Sunday, July 28, 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Kelly Clarkson

It was kind of weird watching Who Do You Think You Are? again.  It's been off the air for a while now, and I guess I got out of the habit (also evidenced by my lack of reporting on the last episodes of season 3).  The first episode of the new season on TLC was available as a download early, but I wanted to wait to see it on television so I could enjoy the whole experience, complete with commercials.

The first thing that struck me was that when I looked for the show in the online TV guide, it showed as only a half-hour program.  That turned out to be incorrect, but I was initially wondering if cutting the length of the show had been part of a compromise to bring it back on the air.

When the episode began, the intro showed the eight celebrities to be profiled this season.  I noticed that it's a very different kind of group than we had seen on NBC.  During the last season on NBC, Thomas Macentee had been reporting that ratings were dropping with each episode, and I'm sure that was an extremely important factor in NBC's decision to drop the program.  But the new list of celebrities also makes me wonder whether they were starting to see a lack of compelling stories, and/or whether the celebrities with stories no longer fit NBC's demographic as well, which skews a little older.  Six of this season's celebrities are decidedly younger than what we've seen previously, and the oldest is only 48:  Christina Applegate (41), Kelly Clarkson (31), Cindy Crawford (47), Zooey Deschanel (33), Chelsea Handler (38), Chris O'Donnell (43), Jim Parsons (40), Trisha Yearwood (48).  So this is a pretty big shift.  I also noticed there is no black celebrity this season, which surprised me, and the only Jewish representative is Handler, who is half Jewish and half Mormon (now there's an interesting combination).

But on to Kelly Clarkson, our first celebrity for this year.  She was the winner of the first season of American Idol in 2002 and has carved out a successful singing career.  She has won three Grammys, has had multiple songs go platinum, and sang at President Barack Obama's second inauguration.  In her description of herself, she said that she was very strong and that she stood up for what she wanted, which she had to get from someone in the family, which set the theme for the rest of the show.  She repeated it so many times during the episode I wondered if it was the only line she had memorized.  Admittedly, she is a singer, not an actress, but I found her to be very "fakey" throughout the episode.  Most of her lines seemed very strained.

Clarkson is engaged and decided it would be nice to learn about her past.  For the past two years her mother has been working on the family's genealogy, so she wanted to talk to her about what she has found already.  Her mother, Jeanne Ann Taylor, lives in North Carolina, but came to visit Clarkson in Nashville.  Clarkson asked Taylor why she had become interested in genealogy; Taylor said it was because she had had no connection to her family roots and wanted to know what kind of people her ancestors had been.  She told Clarkson she had found some things online and (of course) said to look on  She pointed Clarkson to the Rose family tree she has created.  The oldest ancestor on the tree was Isaiah Rose (1842–1916), Clarkson's third-great-grandfather.  Taylor told Clarkson that's where she should start.

Even though Taylor had already created the tree, and one would hope she had done some research to come up with her information (okay, maybe hope in vain), the first thing Clarkson did was look for Rose in the 1870 census.  Of course she found him:  He was 28 years old, living in Coal Run, Washington County, Ohio, working as a "coal diger" [sic].  Also in the household were Malissa (20 years old) and Leslie (1 year old).  Amazingly enough, she immediately commented that he would have been about the right age to be in the Civil War and noted that being from Ohio he probably would have been a Yankee.  At first she didn't sound happy about that, but her tone changed a little later and she said it was a relief that he would have been fighting for the Union and freedom.  When she looked for Rose in military records, she found him listed with two units, the 18th Ohio and the 63rd Ohio, both times as a private.  (She ignored the Isaiah Rose from Tennessee who fought for the Confederacy.)  She wondered why he was listed with two different units.  She and her mother decided the best place for her to start her research was in Ohio.

In Columbus, Ohio, Clarkson went to the Ohio Historical Society and met with Vonnie Zullo, a researcher who specializes in military records at the National Archives and Library of Congress — in other words, in Washington, D.C.  The compiled military service record (CMSR) of Isaiah Rose that Zullo showed Clarkson is stored at Archives I in DC.  As often happens, the location shoot was nothing but window dressing.

Zullo showed Clarkson the first card in the file, which indicated Rose had enlisted in October 1861.  Even though this was six months after the first shots of the Civil War had been fired, somehow Clarkson decided it was "right after" the war started.  She also said she just "had to know" why he would have "enrolled" (her word, not mine).  Zullo explained that there was a lot of patriotic feeling in Ohio because it had a long history of abolitionism and was an important part of the Underground Railroad.  She said it was one of the top three states for volunteers.  When Clarkson asked why Rose was in two different regiments, Zullo said that after he was mustered out of his first unit there was still a need for soldiers, so he could have re-enlisted to continue supporting the cause.  Then Zullo showed Clarkson a card (with the name spelled as Isaih Rose) that stated Rose had been taken prisoner after the Battle of Decatur.  Clarkson of course wanted to know what had happened, so Zullo told her she should go to Decatur and find out.  It's amazing how says that all you need to do is look on their Web site for all the information you need for your genealogy, but then they send people all over the world to find information that just doesn't happen to be on the site.

