Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Music of Music City (Verse 1)

The city that's my new "camping spot" on life's journey, Nashville, Tennessee, boasts not one but three nicknames. I'll get to the best-known in a moment. But first let's look at the older two monikers.

The first nickname of the state capital city was "Athens". Nowadays in full it's "The Athens of the South" but recently I read that its first use in the early Nineteenth Century was "Athens of the West". You see, "the South" hadn't even been conceived quite yet, but "the West" was a huge idea in the national psyche. Anyhow, the "Athens" aspiration got visual illustration during the Tennessee Centennial in 1897. (They delayed the party a year -- I suppose these Tennesseans could have taken lessons in partying from San Antonio, where "Fiesta" was already over five years in the running!) The visual arose as one of the buildings erected for the Centennial. a full-scale reproduction showed The Parthenon as originally built on the Acropolis. It was so popular with Nashvillians that the building was retained after the Centennial, while the remainder of the grounds became Centennial Park. A few decades later it was rebuilt with more permanent materials.

In addition to the reproduced and restored Greek temple, Nashville by the end of the 1800s served as home to numerous colleges and universities. Probably the most renown is Vanderbilt University, founded in 1873 "on the city's western border" as the alma mater song goes. The campus lies just across West End Avenue from the afore-mentioned Centennial Park. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, related by marriage to a local Methodist bishop who endeavored to found a church-related educational institution, gave $1,000,000 of his vast fortune to make the bishop's dream viable. The Commodore envisioned the university as a strong link between the "sections of our common country", that is, reuniting these United States following the devastation of the War Between the States and the evils of Reconstruction. And Vanderbilt has indeed become a widely-known and academically-acute school, drawing students from all over. Including yours truly, who earned a Masters degree there in 1988.

Another renown and very historic campus here -- older even than Vandy -- is Fisk University. Founded shortly after the War for the education of the now-freed African-Americans, Fisk struggled financially until its choir, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, began traveling, singing and raising funds. That they sang well and beautifully is attested by lovely Jubilee Hall on the campus. Is it not appropriate that in "Music City" a singing group had such an impact?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. That nickname came to be much later. Oh, and just so you will know, dear reader, there are yet other universities in Nashville -- state-run, church-affiliated and independent. Leastwise, Vanderbilt is independent, cutting ties with the Methodists about a century ago. In addition to The Parthenon and the universities the "Athens of the South" aspiration found expression in symphony and other cultural arts. For example, the Nashville Public Library is a fine institution for literary perusal. Like many public buildings of all ages in this city, the fairly new central library is contained in a Greek-style building. The State Capitol, built before the Civil War and in my opinion the most distinctively beautiful of all fifty capitols, likewise includes classical Greek adornment. It sports columns in both Ionian and Corinthian orders. All these Greek-architecture edifices, especially those downtown, give us a very Athenian appearance!

The other very old nickname for Nashville is the "Buckle of the Bible Belt." This derives from the city being headquarters for several denominations or divisions of denominations, and home to various religious publishing houses. The United Methodists, for example, in addition to their bishop, have their agency headquarters here, their publishing house, and The Upper Room, a devotional periodical that yours truly has used regularly for several years. My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has regional headquarters here, and a Disciples of Christ Historical Society, which preserves the history of all three denominations that arose out of the Restoration Movement of the early 1800s. (The other two are the non-instrumental Churches of Christ and the independent Christian Churches.) Both the Southern Baptists and the National Baptists, an African-American denomination, have their publishing houses here, too.

So Nashville has plenty of education, culture and religion. And of course, lots of music!

As soon as I arrived here in Nashville at the end of this past July, I began listening again to one of the most famous radio stations in the world, WSM-AM 650. It's the home station of the oldest continuously-broadcast live radio show, the show that made country and Western music famous: The Grand Ole Opry.

The Opry was merely one, and not even the most popular, of several "barn dance" shows broadcast in the early decades of the new medium radio. However, the others faded away after WW II and the advent of television. WSM and its Opry hung on, due in part to Opry star Roy Acuff, "the King of Country Music", teaming up with songwriter Fred Rose to found a music publishing firm, first of many in this city. Musicians and popular singers began to record in various parts of the city, and the recording and publishing coalesced onto Sixteenth Avenue South (and parallel 17th Ave. So.) by mid-1900s. This neighborhood came to be called Music Row. And by that time someone had coined the third and now best known nickname of "Music City, USA".

I suppose I must confess that for one who enjoys reading and learning, is deeply and actively spiritual, and daily thrives on listening to recorded songs on the radio or CD and occasionally attends live music events or picks his old guitar and sings the songs he loves, this city of Nashville may just be "the best of all possible worlds"! May it be likewise for you too, dear reader!

1 comment:

Glen Alan Graham said...

Nashville hosted the annual CMA Awards this past Wednesday. I had to work, so couldn't go. Even if I wanted to (and could afford it). Also, knowing that Carrie Udnerwood was a co-host (along with Brad Paisley), I sure didn't want to even watch on TV. Carrie cannot sing!

As happens almost every year, my favorite singer was nominated for Entertainer of the Year and got passed over. George Strait did earn two CMA awards, indluding Album of the Year for "Troubadour". I'm happy for him, but I'd have been happier had he been voted for the top award!

And. . . Carrie won Female Artist of the Year. . . Carrie? Who cannot sing? Those who voted for her needs to have their hearing aids checked!

Actually, I've known for years that awards like the CMAs and the Grammys are purely political, and have nothing to do with comparative talent and success, let along with popularity among the listening public. George Strait should have won numerous Grammys by now, starting well back in the past century. But he has nary a one.

And so goes politics here in "Music City".