heroes in real life?

The healers of the body and the mind.

Who is your favourite painter?

Renoir, Utrillo, Emily Carr, John Kacere.

Who is your favourite musician?

Ana Cristina Werring-Millet, singer and guitarist, of Barcelona, Spain.

What is your favourite food?

Butter tarts.

What is your favourite drink?

Horchata de chufa (made from ground tiger nuts; I have no idea what tiger nuts are but I don’t think any animals suffer from my love of this drink.)

What are your favourite names?

Julia, Jennifer, Piper, Jesse, Abbey, Sarah, Zander, Emma, Cravath.

What is it you most dislike?

Murder by man or state thought of as a solution to anything. And Saran Wrap.

What natural talent would you most like to possess?

Musical ability.

How do you want to die?

With my eyes on something beautiful.

What is your current state of mind?

As usual, overwhelmed.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?


What is your motto?

Look, listen, write.

Also: The mind’s eye sees most clearly through a glaze.

Submitted to Open Book Toronto by Grace, June 5, 2012. View online here.

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