Quarter Note

200 years of music in a one-inch sculpture

There are 16 new designs so far, and fifth-graders collect them and get excited about each new one as it comes out. The rest of us shove them into parking meters or Coke machines, or leave them on lunch counters. To us, they're just quarters. But maybe they're worth another thought. What else do we touch that will survive us by centuries?

Like most coins minted of sturdy cupro-nickel, these new Tennessee quarters will outlast us. Many will outlast our children and grandchildren. They'll outlast the cars we drive, the houses we live in. Unless the legislature gets busy, they'll outlast our state. These quarters will turn up in the red clay thousands of years from now and advertise Tennessee to treasure hunters, ditch diggers, archaeologists, and curious kids playing in the dirt.

They'll see, on one side, George Washington; maybe they'll do their homework and figure out who he was. On the other side, they'll see images representing each of the 50 states that were still intact back in the early 2000s. Some of these designs are beautiful and will catch their attention: the Connecticut one, with its intricately detailed tree; the Rhode Island one, with its windswept sailboat; the Kentucky one, depicting a corralled horse—a quarter horse, I think—with a mansion in the background. It's an obvious image for the state that beat Tennessee to statehood by a few months, but they felt obliged to label the image as "My Old Kentucky Home." They didn't have room for the other lyrics, about the darkies being gay and all.

But if that old quarter they find in the ditch happens to be a Tennessee quarter, they'll see a guitar, a fiddle, and a trumpet.

The most reproduced and widely distributed sculpture of Tennessee in history makes symbolic sense, at least. These objects represent three kinds of music for which Tennessee is well known: jazz, like coronetist W.C. Handy played, blues like guitarist Brownie McGhee played, and country, like fiddler Roy Acuff played. And they all did come from this otherwise incoherent swath of real estate that some folks who gathered on Gay Street in 1796 decided, for reasons of their own, to call "Tennessee."

Deciding to represent music was the safest choice. Tennessee is a 500-mile long imaginary construct, an accident of federalist-era politics. These boundaries never suggested themselves to the Cherokee or Chickasaw; when De Soto came here in 1540, this didn't seem like a congruous region to him. It includes snow-capped mountains and broad flat cottonfields. Folks in one end don't necessarily have much in common with folks in the other.

A long time ago—I don't even remember the situation—I was out West watching a floorshow of some kind, and somebody, a magician, I think it was, called for a volunteer from the audience. A dark-eyed young woman stepped up to the stage. I remember the woman, even though I don't remember who I was with or why I was there.

The effusive magician asked her where she was from. "Memphis," she said. You almost could see the entertainer's gears clicking through his stash of one-liners. "Memphis, Tennessee," he said into the microphone. "Isn't that the greenest state in the land of the free?" She looked puzzled, as if she'd never heard that allegation before.

This performer was dying fast. "Well, isn't Davy Crockett from Tennessee?" he asked, hopefully.

"No," she answered, and seemed offended. "He's from East Tennessee."

One Tennessean's home is behind another Tennessean's enemy lines. If we had picked one geographical site, as some states have, it would have caused problems. There are strikingly beautiful sites in this state, too, but depicting any one of them would annoy everyone who doesn't live within 150 miles of it—which, in Tennessee, is always a majority.

When it comes down to it, the one thing Tennessee is known for that we can all agree that we like, is music. Tennessee has nurtured the growth of most varieties of it. If the New Madrid Quake of 1811 had swallowed the state whole, well, America would have noticeably less blues, less jazz, less country, less rock 'n' roll. Tennessee doesn't have much right to be prouder about anything else.

So, music it is. We'll put a picture of music on the back of our quarter.

But it's tough to find a good picture of music, and this particular picture might seem a little jarring. A guitar, a fiddle, and a trumpet would make for a pretty weird combo. You do often hear a guitar accompany a fiddle. And on old jazz pieces, you sometimes here a rhythmy guitar playing along with a trumpet. But I'm not sure I've ever heard a trumpet and a fiddle on the same song. Like clashing sopranos, they don't get along. They're both prima donnas.

Even if they did, I'm not sure how much music you can convey with a picture of any three inert instruments. By themselves, they're silent.

But how else do you represent music in a numismatic design? Musician Frank Zappa, no fan of music critics, once declared that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. A good choreographer could find some way to dance about architecture. Still, I see Mr. Zappa's point. It's tough to write about music.

Maybe it's even tougher to carve a sculpture about music. The treble clef at the intersection of Gay and Summit Hill testifies to that difficulty. I bet it's even harder to carve a deathless sculpture about music in a one-inch round bas-relief.

I wish there were some way to put music on a quarter; the new Tennessee quarter doesn't prove there is.

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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