I haven’t written much about my father. That’s because I didn’t know him very well. He split when I was four. That’s a whole story for another time.
But I spent a little time with him late in his life, after he had remarried, to a lovely retired schoolteacher whom Carol and I liked very much. They had moved back to the place of their birth — the hills of eastern Tennessee. It was on our visit there, and on many subsequent trips, mostly through rather than to, that mid-South state, that we came to appreciate what a diverse and unusual place it is.
Diverse geographically, racially, geologically, and linguistically. You could flip through the big, fat, copy of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, published just below the border at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and then check out almost all of the regional idiosyncrasies described therein in a few short days in Tennessee.
If you look at a United States map, you’ll see that states get larger and much more rectangular once you cross the Mississippi River on Tennessee’s western border. Eastern states come in all sorts of odd, crumpled configurations.
And Tennessee is a prime example. It looks like a long, thin layer squeezed between jumbles of states to its north and south. And once it was even wider, when it was the western extension of skinny North Carolina that stretches all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Even without Carolina, Tennessee is wide enough to encompass three different topographies: Hot, sultry lowlands along the Mississippi. Rolling hills in the middle. And the ancient Great Smoky Mountains to the east.
You can almost hear the differences by listening to Tennesseans’ voices: syrupy drawls in the cotton fields and historic old city of Memphis toward the west, faint southern accents along the mid-state plateau, and sharp mountain twangs in the east.
In fact, in the green and peaceful highlands, folks call the place “Tinnissee,” tell you to “git” rather than “get,” and put some extra letters onto the ends of words. You’ll hear natives such as country-music legend Dolly Parton speak of “you-ins” and “we-ins.”
For decades, mountain folk have brought their music to the Grand Ole Opry stage and studio in Nashville, in the middle of the state.
But since the capital city is also renowned as “the Athens of the South” for its stately architecture and superior universities, things can get pretty sophisticated outside the music hall.
Tennessee is called “The Volunteer State” because hundreds of Tennesseans joined frontiersman Andrew Jackson in defeating the British at the decisive Battle of New Orleans down in Louisiana during the War of 1812. Jackson became a national hero –- and eventually, president of the United States.
Jackson was a country lawyer. A frontiersman in “coonskin cap country,” where folks in the backwoods wore warm caps made from the fur of raccoons, complete with a ’coon tail hanging down the back.
“Old Hickory” had a whole following called the Coonskin Cap Crowd. When he was inaugurated as president, he invited his rough-hewn friends into the White House to drink whiskey and eat cake. As I may have told you in an earlier posting, they immediately trashed the place, mashing cake into the carpets, tearing some of the curtains, and driving Andy and Rachel Jackson clear out of the mansion.
Davy Crockett was another coonskin-cap frontiersman. He fought Indians, and then was elected to Congress three times. And he said “git” and “you-ins” a lot, too. Once, standing on a stump, telling bragging stories, he claimed to have killed his first bear when he was three.
I remember that story from the old television show about Crockett. And the theme song:
Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee.
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods where he knew every tree.
Killed him a b’ar when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.
Ever the adventurer, Crockett ventured west to Texas in 1836, where he joined with rebellious Americans in a fight for independence from Mexican rule. That fight led to a San Antonio mission called the “Alamo,” where Crockett and 188 other “Texians,” as they were called, were overrun and killed by hundreds of troops commanded by Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna.
Subsequently, cries of “Remember the Alamo” would rally the Texians to victory of Santa Anna’s forces — and brief statehood before Texas joined the American union as a state.
But we have wandered too far from Tennessee.
The “T” in Tennessee is an important initial in American history. It’s part of the legendary TVA, or Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive hydroelectric project during the Great Depression of the 1930s that harnessed the energy of the wild Tennessee River and some of its tributaries. It brought electricity to poor people in the hills and hollows of several southern states.
And it turned rivers into wonderful recreational lakes — the Great Lakes of the South, they’re sometimes called. At one TVA town, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, an isotope of uranium was first split off for use in making the atomic bomb.
Great Civil War battles were waged in Tennessee, as well.
In 1862 at Fort Donelson, one of what at first appeared to a potent line of Confederate forts in the “West” — the “west” then meaning anything beyond the fighting hotbed in Virginia. But the Union brash, dyspectic new commander, Ulysses S. Grant, and naval commander Andrew Foote devised an attack on forts along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Fort Henry on the Tennessee fell first under shelling from Foote’s ironclad gunboats. Many in its garrison escaped to join Rebel forces at Fort Donelson, which Grant surrounded.
Facing a long siege and the prospect of starvation, garrison commander Simon Buckner surrendered.
It was then that Grant acquired his nickname, “Unconditional Surrender,” for the stern terms offered Buckner.
Their forces in disarray, southern commanders virtually abandoned Tennessee and began losing battles in Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina as they were literally driven to the sea by Grant’s equally pitiless subordinate, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.
At about the same time that Fort Donelson fell, Rebel gunboats also seized Memphis, one of the oldest and most historic cities of the Deep South, effectively ending Confederate hopes of controlling the vital Mississippi River.
We don’t associate Memphis with a general or admiral — or even the “Old Man River” Mississippi — however.
Memphis is “The King’s” city, even though he was born down in Mississippi.
Elvis Presley made his first recording in Memphis at Sun Records in 1953, and he shot to stardom to such an extent that he could build Graceland, a kitschy if not grand mansion. It remains Tennessee’s leading tourist attraction by a mile.
Memphis, in the heart of the Old South’s “cotton belt,” is named after the capital of ancient Egypt. All the way through the 20th century, more cotton was bought and sold in Memphis — the one in Tennessee — than in any other city in the world. I haven’t kept track, so I’m not sure if that’s still true. But I can assure you that that was a lot of cotton!
And Memphis is one of the three or four places in the United States famous for barbecue — beef or pork ribs, slow-roasted over hot coals. Some people like them “dry,” meaning just smoked without added sauce; others like ’em “wet” — slathered in a rich, sticky, peppery sauce.
And then there’s Memphis duck — though it’s not a delicacy. The city’s most famous hotel, the Peabody, keeps a flock of the fowl on the roof in a sort of penthouse suite! Then, at precisely 11 each morning, a fellow in a fancy Edwardian coat escorts the ducks down a reserved elevator and through the lobby. I’m not sure why, but the people line up by the hundreds to see the quackers come and go.
I’ve not even mentioned the most compelling Memphis attraction: a kind of mournful, low-down, your-daddy-done-you-wrong kind of music called The Blues.
It was in Memphis that W.C. Handy, the “father of the blues,” wrote “The Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” in the 19-teens, and the mournful sounds still pour out of clubs up and down Beale Street.
Finally, and sadly, Memphis lives with another legacy it would just as soon forget. It was to Memphis that civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior, traveled in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers.
And it was on a hotel balcony there that he was shot and killed by an assassin.
You could start a driving tour on Beale Street, head east to check out the Opry in Nashville, and end up at Dolly Parton’s “Dollywood” mountain resort up near Gatlinburg. I took such a trip to visit my father in the Tennessee highlands years ago. But if you go that way, allow lots of time. You’ll be driving 700 kilometers without ever leaving Tennessee.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Dyspeptic. Chronically irritable and grouchy, often as the result of acute indigestion.
Idiosyncrasy. A peculiar trait or form of behavior.