But Clarkson dutifully traveled to Decatur (just outside Atlanta), apparently by car, a trip of about eight and a half hours and almost 600 miles.  Maybe Clarkson doesn't like to fly?  At the DeKalb History Center she met with Timothy Orr of Old Dominion University.  Clarkson "caught him up" with what she knew about Rose (as if he didn't already know), and he explained how the Battle of Decatur was part of Sherman's Atlanta Campaign, which led to his March to the Sea.  He showed her a battlefield map indicating positions of Union and Confederate forces, to which Clarkson commented that the battle was "kind of" an important supply one.  Yeah (sigh).  So the Confederate cavalry came up behind the Unions lines and took several men prisoner.  The report of the battle indicated 31 men were missing, including Isaiah Rose.

Oh, but now relevent records were available on Ancestry again, so when Clarkson wanted to know what camp Rose was taken to as a prisoner, Orr said she should look online.  Clarkson went to Ancestry and said, "Let's see what comes up" (good heavens, who scripts this stuff?).  She found Rose listed in the Andersonville Prisoners of War database and that he was exchanged in Atlanta on September 19, 1864.  (Coincidentally, this same information is available for free on the National Park Service Web site, in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database.  Unlike the entry on Ancestry, the CWSS site includes that Rose survived Andersonville.)  Orr told her that Andersonville had held 45,000 prisoners, to which her response was, "Wow!" (Sigh again.)  Orr said, "I'll ... see what I can find" in the way of original documents and sent Clarkson to Andersonville to get a feeling for what her ancestor's experience would have been like.

At the Andersonville National Historic Site Clarkson was met at the gates by Park Ranger Chris Barr.  He told her that the camp structures were mostly gone and that the gates themselves had been reconstructed, so practically nothing was actually left of the prison Rose had been held in.  The original Andersonville was a fenced-in stockade with no housing; prisoners made their own tents for shelter.  The prison was constructed to hold 10,000 men, but became home to 45,000.  (This number, given by both Orr and Barr, is actually misleading.  Over the course of its use Andersonville housed a total of 45,000 men, but not all at once.  According to one site, the maximum number of men there at one time was about 33,000, which is horrific enough that the presenters did not need to misrepresent the total.)

A former Andersonville prisoner named Robert H. Kellogg wrote a description of his experience at the camp from May 1864.  Clarkson read aloud a page of his book.  (Kellogg's book, Life and Death in Rebel Prisons, is available as a free download at Google Books.)  Orr showed Clarkson a photograph of an Andersonville prisoner who was barely skin and bones.  He told her that a swamp was within the camp confines and that many prisoners caught diseases while there.  Almost 13,000 prisoners died at Andersonville, making it the deadliest place of the Civil War.  Clarkson wanted to know how the prisoners left at the end of the war.  Barr showed her a record with a list of prisoners who escaped, which included Isaiah Rose.  He explained Rose probably ran away while he was in transit to a different prison.  Clarkson asked what happened then, but Barr said he didn't know.  Clarkson drove away from Andersonville, talking about how her discoveries had made her feel.  I was stunned to see that she drove past Andersonville National Cemetery and didn't say a single word about it; there wasn't even a caption on screen to identify it.

From Andersonville Clarkson headed back to the Atlanta area.  She met again with Timothy Orr, this time at the National Archives at Atlanta (actually in Morrow).  He had found Isaiah Rose's invalid pension file.  During his escape from Andersonville he had been wounded by friendly fire.  Someone in the 33rd Indiana had mistaken him for a Rebel and shot him in the left leg.  He had a 3" scar and a permanent disability.  Clarkson gave a tearful soliloquy about how Rose's legacy was four million people freed and the union kept together.  She had performed at Obama's inauguration, but he wouldn't been president if not for the Union winning the war.  This was another time she said she had to have come from a long line of people who were willing to stand up for what they believed.  They were great sentiments, but she just didn't deliver them believably.

