Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Chattahoochee Melody

Sound, silence, and time

In my experience, some destinations have a distinct sensory appeal; some have a special tactile sense to them, others a predominant visual element, or some even appeal primarily to one of the other senses such as the sense of smell.

And then there are some that have an inherent musicality. This is especially true of the Chattahoochee Trace region of Georgia and Alabama.

The Chattahoochee River, one of the most significant waterways in the United States, is the proverbial “river in time” of this region of the American South; here natural harmonics are inherent in both the land and the people. As you meander — like the Chattahoochee — back and forth between these two states (and time zones an hour apart), you may, like me, sense an uninterrupted and free-flowing rhythm in which the social history of the Deep South resonates subtly, gently, but profoundly.

Culture and the socio-geographic context

As we know, landscape and geography shape culture — and history. The Chattahoochee Trace, as the name suggests, is a multi-layered natural “pathway” through what was once frontier land. In many ways the Trace is also an historical trail through some of the most important moments in time in the history of the southern United States. Today it is also a highly significant environmental heritage destination; and a distinct region in which you will hear the sounds of Americana in all their hues and shades. In the Lower Chattahoochee Valley you will hear remarkable personal stories, and human voices that sing literally and figuratively about the triumphs and tragedies of life in the South. Above all you will hear recurring themes that underscore the layers of experience that are the essence of heritage travel.

The Chattahoochee River is an engaging story in itself. Rising from the Chattahoochee Spring in the mountains of northeast Georgia, it flows southwestward past sprawling Atlanta, and then turning southward it forms the state line between Georgia and Alabama. The name is of course of Native-American origin and is thought to mean “painted rock” which in turn is a reference to the granite outcrops of the Brevard fault zone through which it flows. Along its extensive route the river provides hydro-electrical power, flood control (with the help especially of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), drinking water, recreation aplenty, and navigation. It’s not all good news however, especially in the Atlanta area where an enormous increase in water withdrawals from the river are a major environmental concern as are the pollutants the city pours into the river. According to a source quoted in About North Georgia, “The city of Atlanta so heavily pollutes its waters that the river becomes a wasteland. And according to the city, little can be done to prevent the pollution that costs Atlanta millions of dollars a year in [Environmental Protection Agency] fines.”

However this travel report is the Lower Chattahoochee Valley, and I’m happy to report that this resourceful river is a survivor, cleansing itself and becoming the major “travel supplier” in the Chattahoochee Trace.

For a map of the Chattahoochee watershed, click here.

Innocence and coming of age on the Chatthoochee

Way down yonder on the Chatthoochee
It gets hotter that an hoochie coochie
We laid rubber on the Georgia asphalt
We got a little crazy but we never got caught.
Down by the river on a Friday night
A pyramid of cans in the pale moonlight
Talking about cars and dreaming ’bout women
Never had a plan just livin’ for the minute.
Yeah way down yonder on the Chatthoochee
Never knew how much that muddy water meant to me
But I learned to swim and I learned how I was
A lot of livin’ and a little ’bout love.
Well we fogged up the windows in my old chevy
I was willing but she wasn’t ready
So I settled for a burger and a grape sno-cone
Dropped her off early but I didn’t go home.
Alan Jackson

See and listen to Alan Jackson sing Chattahoochee by clicking here.

Historical patterns and natural stimuli

As is the nature of such extensive waterways, the Chattahoochee has given birth to physical and social environments that determine the course that human society took in this topographically diverse region. In the past, the river was the major highway for commerce in this part of the South as well as a determining factor for historical events of major proportions such as the American Civil War and the Seminole Wars.

Given its rich agricultural heritage as well, the Chattahoochee Trace is also a wonderful agritourism destination — a grassroots mode of travel that is becoming more and more popular especially for 50+ travellers who are searching for in-depth and meaningful travel experiences.

Seminole County for example is renowned for its prodigious yields of peanuts, cotton, and corn; staples of the economy of the area since the early days of colonization of the “New World.” My personal favourite was a visit to a totally organic fruit and vegetable farm where — at least two months before they would be available at home — we walked the rows of the strawberry patches picking and eating large, juicy, and fully sun-ripened fruit. This was also a sampling of the benevolence of the land in the Chattahoochee Trace.

