Friday, December 11, 2009

Myths and Legends of Tennessee--The Explosive Interview

Posted By on Fri, Dec 11, 2009 at 9:52 AM

The Tennessee State Library and Archives has a new exhibit in the lobby. (Their last one was, if
click to enlarge tnmyths_26legends.jpg
I'm remembering right, "Abraham Lincoln: How Many Home States Can One Man Have?," which was likely a scathing expose into the untoward overreaching of Indiana.)

Unlike the Lincoln Exhibit, about which I just made up a bunch of stuff in order to round out my opening sentence, the current exhibit is not about a man who never lived in Tennessee, but about the many Myths and Legends of our fine state.

I posed some hard-hitting questions to the people responsible for putting up the exhibit, and after the jump I bring you their answers. (I've decided to keep them anonymous, in order to prevent any preemptive retaliation from the Tennessee State Museum.) 1. Tell us a little bit about the displays, in general, at the State Library. How many different displays do you have and what do you hope the public gets out of them? Exhibits Committee Member A: Exhibits are an important part of educational outreach and are designed to engage visitors with items from TSLA's vast collections.  We usually have 2-3 different exhibits a year in our main lobby.  We also loan whole exhibits or portions of our exhibits out to other archives, libraries, museums, etc.  We hope that our exhibits educate Tennesseans about the rich history of our state. 2. Right now you have a display about Tennessee Myths and Legends. Can you tell us a little about what we'd see if we made our way to the Library?

Exhibits Committee Member A: You have probably heard stories about Casey Jones, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.  But have you ever heard about the time it rained blood, or about a woman who lived to be 149 years old? This exhibit explores all of these topics plus: ghosts, the Bell Witch, Tommy Knockers, opossums, giant catfish, falling stars, Elvis, Jack Daniels and Jesse James.  The exhibit also delves into the controversy surrounding the origin of the old song, "When You and I Were Young, Maggie." Exhibits Committee Member M: We have 16 panels and three cases, most myths received 2 panels, with an intro panel speaking about the nature of myths. We also have three cases featuring books and sources of our myths and several Native America effigy pots. We currently are presenting 7 myths and legends: the Bell Witch, TN Ghosts, Casey Jones, David Crockett, Daniel Boone, Native Americans, and "Myth-cellaneous" (which consists of several myths not large enough for panels of their own). Each one gives a bit of perspective on the myth in question, tells the story of the myth, and points out some of the more fantastic elements of the legend. We are only able to tell fragments of the legends, so we hope we pique the curiosity of our patrons and visitors and they'll begin to research more of the background behind each story. We also hope visitors will share any of their own local myths and legends. 3. So, be square with us. What is the best Tennessee Myth and why? Exhibits Committee Member A: The answer to that depends on whom you ask. My personal favorite is all of the myths surrounding Elvis' death. Exhibits Committee Member M: The Bell Witch is the most famous, as it's an internationally known legend, but my favorites are some of the Cherokee myths which were too numerous to put on the panels. Many stories of local rock monsters, and the stories behind animals and heroes as told in the James Mooney book Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees tell terrific stories and represent the oldest story-telling tradition of the region. Exhibits Committee Member X: It's hard to choose just one, but I think mine are the Cherokee legend about Spearfinger and the ghost stories about Hank at the Ryman and Tootsie's. 4. Care to go on the record about the Bell Witch? Exhibits Committee Member M: Having done plenty of research using the most famous texts on the Bell Witch, she is not always presented as the vicious ghost or spirit many have come to believe. Though the death of the 70-year-old John Bell is attributed to the Witch in the legend, most of her activities seemed more like pranks and mischief than anything terribly malicious. To some members of the Bell family, such as Lucy Bell, John Bell's wife, she was even a caretaker. One legend has the witch bringing gifts to the much-tormented Betsy Bell. She always said she'd return to the area, and though no activities like those that occurred in the early 19th century have ever been reported, few are willing to push their luck! 5. Everyone knows the Capitol has some ghosts. What about the Library? Exhibits Committee Member A: One of our staff members swears she saw the ghost of a man in one of the stacks. I won't mention any real names but we like to call him Andy. Exhibits Committee Member M: Some patrons and employees say there are ghosts in the library, but I just think it's because of the creepy nature of our storage area, with long, dark corridors and devoid of other people much of the time. I've never seen anything out of the ordinary and can't imagine why a ghost would frequent TSLA! It's unusual to think Andrew Jackson's restless spirit would hang around where some of his papers are housed instead of at his estate only a few miles away! Exhibits Committee Member X: Personally, I have never seen our supposed spectral resident. However, the stacks can be a scary place even without a ghost. Since light damages documents, photographs, etc., the lights in the stacks are kept off when no one is there. Stumbling around in the pitch black darkness and close confines of the stacks while trying to find the light switch is pretty creepy in and of itself. 6. The State Museum had a similar exhibit, which begs the question--in a water balloon fight, who would win? The State Library or the State Museum? Exhibits Committee Member A: Do you really even need to ask this question? I think we all know who would win. Exhibits Committee Member M: TSLA, no doubt. We're the younger, hungrier team with everything to prove and nothing to lose! Exhibits Committee Member X: Of course we would win! With a limited number of points of ingress and egress, our building can be defended much more easily--it is a designated fallout shelter, after all. And anyone trying to storm the rear entrances would be caught in a withering crossfire of fluidinous destruction. (Hey, we're academics--we are allowed to make up words like "fluidinous!!!")

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