Signs and Portents: Tennessee's Numerous (and Sometimes Bizarre) State Symbols

Bicentennial rap music! The bivalve mollusk! Limestone! We rip the lid off our official state symbols.

Photo with no caption
STATE RELIC: KneeSaFi

photo courtesy McClung Museum

STATE RELIC: KneeSaFi

With a title as august-sounding as “Official State Artifact of Tennessee,” one might expect there to be a bit more fuss surrounding the sandstone statue in the middle of the Native American exhibit at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Yet there it is, on a slow-paced weekday afternoon, mounted on its modest perch with nothing to announce its presence other than a small placard. You can walk right up and touch it, though it’s best that you don’t. That’s because “Sandy”—as the 18-inch statue of a kneeling male figure has been affectionately dubbed—qualifies as an antique several times over, at somewhere between 700 and 1,000 years old.

He’s also quite a specimen. “It’s probably the best executed piece of its kind in existence, with maybe a couple of exceptions,” says museum director Jeff Chapman. “It’s a remarkable piece of prehistoric art, and also a very significant piece culturally.”

Sandy, for his part, doesn’t seem to have allowed such flattery go to his well-sculpted head. Hands on knees, he just sits there unassumingly—meditatively, even—mouth open in seeming wonderment, his pupilless eyes pinned and staring through the centuries.

Sandy was declared Official State Artifact of Tennessee just a few months ago after the Tennessee Association of Professional Archaeologists lobbied the Legislature on his behalf. But his history with the McClung and UT predate his state symbolhood by several decades. The statue was discovered in 1939 on a farm in Wilson County, and purchased by the university shortly thereafter. Dating to the Mississipian period of Native American civilization—around 900 to 15550 C.E., Chapman says—it is believed to represent an ancestral leader or clan founder. As well-preserved as it is well executed, the sculpture has been a featured exhibit at McClung since the museum’s inception in 1963.

Now Chapman says the museum staff is making efforts to refrain from calling the statue “Sandy,” in large part because some perceive it as insulting to refer to such a culturally and historically important artifact by such a common, colloquial nickname.

But one could argue that “Sandy” gives the little fellow an extra human dimension. And perhaps more to the point is the fact that, other than Sandy, the statue’s only viable nom de rigeur is “Kneeling Sandstone Figure,” which seems particularly inauspicious and nondescript for something as venerable as, well... a state symbol.

Because state symbols are important. They represent our culture, preserve our heritage; they’re an intrinsic part of our self-definitions as geographically distinct groups of people. Think Georgia’s peaches; Florida’s oranges; Texas’ Longhorns and lone stars; Tennessee’s Volunteers, and its iconic three-star state flag.

But state symbols can also be seen as legislative time-killers, as so much copycat silliness, as a means of shameless self-promotion. “Everybody has to have a state whatever, and somebody always has an idea of what it should be,” says Steve Cotham, manager of the McClung Historical Collection in Knoxville. “And whatever it is, it’s probably used to market something.”

Our own Tennessee has an abundance of official symbols, especially for a smallish state with a middling population count. A moderately thorough inventory tells us that many of them are pretty common, or at least intuitive. Some are puzzling. A few are just flat-out weird.

And many of their backstories are pretty weird as well—there are tales of legislative tussles, warring academic factions, goofy promotional schemes. What follows is an accounting of where we are today, symbol-wise, in Tennessee, and some of the follies, foibles, and points of general interest that have reared up along the way.

***

STATE ROCK: Limestone

STATE ROCK: Limestone

STATE MINERAL: Agate

STATE MINERAL: Agate

STATE FOSSIL: Clam

STATE FOSSIL: Clam

STATE FLOWER: Passionflower

STATE FLOWER: Passionflower

STATE FLOWER FOR REAL: Iris

STATE FLOWER FOR REAL: Iris

STATE AMPHIBIAN: Cave Salamander

STATE AMPHIBIAN: Cave Salamander

STATE REPTILE: Eastern Box Turtle

STATE REPTILE: Eastern Box Turtle

STATE WILD ANIMAL: Raccoon

STATE WILD ANIMAL: Raccoon

STATE FISH: Channel Catfish

STATE FISH: Channel Catfish

STATE HORSE: Tennessee Walking Horse

STATE HORSE: Tennessee Walking Horse

STATE BIRD: Mockingbird

STATE BIRD: Mockingbird

STATE GAME BIRD: Bobwhite Quail

STATE GAME BIRD: Bobwhite Quail

Other than San... er, KneeSaFi, we have more than 60 official symbols of one sort or another in Tennessee—compare that with maybe 20 up in New York, a known bastion of legislative profligacy. Idaho, one of the more symbolically challenged states in the union, has a mere 16, give or take.