And as a wildlife, birding, fishing, canoeing, and hiking destination the Chattahoochee has a plethora of possibilities. Seminole State Park, where the locals turned out to treat us to a “down home” picnic barbecue and music by the Grassy Flats Boys, is located near one of Georgia’s largest wildlife management areas covering 24,000 acres. Georgia’s state reptile, the threatened gopher tortoise, has found refuge here in the park’s longleaf pine forest. The latter 437-acre stand of pines is the largest in Georgia’s state parks and a 2.2-mile nature trail winds its way through an equally important wiregrass habitat.

The human voice: the oldest musical instrument

The Chattahoochee is indeed “a lot about livin’ and a little about love.” However I would expand on Alan Jackson’s sentiments by saying that here you will also experience love in the sense of respect for a traditional way of life, self-respect, self-determination, and a devotion to community. As an amateur cultural anthropologist, I have lived most of my life on the outer orbit of human society — like many travel journalists I know (it goes with the territory) — and I must admit that this passion for a sense of place and a collective sense of self is a siren’s song.

The “voices” I heard along the Chattahoochee were varied and rich. Because of its rural base (there are no large urban centres in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley), oral history is still an eloquent and significant means of communicating the collective memory of the region.

At Suttons Corner Frontier Museum, for example, David Campbell, Owner and Curator of the museum, spoke on behalf of all the artifacts, implements, and historical miscellany in his museum. Each tangible piece of the past had a story. In this country store (circa 1845-1855) which is perfectly preserved, the presence of the three generations of Suttons who maintained it can still be heard. As David kept reminding us, “Everything you see here is authentic”; Suttons Corner is no mini theme park. David, who is a retired intelligence officer who until retirement worked all over the world — it was intimated to us that he worked in covert CIA operations — and is also a painter, told us his own story of finding this “time capsule” and opening it again to the 21st century. But this endeavour first required the assistance of a root doctor — an African-American folk-magic tradition — who was instrumental in dislodging 2000 rattlesnakes from the interior of the building. (We peeked into a few corners as we explored the museum, just in case.)

At Wingate’s Lodge proprietor Jack Wingate’s good-humoured, but serious, rebuke to me about my use of the term “The Civil War” was a small audio window into the legacy of this immensely painful “moment” in American history. His preference for “The War Between the States” was a significant statement in itself. I also heard elsewhere the term “The War of Northern Aggression,” “The Great Unpleasantness,” and the “War for Southern Independence.” If for you fishing is what life is really all about, Wingate’s “Lunker” Lodge is for you. By the way, a lunker is one helluva big fish. Be sure to “catch” Jack’s personal blog and fishing reports on his website. And to hear Jack’s edification of this northern city slicker, click on the link in the lower portion of the right-hand column.

And then there was tea with Miss Fonnie (Strange) and Miss Hilda (Sexton) in the Shorter Mansion in Eufaula, Alabama. This superb example of Neoclassical architecture was built in 1884 by Eli and Wylena Shorter and remodeled in 1906. Recognized by the the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it is one of the finest examples of Southern architecture in the region. And the architectural treasures in the Chattahoochee Trace speak volumes about the history and culture of the area. An architectural tour of Bainbridge, Georgia and Eufaula, Alabama are not to be missed. Another tangible piece of history in Eufaula is Fendall Hall an Italianate mansion built in 1860.

In the evening, we were hosted at a cocktail and dinner reception in the Shorter Mansion with local community members. At our table, the discussion was free-wheeling and often hilarious. This is another aspect of this part of the South that I now admire so much; an easy, subtle sense of humour that is an indication of a community that knows itself well. However, as the Fox taught The Little Prince, “Language is the source of all misunderstanding.” In the middle of the dinner, I brought the almost raucous chatter to a standstill with my use of the expression “You people” which is, in a way, a Canadian version of “Y’all” or “Folks”. However, it was pointed out to me that “You people” in the South can have racial and class structure overtones. I was quickly forgiven however.

Which brings me to the often complex and problematic (travel) issue of the fixed notion. Part of any meaningful travel experience involves correcting (I prefer “adjusting”) any preconceived notions we might have of a destination. It is, of course, quite normal to have generalized images of a culture or a subculture, and difficult at times to separate a “type” from a “stereotype.” However, when you are immersed in a community — which happens frequently along the Chattahoochee — you slowly start to understand why our fixed notions keep us insulated from the true nature of a destination and are an impediment to truly appreciating the travel experience.

