There's an interesting new exhibit at the Museum of East Tennessee History on Market Street. It's a show of sheet music with the word Tennessee in the title. Most of us could name three or four. Ron Allen, well-known antiquarian, has turned up over 100, and his collection stops in 1960. He says there was such a proliferation of "Tennessee" songs coming out of Nashville beginning in the '60s that it would be vain to try to track them all down. Scholars have actually counted them, he says, and the current tally is about 885. Are there that many pop songs about Oregon or New Hampshire?
Even within its limits, it's a dazzling collection, ranging liberally from Red Foley's "Tennessee Hill-Billy Ghost" to this sacrilege from 1925: "I'm Going To Buy My Way To Heaven (With My Fare To Tennessee)." There's a 1915 Al Jolson song, "Just Try To Picture Me Back Home In Tennessee" (it's hard), and three different songs called "Tennessee Moon."
Apparently Pee Wee King's "Tennessee Waltz" was so popular that another fellow named Shorty Long (was that really his name before he heard of Pee Wee King?) came out with the "Tennessee Yodel Polka." Then, following that, was the "Tennessee Wig-Walk" ("Bend your back—Flap your elbows—Wiggle and Waddle," with diagrams.)
The oldest in the collection is "Oh Take Me Back To Tenessee [sic]," published in 1853, which was performed by a Baltimore-based minstrel troupe.
Not all of them are paeans to Tennessee; to be impartial, Allen includes the 1914 lament, "Although I'm Down In Tennessee, My Heart Is Up In Maine."
A couple of songs here got my attention because they stirred up some old questions in my dusty cranium. One was "Down In Tennessee," a 1925 song recorded on 78 by Ray King, one of those '20s-style nasal crooners. At the exhibit, you can press a button and actually listen to part of it. The song's all right, but what got my attention was the name of the songwriter: Bert Hodgson, a jazzman in Knoxville back then that I've run across before. There was another Bert Hodgson who was a bandleader in Knoxville in the 1870s; he was the brother of author Frances Hodgson Burnett. Hodgson's not a common name here; could this be his son? His grandson?
Another was one of the only three or four songs here I'd actually heard before, a song called "Tennessee Central (Number 9)." Credited to Beasley Smith, the music sports a photograph of the more-famous Pee Wee King, the Milwaukee kid who'd just written the Tennessee Waltz when he recorded "Tennessee Central" in 1946. This copy is signed by Pee Wee, who lived in Knoxville briefly in the '30s and died not long ago.
I was only vaguely familiar with that song when I heard it in an unexpected place, almost 10 years ago. I must have been unemployed at the time, or I wouldn't have been watching weekday morning television, but my daughter and I used to watch a show called "Thomas the Tank Engine." I'm not sure what she thought about it, but it was one of my favorite kids' shows, purely for its inspiring weirdness. The setting was a train station run by the benevolent but not always dependable spirit of a miniature conductor sometimes played by George Carlin, sometimes by Ringo Starr. In the station was a jukebox, and at some point in the show, someone would put a nickel in, and as soon as they did, we'd suddenly be inside the jukebox where there was a strange little multi-ethnic band of puppets, with a cowboy and a jazzman and a hippie singer who looked a lot like Mary Travers. And they'd play a song, usually a recognizable song that had something to do with trains. But one morning they played a song called "Tennessee Central, Number Nine." The chorus went something like "That old T.C., it's good enough for me."
And the blonde hippie puppet sang, "We'll roll into Knoxville, just a-shoutin' and a singin'..."
I jotted down the lyrics and quoted them to several older folks I knew. Some had foggy memories of hearing the song somewhere. They generally had clearer memories of the actual Tennessee Central, the railroad based in Nashville.
But their memories didn't match the song's lyrics. The Tennessee Central, they said, didn't come into Knoxville at all, shoutin,' singin,' or otherwise. In the '40s and '50s, at least, including the era when Pee Wee King recorded the song, the eastern end of the line was 50 miles west of Knoxville, at Harriman, on this side of the Cumberland Plateau. Resolutely it stopped there and then crossed back to Nashville. For many years, the most convenient way to get from Knoxville to Nashville was via Chattanooga.
I'm not sure what the problem was, whether legal or geographical, but I suspect politics had a little something to do with it. The T.C. ended right at the longitude where Tennessee turned Republican.
That's peculiar, sure enough, but not as peculiar as that song, which doesn't mention any of the scheduled stops on the T.C. line—but does make a big deal of rolling into Knoxville.
The song is credited to songwriter Beasley Smith, a Middle Tennessean better known for co-writing "That Lucky Old Sun" and "Night Train To Memphis." It's copyrighted 1946, but it wasn't unusual in those days for enterprising songwriters to get a copyright on a song that had been around for years.
In any case, "Tennessee Central (Number 9)" enjoyed about 20 years of half-lit popularity, recorded by stars like Kitty Wells and Roy Acuff.
Smith, the longtime musical conductor for WSM, had lived in Nashville for years, and surely knew which trains did or didn't go to Knoxville. Still, I came to assume that Smith's lyrics connecting Knoxville to the T.C. were only an especially peculiar mistake.
But then, just the other day, while I was relaxing over an old copy of the Knoxville Sentinel, dated Jan. 7, 1901, an item jumped off the front page at me, a-shouting and a-singing. "Tennessee Central's First Through Train," it declared, "Will Reach This City Tonight..." It was accompanied by a little cartoon illustration of a locomotive emblazoned with T.C.'s emblem, boldly titled, ON TO KNOXVILLE.
The headline was a little misleading, though. The train that arrived at the Southern Depot at 8:30 that Monday evening was a special express train carrying 110 dignitaries, including Col. Jere Baxter, the president of Tennessee Central. It was a T.C. train, sure enough. But it had come into Knoxville over the Southern line. It was the first of a series of trips exploring and promoting the idea of a direct Knoxville-Nashville connection.
Col. Baxter stayed at the Hotel Imperial and took the grand tour of Knoxville, much of it on our nonpareil streetcar line, and gave a grandiose speech at Market Square. He declared that the only way he could return Knoxville's generosity would be to bring the T.C. all the way into Knoxville. And that, he said, would depend on "circumstances."
There were some more ceremonial T.C. trains that year, the same year Beasley Smith was born in McEwen, Tenn. I don't know whether it was ever a regular line—or whether Col. Baxter's publicity machine might have churned out a promotional song to stir up East Tennessee investors.