secret_history (2006-15)

Exhibits of Interest

More on the strange Gay Street discovery, and the wonderful banjo exhibition

by Jack Neely

Concerning last week’s column about the remains of a fetal human found in an antique jar in the deep basement of the Commerce Building, some readers assumed, as I did for a moment when the KPD seemed to deny the discovery, that I was victim of an especially bizarre April Fool’s prank.

However, KPD spokesman Darrell DeBusk did some further digging and found out an officer did quietly deliver the artifact to the county medical examiner. DeBusk says the police didn’t file an official report because the examiner determined, promptly, that it was a “medical exhibit” and no evidence of a crime.

My suggestion about its origin—that it might have been inventory left behind by a carnival-supplies firm known to have occupied the building in the 1930s—was just a wild guess, and, I suspected, a perverse one. I don’t have much experience with carnival sideshows; my parents discreetly steered me away from the ones they used to have at fairs at Chilhowee Park. So I didn’t know what a lot of our readers did know: that human fetuses in jars were once a common sideshow attraction.

People like to talk about the debasement of modern society—especially compared to America in some pre-1960s golden age when family values and morality reigned supreme, and, they say, respect for the unborn was unquestioned.

But I found out that in early-to-mid-20th century America, stillborn babies and aborted human fetuses, placed in glass jars full of formaldehyde, were a profitable business. The life of the unborn was protected by law, maybe, but a dead fetus was carnival gold. One reader recalls “a whole tentfull” of fetuses in jars at the Tennessee Valley Fair, half a century ago. He said it was like a nightmare.

The deformed ones were in especially high demand. I heard from another reader that carnies even had a term for them: “pickled punks.”

The medical examiner’s office hasn’t gotten back to me with any further assessment of the jar, but I hear they’ll keep the thing there as a medical exhibit. That fact may be a relief to the people who were around when it was found. Still, it seems to me the context—the fact that it was forgotten in a Gay Street sub-basement for several decades—is more interesting than the object itself.

There’s a more agreeable sort of exhibit over at McClung Museum on Circle Park. If you haven’t been there lately, they have some  wonderful stuff. Bones from ancient Tennessee rhinos and elephants, fanciful pottery from the native Americans who lived here before the Cherokee, some Egyptian mummies of cats, birds and a high priest.

There’s the Bat Creek Stone, the palm-sized rock found in 1889 in a burial mound near what’s now Tellico Lake, with old carvings that some thought were Cherokee symbols, until someone turned it upside down and read it as Hebrew, and proof that a lost tribe of Israel had found their way to Loudon County. Even if it’s a fake, as some think it is, it’s such an old fake that by now it’s a legend in itself, and a bona fide anthropological artifact.

What you’ll miss if you don’t get to the museum this month, though, is the exhibit called, “The Banjo: From Africa to America and Beyond.” It’s such a big deal that it attracted internationally renowned banjo wizard Bela Fleck to make a side trip over there.

Displayed are at least 50 banjos, from African prototypes made from gourds and cowhides or goatskin, to some swank Victorian models that look more like furniture or sculpture than something you could play at a hoedown.

In about a century the banjo went from an African instrument played almost entirely by blacks, and shunned by whites, to a country instrument played almost entirely by whites, and shunned by blacks. It was that irony that intrigued anthropology student Matt Morelock, a banjoist himself—and longtime disk jockey at WDVX—who wrote a term paper about the banjo’s cross-cultural history that got people talking. With help from the museum and several generous banjo collectors, he put together this one-of-a-kind exhibit.

The exhibit suggests, vividly but not hamfistedly, how it might have happened. Only blacks played the banjo until the mid-19th century, when white people wearing blackface played it. The minstrel show was, like it or not, the origin of the American pop song, and the blackface vaudeville both popularized and profaned the African banjo.

The show’s most surprising room to me is the one devoted to the Victorian era, when the banjo took an unexpected turn toward urbane high society.

We don’t get to the Appalachian banjo until the last room. It may surprise some that the banjo as an Appalachian or country-music instrument was a fairly late development, considering that most of us grew up associating the banjo with well-rooted country performers from Uncle Dave Macon to Earl Scruggs. But the African banjo apparently came to the hills via the minstrel shows that played the vaudeville houses in the cities and towns of the region. The banjos of the Appalachian section, which date mostly from the mid-to-late 20th century, look older and much more primitive than the much-older Victorian urban banjos. Some are fashioned from prune boxes or groundhog hide.

The fact that, chronologically, this section actually followed the fine banjo craftsmanship of the Victorian era is one of the ironies of this instrument’s promiscuous history.

If you haven’t seen the banjo exhibit yet, you’ll have to be quick; it closes at the end of the month. Banjo legend Mike Seeger will be playing at the museum’s auditorium this Saturday.

Knoxville has its own spectral connection to the popularization of the banjo; a reference to banjo playing in Knoxville in 1798 has been cited by some studies as the first reference to white people listening to banjo music. The quote, from a northern traveler named Thomas Weir, has been cited by various sources for at least 75 years, but there are some questions about its provenance, which is one reason why it’s not referenced in the exhibit. If the quote is a fake, it is, like the Bat Creek Stone, an old, persistent one, with a legitimacy of its own.