There’s a romanticism to the Deep South of the USA that has lingered within me, I suppose, since I saw Gone With the Wind as a child. That idealistic vision of big dresses and elegant plantation houses lined with oaks dripping with Spanish Moss was somewhat dented after a visit to one such plantation in South Carolina some years ago. But romantic ideas are hard to squash and knowing the hard facts about slavery and apartheid, especially in the South of the USA, I’d wanted to form my own opinions, to sample parts of the United States I had only thus far dreamed about.
Wednesday, 3rd October – Atlanta, Georgia
First port of call was the Centre for Civil and Human Rights (no, not using the American spellings in this blog). I spent a lot of time in the The Civil Rights Movement gallery which presents the fight for equality by the Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
There are interactive displays giving an insight into the immensely courageous struggles of the many individuals who worked to transform the United States from the Jim Crow laws to equal rights for all.
In this section is a reconstruction of the bus that Freedom Riders rode in Anniston, Alabama in 1961 with a short film taken inside the bus. (Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern states in 1961 and following years, to challenge the non-enforcement of the Supreme Court decision ruling segregated buses were unconstitutional. The Southern states had ignored the rulings and the federal government had done nothing to enforce them. Freedom Riders challenged this status quo by riding Interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups where segregation in seating was the rule.)
In Anniston the bus was set upon by a mob (which included some Ku Klux Klan members) attacking the black passengers with baseball bats and iron pipes. They also slashed the tyres and set the bus on fire, at one point attempting to hold the doors closed so the passengers would burn to death.
There is naturally a lot of space devoted to the March on Washington of August 1963. Earlier that year, in June, President John F. Kennedy had announced that he would deliver to Congress a strong civil rights bill. This was a huge step forward in the struggle for black equality, a struggle founded on the disgusting violence and bloodshed inflicted on the American black community by racists from every quarter of society.
Yet the March on Washington was a peaceful march, supporting the forthcoming Bill and culminating in the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr – born and bred in Atlanta – it is one of the best remembered speeches in history. (Ironically, Dr King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind. A film that now, in my adult years, I realise portrayed insulting stereotypes of the black characters in the story).
When President Kennedy spoke about the Civil Rights Bill, he defended it “not merely for reasons of economic efficiency, world diplomacy, and domestic tranquillity, but above all because it is right.” Indeed it was but it, like the civil rights it was fighting for, had many struggles more to overcome before it was passed in July 1964, nine months after President Kennedy was assassinated.
From such a sobering start to the trip, we were driven through the lush green Georgia countryside to Chattanooga, a city on the rise. Once primarily an industrial city it has done an about-face and is now one of the tech-savviest and greenest cities in the South (there’s even a free electric shuttle to get around downtown). Lying next to the Appalachian Mountains and with a river running right through town, it was pleasant, if a bit hot and sticky, to walk down to the river passing some new restaurants, boutiques and museums en route. Standing on the banks of the sparkling Tennessee River, for we were now in another state, Tennessee, having left Georgia behind; I noticed an interesting sign.
When I asked our knowledgeable guide, what the sign referred to, I almost wished I hadn’t. In 1838 and 1839, as part of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their new designated reserve, and as many as 4,000 Cherokee people died before reaching their destination. The forced removals also included members of the Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca and Ho-Chunk/Winnebago peoples. They called this journey the “Trail of Tears” and now I understood why.
By now I was looking for a little light-hearted relief. I found it in the Choo-Choo Hotel. After a refreshing swim in the hotel pool, I took a walk around and soon realised my hotel had once been a railway station. The huge booking hall has now been converted into a reception area for the hotel and a bar. Alongside the hotel are the tracks and on those tracks… is the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Track 29 … whoo, whoo…etc.
Thursday, 4th October – Chattanooga to Nashville
The next day took me up the (allegedly) steepest incline railway in the world to Lookout Mountain, operating since 1895. More interesting for me was that a great Civil War battle was fought here in 1863. After the Confederate Army victory at Chickamauga in the September of that year, they pursued the Union Army to Chattanooga. While the rebels encircled the city in preparation for a siege, the Union troops hunkered down to wait it out. However, the Confederates were also perched high on top of Lookout Mountain where they could watch the Union Army below and use their artillery position on the mountain to choke off enemy supply routes and shell their positions on the river’s Moccasin Bend.
In November of 1863, when Yankee General Ulysses S. Grant had assumed command, he began to attack the lines surrounding the city. The day afterwards he ordered an assault on the mountain, by then covered in fog; this was to become known as The Battle Above the Clouds. With General Joseph Hooker commanding this wing, his men advanced towards the peak, expecting the granite crags to be hard to overcome. However, the fog masked the Union advance and Hooker’s men managed the climb relatively easily. The Confederates, having overestimated the advantages offered by the mountain soon realised they were outnumbered – 1,200 rebels facing 12,000 Union soldiers. As the hill was so steep the rebel’s artillery was useless and the attackers couldn’t be seen until they were almost at the summit. The Confederates didn’t stand a chance.
For the rest of the Civil War, Lookout Mountain was a tourist destination for Union soldiers and civilians, and a photographer even established a studio to capture portraits of soldiers on the point. A bit like I did.
My next stop was Lynchburg, Tennessee and if you’ve heard of it, then clearly you are a whiskey drinker. Jack Daniel’s to be precise. Though I’m not a fan of the drink, I really liked the place, it felt authentic.