In Texas, there are somewhere around 75. But that’s Texas; everything is bigger, and more, over there. And given the state’s population of more than 25 million, you may just as well wonder why they have so few.

Fact is, for a state where folks seem so staunchly opposed to proactive gub’mint, we sure love us some state symbols. Maybe it’s all a ruse, a way to keep our lawmakers busy, with no time for levying taxes, regulating industry, or other acts of sedition.

“Sometimes, the case is that it’s been a long night, and the legislators are getting silly,” says longtime newspaperman, Metro Pulse columnist, and curmudgeonly political observer Frank Cagle. “So they get to arguing about Queen Anne’s lace versus goldenrod, and somebody pretends to take offense.

“But in the end, it doesn’t make a lot of difference. And it doesn’t cost anything.”

As often as not, state symbols arise out of some sort of favored enterprise, or else from some source of local pride. And sometimes both. “A lot of this stuff comes about because somebody has an industry or a business in their district,” says veteran state lobbyist, political consultant, and campaign staffer Mike Alder.

“We have a state mussel, for instance. So why in the world would we have that? Well, out of these mussels come [state gem] Tennessee pearl, from the Tennessee River. And in West Tennessee, there are about five counties along the river where a lot of that industry is located.

“They approached the Legislature, and said ‘We need a state mussel to symbolize the importance of this industry in Tennessee.’ And that’s typically how these things get started. It’s marketing; it’s branding.”

Cagle spins it thusly: “Someone in the Legislature usually gets a wild hair up their ass. Some constituent gets hold of them, or they get interested in something. So they put a resolution out there, and if their colleagues like them, they’ll vote for it. Because most of them don’t care. Who gives a damn what the state fossil is?”

It’s a process that makes for some truly strange state symbols. Tennessee has its share of those, but nothing like some of the officialized curiosities witnessed around the country. Wisconsin has a state microorganism (lactococcus lactis, an active player in cheese-making, but of course); Delaware has a state macroinvertebrate; Kentucky has a state silverware pattern, and an official state tug-of-war championship (the Fordsville Tug-of-War Championship in Ohio County, for those of you inclined to witness such things.)

Our neighbors in North Carolina have both a state red berry (the strawberry), and a state blue berry (the blueberry). One smart-aleck blogger quipped that “The many other varieties of blue berries up for the title were no doubt sorely disappointed.”

In some cases, it isn’t so much the symbol, categorically speaking, that’s unusual. Many states have a state fish, for instance. But no one has one with a name quite as interesting as Hawaii’s, the Humuhumunukununkuapua’a.

And rather than being unusual, per se, some state symbols seem almost shockingly prosaic. In Maryland, for instance, the state exercise is walking.

For weird state symbols per capita, it’s hard to beat New Mexico. New Mexicans have a state cowboy song, a state necktie, a state guitar, and a state cookie (a lard-with-anise concoction known as a bizcochito).

They also have a state question (“Red or green?”), and an accompanying state answer (“Christmas.”) The latter derive from regional restaurants, where it’s common for wait staff to ask diners what type of chilies they’d like with their entrée.

In Tennessee, any discussion of state symbols begins with our first, the Great Seal, ratified along with the state constitution back in 1796. It’s undergone a few alterations over the last couple of centuries; resident Metro Pulse historical conspiracy theorist Jack Neely suggests that the removal of the date (Feb. 6, 1796) on the seal’s perimeter may have been an effort to obscure the state’s Knoxville origins. But the key elements are still in place: a plow, cotton plant, and wheat sheaf depicted together atop a boat, the two images separated by the word “AGRICULTURE” in the center. Beneath them is the word “COMMERCE”, and above them is the Roman numeral XVI, a reference to the fact that Tennessee is the 16th state of the union.

Once upon a time, the boat was a smaller, less formidable-looking skiff. There was a boatman before, too, but he’s apparently fallen off somewhere along the way. Maybe he’s pearl diving over in West Tennessee.

***

Once Tennessee acquired statehood, the acquisition of new official symbols proceeded at measured pace, at least for a century or two. But our need for new icons grew with time, slowly at first, then more quickly. Now it seems that an inordinate number of our state symbols have been anointed within the last 40 or 50 years.