Now Clarkson wanted to know what Rose had done after the war, so she went to Marietta, Ohio (the Washington County seat), where she met with Josh Taylor (who seems to have put on a little weight; I guess all of his success is going straight to his hips) at the Washington County Public Library.  Clarkson wondered if Rose's disability had affected his life.  Taylor had a folder about Rose.  An article from August 31, 1886 showed he had been elected to the position of county sheriff.  An article from the Marietta Daily Leader of November 8, 1905 congratulated Rose on being elected a state senator as a Republican (which Taylor explained was Lincoln's party) and included a photograph.  Clarkson's reaction?  "Oh my gosh."  And then she went on (again) about "how far back that strength came from" in her family.  Taylor suggested Clarkson go to the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus to learn more about Rose's political career.

At the Ohio Statehouse Tom Pegram, a professor of history at Loyola University in Maryland, was waiting to meet Clarkson.  She explained he had "been doing research for me" (finally an honest comment!), but then asked if there was "any way to find out" more information.  (If there weren't, why would you be here?)  Anyway, Pegram said that newspapers had a lot of political commentary about Rose and his opinions on temperance.  (One of Pegrams's research focuses is the American temperance movement.)  Rose was firmly in favor of temperance and more regulation of saloons.  Clarkson called this a "hiccup in the ancestor department", her best comment during the episode.  When Pegram explained that the temperance movement also involved women's rights, because of the number of men who would come home drunk and beat their wives, Clarkson decided, "I'm glad he [Rose] was for women."  Rose backed a bill that would allow counties to regulate saloons more; the bill passed on February 27, 1908 and was signed by the governor.  Clarkson asked whether Rose, as a freshman senator (how in the world did she know that term?), had made enemies with his support of the temperance movement.  Pegram showed her an article from the Marion Weekly Star of November 11, 1908 which said that Rose had become a target of the liquor industry and had missed being re-elected by 32 votes.  To add insult to injury, the county bill was rescinded.

Lastly, Pegram showed Clarkson the book Washington County, Ohio to 1980, which had a section on the Isaiah Rose family.  It included a photo of the family and mentioned that Rose had died on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1916 and was buried in Round Bottom Cemetery.  Clarkson wanted to see where he was buried and said (again) this is "why I stand up for things, it's in my blood."  (Do her songs repeat a refrain this many times?)

At Round Bottom Cemetery, which is near Coal Run, Clarkson found the Rose family plot fairly easily.  She seemed genuinely excited to see all the names, including Isaiah's.  She talked to his stone and told him, "I'm your three times great-granddaughter."  (Now that's something I can empathize with.  When I visit cemeteries I always talk to the people I visit.  I remember going to the Jesuit cemetery in Santa Clara, California and having a nice half-hour discussion with Father John.)  As Clarkson left the cemetery she said, "I think everyone should do this.  Now it's back to Nashville to tell Mom what I've learned."

In Nashville there was a short wrap-up with Clarkson and her mother.  They talked about Rose being a pillar of strength and how they hadn't been connected with their families but now had learned about them.  And as a final chorus, Clarkson said, "It's in our blood."

I found this an underwhelming episode because of Clarkson's on-screen persona (even all of her hugs seemed scripted), but the research held together very well, which was great to see.  I was happy that did not air its horrible "you don't need to know what you're looking for" commercial, but the new "simply type in the name" isn't that much of an improvement.


  1. Thanks, Janice. I did not have a working television when this show aired, but now I feel as if I watched it. I always enjoy your reporting of these episodes.

    1. You're welcome, Beth! I have to admit, I think I've missed writing about the show. Now I'm looking forward to Christina Applegate.

  2. Hi Janice, I stumbled upon your blog today while doing some research on the Judd-Brewster lineage. I love your reviews of the WDYTYA program- they make me laugh because I share your sentiments. Clarkson seemed rather detached/disconnected cold and fake. Personally, I don't care for the show- not the US version anyway. I do watch the UK episodes on YouTube because they seem to provide more education than drama. I remember feeling very gypped by the US version of Kim Cattrall's history after watching the UK episode.

    1. Thank you for stopping by! I'm glad to hear you like my reviews. I think Clarkson's episode was one of my least favorites because she seemed so artificial. As I said, though, she's not an actress, so maybe we're picking on her unfairly.

      I've heard several people echo your sentiments on the US versus UK versions. I still haven't seen an unadulterated UK episode. Obviously I need to put that on my to-do list and start scouring YouTube for something good.

  3. Yes indeed, check out those UK episodes! They are all really good and there are MANY of them. One of my favorites was the Jerry Springer episode ( Jewish genealogy). I never thought I could entertain the possibility of ever liking the man but now I love him! The best part about the UK version is that they don't play that horrible music like the US and they don't have the excessive commercials like the US does so, you actually get 58 minutes ( or thereabouts) of intelligent quality programming!
    So glad to have found your blog :D

    1. Jerry Springer was actually the first one I thought about looking for. I've heard it was a particularly good episode. Indeed, one of the benefits of UK programming is no commercials!

      Glad to have you here! Welcome!


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