In 1864 young Jasper (Jack) Newton Daniel left his home, having been orphaned by the Civil War. He was taken in by the Reverend Dan Call – a lay preacher and moonshine distiller (you couldn’t make it up). He was taught the trade by Call’s Master Distiller, an enslaved African-American man, Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green. In 1875, Jack came into an inheritance from his father’s estate and founded a legally registered distilling business with Call. He took over the distillery shortly afterwards when Call quit for religious reasons.
Jack Daniel’s whiskey was a great success and he even won the gold medal for the finest whiskey at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He died at age 60 years (or thereabouts) after repeatedly forgetting the combination to his office safe, kicking it hard in frustration and hurting his foot. He developed blood poisoning and died – at least that’s what they tell you.
I had to try some whiskey just to make sure I didn’t like it and I can honestly say, even though I tried it five times in five different flavours, I still don’t like it. Nevertheless it made the journey through the Tennessee heartland go by very quickly and shortly before sunset, I was drawing up outside the hotel in Nashville.
I had been really looking forward to Nashville. Never having been a country music fan in my previous decades, I was softening up. Having watched every episode of the eponymous US series, I was feeling an eager sense of anticipation for the country music capital of the world. It didn’t disappoint.
After checking in quickly to the next hotel, it was out again and down to the Cumberland River to board the General Jackson showboat where dinner and a country music show was laid on for us.
It was packed, it was noisy but it was great. First there were cocktails, then a surprisingly tasty dinner, (though we endured a strangely terrifying and aggressive waiter who snatched away our food before we’d finished it and then yelled at us because we hadn’t tipped him). This was followed by a slick, glittering showcase of country music and a stroll up on deck, watching the paddle wheel of the showboat hypnotically moving us through the water at a stately pace. As the Nashville skyline hove into view I heard a collective sharp intake of breath to match my own. It was beautiful, especially the iconic (and believe me I hate using that word but it’s true in this instance) A T & T building – otherwise known as the Batman building.
I couldn’t wait to see it in daylight, but that was for tomorrow. The Jack Daniel’s samples, cocktails and wine with dinner ensured a good night’s sleep.
Friday, 5th October – Nashville
I was rudely awoken by the alarm at 5.30 a.m. needing to be up extra early to Skype with the family and send emails. As a result, I missed breakfast and was smartly whisked off to the Country Music Hall of Fame – wow that is some impressive museum. It even made me ignore my rumbling stomach as the history of country music was revealed in some very imaginative displays, films and artefacts. I just loved Elvis Presley’s solid gold Cadillac which, for a reported $65,000 (a fortune in those days), was covered in 40 coats of paint, called “diamond dust pearl,” made of crushed diamonds and fish scales. The highlights and trim are 24-carat gold and the interior features gold lamé curtains, a record player with automatic changer, a gold-plated television, and a golden vanity case with hairbrush, clipper, and razor. The carpet is white mouton fur – I wonder if he removed his muddy cowboy boots before climbing in?
Having spent a goodly two hours soaking up everything country, I wandered through Nashville with my friends, taking pictures of this very likeable city. The AT&T Building looked just as striking by day as did the Tennessee State Capitol building (clearly modelled on a Greek ionic temple).
Inside the Capitol, the Senate and the House of Representatives are both impressive legislative chambers but the bust of Davy Crockett forced me to acknowledge my ignorance.
I had only ever thought of him as the fur hat-with-the-fur-tail-toting, gun-slinging “King of the Wild Country” (I’m singing this as I write, be grateful you can’t hear it!). In fact, he was a well-respected statesman, elected first to the Tennessee state legislature and then to the U.S. Congress in 1826 where he was known for his opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (see reference to the Trail of Tears). This made my visit to The Alamo all the more poignant but more about that later.
But enough of the history; we were in Nashville and were looking for a good time! And we found it. The city is extraordinary for its many facets. Walking down Broadway where the honky-tonks proliferate we stood and listened at huge open windows where the bands play to draw customers in. We were drawn into Nudies’ Honky Tonk, not a striptease joint but a bar/restaurant where the band was loud and the Fried Hot Chicken Salad wasn’t low calorie. After a great meal and excellent entertainment, we emerged, blinking, into the steamy Nashville heat … and were almost run over by a party bike.
If you haven’t yet seen one of these lovelies then it’s a cross between a bar and a bike where several drinkers perch precariously on stools whilst cycling through the streets raising their glasses to the passersby they almost eviscerate. I have no idea about the legality where the drink/drive laws are concerned but they all seemed to be having a great time.
From Broadway we moved onto RCA Studio B – the recording studios that became famous for launching the careers of many vocalists and where the ‘Nashville sound’ was born. Here countless recordings were made by legendary artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. I couldn’t resist a go at the piano where once Elvis played hymns taught him by his mother.
Back at the hotel there was just enough time to change before the 10-minute drive to The Grand Ole Opry. A visit to Nashville would not be complete without a pilgrimage to this legendary event; a weekly country music stage concert (founded in 1925) that’s recorded live and is the longest running radio broadcast in US history. The auditorium was cavernous but we were lucky enough to have seats near the front otherwise the performers would have been little dots far off into the distance and not worth the late night. In truth, I was flagging a bit already and I would need all my energy for the journey to Memphis the next day.