“It used to be a big deal to have the state song or be appointed the state poet laureate,” Alder says. “It’s easier now. I think now, it’s taken less seriously.”

“The problem is that these things accrue,” Cagle says. “Something is recognized as the state song in 1935, and now no one remembers it. But nobody is going to go back and remove it, either.

“It’s just another page in the Bluebook [guide to Tennessee government]. They just keep going.”

An example of the legislative logjams these accumulations of official symbology create is the conundrum of the various dense inanimate materials (i.e. “rocks”) that have been recognized in Tennessee, via some terminology or other. The issue, such as it is, was settled after some decades with a pair of bills in 2009.

It began reasonably enough, when the agate was adopted as the state stone in 1969. But much later, after lawmakers had adopted both a state gem (the Tennessee pearl) and a state rock (limestone), they found themselves in a muddle over terminology, to the point that they felt a clarification was in order.

Bill Fincher’s House Bill 278 addressed the problem, noting that “a stone may be a mineral, a rock, or even a fossil, by definition,” and therefore “agate is designated as the official State Mineral” to avoid any confusion. The title of state stone, one might suppose, may yet be up for grabs, depending on future legislatures’ appetite for clarity.

There is also a Tennessee state fossil, by the way. And from the looks of things, we may have short-changed ourselves on that one. Whereas other states—those that recognize a state fossil, at least—claim the fossils of extinct sci-fi movie-worthy beasts, dinosaurs and mammoths and ancient sea monsters and such, our fossil is a bivalve mollusk, Pterotrigonia thoracic. To put it in a regional perspective, North Carolina has megalodon shark teeth. We have a clam.

Cagle notes a certain irony in our lawmakers having declared a state fossil, given that “many of them believe that the Earth is only 4,000 years old.”

But maybe Tennessee’s best clash for symbol supremacy resulted over the question of a state flower. It’s a story with all the twists and intrigues of a 1980s nighttime soap—albeit far less of the sex appeal.

***

In an effort to keep up with other, more flower-friendly states, Tennessee first decided it needed its own state flower back in 1919. At the governor’s request, a couple of legislators crafted a resolution creating a mechanism for selection of such.

The resolution called for “a commission of five distinguished citizens of the state … to name a date on which the school children of the state may have the right and opportunity of voting on a State Flower.”

And so the kids of Tennessee voted. And according to newspaper reports of the time, their favorites included various roses, the daisy, the violet, the goldenrod, the sunflower, the elder bloom, the water lily, and the red clover.

But it would seem that the fix was in, because when the flower commission finished counting votes, it declared the heretofore unmentioned passionflower the winner. The results bannered in newspapers across the state; the commission issued special pamphlets; the state librarian even wrote an honorary poem.

By the 1930s, though, garden clubs had emerged all over Tennessee, and with them, a new fervor for the iris. This was true mid-state, in particular, so much so that Nashville became known as Iris City. In 1933, the iris was named state flower, with iris partisans staking the claim that the passionflower had never been officially ratified.

The new declaration sparked a veritable war of flower factions that lasted for decades to come. Missiles launched from garden clubs and hobbyists all over the state; newspaper editors opined; politicians wrangled.

From the Chattanooga News, circa 1939: “We have all heard about the ‘war of the roses,’ but now it is our duty to give the latest communiqués from the war of the iris and the passionflower. … It is reported now that the iris adherents only lift their eyebrows when the passionflower is mentioned, and bad blood is known to exist between the factions representing the two State flowers.”

Things came to a head in 1973, when state Sen. Edward Blank introduced legislation designating the iris as the “state cultivated flower,” and the passionflower as the “state wild flower.” He was spurred to action, he said, because “the people of the good garden clubs across the state would like this resolved.” Rumor circulated that he was spurred mostly by his mother, a busy member of the Hampton Garden Club.

The question of a state animal is another muddle, albeit a less contentious one. Many states have a state animal, a creature usually set apart from other officially recognized subsets of the animal kingdom—state mammals, state birds, state insects, state fish, state dogs. One wonders whether the various sub-categories were invented for the sake of disgruntled state animal runners-up.

In addition to state insects, Tennessee claims a state amphibian (the cave salamander); a state reptile (the Eastern box turtle); a state wild animal (the raccoon); a state horse (the Tennessee Walking Horse); a couple of state fish (the channel catfish and the small-mouth bass); and an official state bird (the mockingbird) as well as an official state game bird (the bobwhite quail). Needless to say, the latter designation is a somewhat less auspicious honor for the bird in question, seeing as how it entails getting shot at.

