secret_history (2007-09)

Random Notes

A correction, an observation, a suggestion, and a rare inspiration

by Jack Neely

A couple of readers wrote to straighten me out about how Wikipedia does business. In my Gamut feature detailing the several flaws in Wikipedia's "Knoxville" entry, I made an unnecessary jab at those who volunteer to help Wikipedia as if it were the Red Cross. I'd be happy to help, myself, I said, if they'd share their advertising profits with me.

I figured they had advertising profits, anyway. How else would they stay afloat?

Well, it turns out Wikipedia actually is sort of like the Red Cross, in one respect. It doesn't have real advertising, and doesn't make profits. It is, officially, a non-profit, supported mostly by donations.

Cynics have claimed that some of Wikipedia's major donors, like the multinational corporation Virgin, display their logos on Wikipedia, and that logos are de facto advertising. But my snide cracks were misleading.

As a parent of kids who have used the Internet for sources on term papers, I have to say I'm still a little leery about the whole phenomenon, and I also heard from some teachers on that score. Some kids take Wikipedia as gospel, and, as I pointed out with that awkward Knoxville entry, it's not that. (Considering that bias is obviously allowed on Wikipedia, it's surprising that the community's various promotional organs don't take better advantage.)

I admire the intent of Wikipedia, which seems to be based in part on the scientifically reputable theory that a consensus of guesses lands somewhere near the truth. But it all raises the basic quandary of free Internet sources: that you usually end up having to trust a contributor or editor who may volunteer his time because he either (a.) has a vested interest in his subject, or (b.) is unemployed and bored.

Radio spots tout the University of Tennessee's latest motto: "Changing the future--today."  

Coming up with a fresh, original motto for a college every few years must be a challenge. Roane State Community College's motto was "Just down the road." It was hard to argue with the essential truth of that one. That's indeed where Roane State is.

The motto of Faber College, in National Lampoon's Animal House , was "Knowledge Is Good." That's mostly true, too.

But something about UT's new slogan kind of stuck in my editorial craw. The future isn't here yet. Maybe they mean guiding, or directing, or anticipating, or planning the future. But how can they change it? UT's new motto is a theoretical-physics conundrum that I bet has come up in lively discussions in the Nielsen Building on the Hill.

And what if the future turns out to be just great? Would UT change it, anyway?

I keep hoping we can turn our municipal embarrassments into assets. Look at the County Commission mess. Maybe we could take a cue from some of the popular attractions at Pigeon Forge, the ones that play up the hick element, like Hill-Billy Village and Elwood Smooch's Old Smoky Hoedown, and the restaurants that advertise "Kountry Kookin'". There's big bucks in the industry of entertaining Yankees with hick marketing. We can get in on the action, too.

Here's an idea. Put signs up on the interstate: See Scoobie and Lumpy's Kountry Kommishun. Spell out the letters with cartoon logs.

Evry other Mundy. Tourists will buy tickets to watch their loveable antics.

It might be a better way to raise money for the Knox County School System than inducing students to go door to door selling coupon books. I often buy them out of guilt, because we can't collect enough to pay for our children's education. Kountry Kommishun, if they could add a Dixie Stampede to the show, along with a special committee of Elvis impersonators, might just be our ticket to Easy Street.

Finally, a rare note of inspiration. Two years ago, I wrote a story about Leola Manning, the Knoxville blues/gospel singer of the 1920s and '30s. At Knoxville's old St. James Hotel, she made several recordings for Brunswick/Vocalion, most of them her own compositions, including "The Arcade Building Moan," about a fatal apartment-house fire on Union Avenue. Her work was almost completely forgotten for half a century. When she died over a decade ago, even her family didn't know about her records.

But in recent years, her plaintive voice and searing lyrics have made it on to a few anthology CDs, and have caught the attention of some big-time recording artists.

Sometimes the singer-songwriter gene runs in the family. A couple of Leola Manning's daughters were musicians. Lovie moved to Detroit to work for Chrysler; she was a talented pianist until she lost one of her hands in a factory accident. Leola's granddaughter, Virgie Lee, was a songwriter who married a gospel singer; they made some recordings in Memphis.

And now their daughter, Leola's great-granddaughter, who goes by the name Keena Elaine and heretofore has been known mainly for on-air voiceovers and jingles on Detroit's Radio One, is getting some high-profile recognition. Inducted into the prestigious New York Songwriters Circle, she has performed at Manhattan's well-known nightclub the Bitter End.

She has just now put out a professionally produced CD called I'll Be Coming Home . Just two versions of the same song, it's a touching gospel/soul piece about an American soldier returning home; whether he's dead or alive isn't clear. You can download it at www.digstation.com/keenaelaine .

The singer's real name is Keena Clinkscales, and she lives in Detroit, where she works for Radio One. She has been working with her mother, Virgie Lee, who's her songwriting partner.

She knew her great-grandmother Leola well; the matriarch lived most of her life in Knoxville, but would visit her family in Detroit, and make homemade pancakes, sausages, and applesauce, and a wonderful baked dessert she called Millionaire Cakes.

"I miss her so much," Keena says. "She was so humble and kind, yet she was so strong. I'll never forget the expression on my great-grandmother's face when I sang the song, 'Precious Lord,' at 11 years old. She smiled and held me so tight and said, 'Keep singing and serving the Lord.'"

The funny thing is, Keena never knew until after her great-grandmother died that Leola Manning had written songs and made professional recordings. "The family never spoke of it," she says. She was known as Leola Ballinger when she died in Knoxville in the mid-'90s, apparently unaware that some of her recordings had been re-introduced on CD.

"I have to fulfill the legacy," Keena says. "It was 77 years ago since my great-grandmother recorded her songs. I feel her spirit with me when my mom and I write songs."

I'll Be Coming Home has gotten praise in the Michigan press and from successful professional songwriters like Tina Shafer, who helped Keena Elaine into the New York Songwriters Circle. It's a good start, but, as her great-grandmother knew, it's a tough business.