Tennessee has also designated a state pet—and this one is hard to belittle: “Any dogs or cats that are adopted from Tennessee animal shelters and rescues.”

Our state has its fair share of mundane symbols. Our state fruit is “the delicious tomato, Lycopersicon lycopersicum,” by decree of the Tennessee Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Part 3, Section 4-1-327. Our state language is English; this in spite of formidable lobbies for Swahili and Urdu. And our state beverage is milk.

To be fair, of the states that even have an official beverage—and the number is less than half—milk is far and away the favored refreshment. If you’re really looking for a good time, take up residence in Alabama, where the state spirit is Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey.

We also have a somewhat regrettable state slogan: “Tennessee – America At Its Best.” Which must be vaguely offensive to other states, at least some of which, by logical extension, would seem to be seats of America at Its Worst. Or at least America in the Trough of Mediocrity.

The slogan came as a result of a ‘60s-era contest sponsored by the Tennessee Board of Realtors; the board pushed the slogan on to the Legislature, as part of an effort to sell real estate. Or to draw new tourists. Or perhaps to sell real estate to new tourists.

Our Tennessee state symbols also point to a certain searching intellect among Tennesseans. Indicating that, as a state, we comprise a keener set of minds than some folks give us credit for. Among our state symbols are a number of museums and libraries, a grand old theater (the Tennessee Theatre, natch), a festival or two. There’s even a state tartan, a nod to our Scots-Irish heritage.

We have not one, but two state railroad museums—the Cowan Railroad Museum in Franklin County, and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Hamilton County. The latter is complemented by the state railroad library, i.e. the A.C. Kalmbach Memorial Library, also in the Chattanooga/Hamilton County area. The state recognizes a state botanical garden in the University of Tennessee Botanical Gardens. There is also a state aviation hall of fame—the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in Sevier County.

The arts are especially well represented among our official symbols. We have declared a state fine art, i.e. porcelain painting. There is a state fife and drum corps, in the form of the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps. There’s a state jamboree and crafts festival, too—the Smithville Fiddlers’ Jamboree and Crafts Festival, a bluegrass and Appalachian roots-music celebration held every year over the July 4 holiday.

We have a state outdoor drama in Elizabethon, “Liberty: The Saga of Sycamore Shoals,” the plot of which sounds like the story treatment for a new summer blockbuster. It depicts the Revolution as told by the Overmountain Men, fearless Appalachian pioneer action heroes who defied the British and settled on forbidden ground, defended their homes and beat the Brits in the bloody turning-point Battle of King’s Mountain. Take that, Avengers.

We have a state poem, or two. One is an official bicentennial honoree. The other, the official state poem “Oh Tennessee My Tennessee,” has a particularly powerful story behind it. It was written by Vice-Admiral William Lawrence, composed in his head during six years of imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton, the notorious North Vietnamese POW camp.

There are two Tennessee state paintings, both of them by former state artist in residence Michael Sloan. Sloan’s works, entitled “Tennessee Treasures” and “Tennessee Treasures Too,” are both nature scenes, each of them depicting various other Tennessee state symbols, official flowers and insects and animals and fish. Maybe the two paintings should hold the recognition of official state meta-symbol(s), as well.

***

Of all our state symbols, perhaps our most cherished are our state songs. If nothing else, “state song” is certainly our most abundant symbol category. If the number of our state songs relative to our geographic brethren is any indication, we are the most musical state in the union, by a considerable margin. (Our state quarter, too, is emblematic of our “Musical Heritage.”)

In all, we have 13 songs recognized in some capacity or other. By contrast, poor Idaho has only a few more state symbols total—of any sort—than we have songs. Idahoans have declared a single, measly state song, FYI. Its title—and we’re not making this up—is “Here We Have Idaho.” In case you weren’t sure.

But let’s be clear, sort of: strictly speaking, Tennessee “only” has seven official state songs. Or maybe nine. It actually depends on who’s counting. As you may have gathered, the distinctions in such matters are indigenously fuzzy. They’re subject to how one interprets a particular bill or resolution; whether there was a bill as opposed to a resolution; whether the speaker phrased the final proclamation in the form of a question and the senator from Pulaski’s hairpiece was set on straight for the final vote. Since there is no Symbols Supreme Court, we’ll all just have to live with this particular state of affairs.

So in addition to seven-to-nine-ish official state songs, our legislators have also seen fit to recognize a state U.S. bicentennial song, a state U.S. bicentennial march song, a state bicentennial school song, and, bestest of all, an official state bicentennial rap song.

The latter, “A Tennessee Bicentennial Rap: 1796-1996,” by someone named Joan Hill Hanks, is, as far as we can tell, the only state rap song of any sort in the country. Across eight four-line stanzas, it dispenses shout-outs to the likes of W.C. Handy, John Sevier, Bessie Smith, and James Polk. It also has the impressive distinction of finding a rhyme (sort of) for “Estes Kefauver.” Word.

Our first state song, “My Homeland, Tennessee,” written by a Chattanooga music professor, won a statewide contest and was declared the official song by the Legislature in 1926. Others followed, some of them recognized purely as official state songs, and others saddled with conditional modifiers such as “State Public School Song” and “Song of the 97th General Assembly.”

The already-popular hit “Tennessee Waltz” became the first state song with a national profile in 1965. The bluegrass-breakdown-turned-UT-sports-anthem “Rocky Top” was honored in 1982.

And the year 2010 saw yet another nationally renowned official state song ordained, the Ronnie Milsap chart-topping country hit “Smoky Mountain Rain,” penned by a couple of Nashville songwriters.

Cagle is especially dubious of the latter selection. “Come on, it’s about some guy trying to find a piece of ass, and it’s the state song?” he grouses. “Give me a break. Oh well—I supposed everybody likes Ronnie Milsap.”

The last song to receive recognition as an official state song—for the time being—was authored by the late John Bean, brother of former Metro Pulse staff member and longtime contributor Betty Bean.

John Bean is also an underground legend of sorts. Most people know him better as Leroy Mercer, the shrill voice on the end of a phone line that goaded Eddie Harvey of Eddie’s Auto Parts into a shrieking apoplexy; and, of an afternoon, made life miserable for a staid shoe salesman at Thom McAn. All of which was first heard on the so-called “Whoop-Ass Tapes,” handmade recordings of Bean’s taped prank calls that made the rounds among hipsters, frat boys, drifters, and fans of the offbeat the world over, throughout the 1980s and beyond.

Bean was a deft musician and songwriter as well as a comic provocateur of the first order, and his song “Tennessee” (not to be confused with the aforementioned 97th General Assembly “Tennessee”) was officially released on a CD compilation of his pranks entitled The Real Leroy Mercer. A contingent of Knoxvillians brought “Tennessee” before the Legislature in 2011, and its passage into state song-hood provides an interesting window into the Realpolitik of symbols.

Betty Bean was there for the vote. She said it was all pretty routine stuff, save for the objections of one well-known local state senator, Stacey Campfield.

“He was the only person who voted against it,” she says.

For decades, John Bean’s Leroy Mercer material had inspired waves of imitators, many of them much cruder in their means and language than the original. On his blog, Campfield confused Bean with one of his imitators, then noted it as evidence of his unworthiness of being honored with a state song.

“Then some of the other legislators set him straight,” she chuckles. “John apparently had lots of fans in Nashville.”

The senator’s final gambit was to insist that since “Tennessee” hadn’t registered on national music charts, it wasn’t popular enough to warrant a recognition. “But they pretty much ignored him,” she says.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed Senate Bill no. 1910 into law on May 23, 2011, thus cementing “Tennessee” as an official state song. Another senator quipped that, with one more state song, “We’ll have enough to record an album.”

But how much is too much? At what point, if any, should we tell our lawmakers to quit wasting time and trees, get off their collective arses and get back to the brutal business of managing a state with some semblance of aplomb and efficiency?

Probably never. Because as state historian Carroll Van West points out, our state symbols are us—the ones we despise or laugh at notwithstanding. They are representative not only of our history and heritage, but of the messy and magnificent democratic processes we claim to hold so dear, in all their weird and ungainly glory.

“Ah, the state symbols,” Van West says. “They all mean something important to some group at some time. And it should probably stay that way—people speaking through their legislators on what symbols are important to them.”

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Comments » 1

historyfanatic writes:

Mike,
You didn't do your homework! The Great Seal depicts not just a boat but a flatboat that was the backbone of the transportation that brought the state's early cash crop, wheat, to market along with other farm items for over a hundred years even after steamboats appeared on our larger rivers.

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