One often hears reference to the “Southern accent” but it is frequently a misunderstood reference. There is indeed a euphonic Southern “accent,” which in the most correct linguistic terms is best referred to as “Southern American English” or as the linguists call it, SAE. Southern American English is essentially a group of “dialects” (careful with that latter word; it is loaded with implications and connotations) spoken throughout the Southern region of the United States. And Southern dialects make up the largest accent group in the United States; SAE itself can be divided into numerous and different sub-dialects. Furthermore it should not be confused with African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) which itself is very content-rich with linguistic and historical significance. I daresay SAE can be as diverse as “Canajun” English, eh?

The Southern accent, like any variation of English throughout the linguistically very diverse English-speaking world, is a fascinating area for study; but it should be noted that Southern dialects have very distinct and traceable origins owing to immigration from Britain and Ireland to the American South in the 17th and 18th centuries — in particular from the West Country in the southwest of England — where you can hear similarities both in sound as well as idiomatic expressions. Interestingly, I also heard similarities from the speech of the folks I met along the Chattahoochee with that of my rural Southwestern Ontario “kissin’ and shirt-tail cousins” here in Canada. This of course is not surprising because of similar immigration patterns.

There is so much on this subject that we could discuss but perhaps we’ll save that for another time. You might, however, be careful when using the term “Southern drawl” unless you have researched its true linguistic meaning. There is of course a soft “drawl” — also of very legitimate linguistic origins — and it is indeed very musical. For example, vowels in words like talk are subject to what is know as diphthongization, or even triphthongization. There is a delightful upward glide of tonality which I personally prefer to our often short, compressed northern vowels. (It must be the cold.) Now I know why I took to the Southern “Y’all” like a fish to water.

Themes and variations along the Chattahoochee

The people of the Chattahoochee Trace are adept at improvising on a common melody, and injecting into it both spontaneity and imagination. In the grand scheme of things along the Chattahoochee, you will hear what you may think are “random” sounds (an essential inspiration and component of music) but you will also detect layered patterns in the social fabric of the region. The rhythms of the Chattahoochee Trace are both historical and natural. It is a cohesive and coherent natural landscape in which there is a range of social settings and what, for me, was a succession of melodic events. Here there is a kind of cultural multi-part harmony where the parts equal the whole.

And yes, (I return to my linguistic-cultural soapbox) there is indeed something called “Southern hospitality.” Even though the term may have become a bit tired through overuse (and commercialization) it is a genuine, grassroots social phenomenon.

This two-word descriptor usually refers to this part of the United States as being especially warm and welcoming to visitors; which is indeed true. As an ingredient of “Southern Culture,” Southern hospitality is an excellent area of study in itself for all you professional or non-professional cultural anthropologists out there. Like all collective cultural “behaviour,” Southern hospitality has a lot to do with food (i.e. feeding and nurturing — there’s the agritourism theme again folks) as well as about character traits common to rural societies in which interdependence and interconnectedness are key principles and survival tools.

A quote I came across recently by anthropologist and cultural theorist Robert Philen, underscores this theme: “… food is particularly meaningful to people… Like music, the meaning of food is generally without linguistic content, but it nonetheless can carry significant emotional weight and is invested with identity. Food is vital to life, and the foods we grow up with can be associated with home, family, region, and one’s culture in a variety of ways.”

(For an experiential taste test and/or field study for the wannabe Margaret Meads or Charles Darwins out there, don’t miss Huggin’ Molly’s vintage diner and food extravaganza in Abbeville, Alabama.)

So what more can I recommend to you in this very culturally rich area of the Deep South?

Excuse the cultural tangent and mixed metaphor folks, but the Chatthoochee Trace is a smorgasbord. I’m not to sure where to begin, but here are just a few favourites:

(a) If it is still playing somewhere in the area, go and see “Grits on the Side.” This homegrown musical romp will demonstrate that the Chattahoochee folks don’t take themselves too seriously — nor do they northerners like me who had the honour of being invited onto the stage to assist in a particular musical number by making hog sounds.

(b) Landmark Park, Highway 431 North near Dothan, Alabama. As I mentioned, this is a wonderful agritourism destination, and Landmark Park is a perfect point of departure for such a tour.

(c) Westville near Lumpkin, Georgia. What are often called “pioneer villages” are very popular among travellers, especially in the family travel market. Of all the pioneer villages, I have had the good fortune to visit, Westville is one of the best. This is indeed living history, and a very integrated travel experience.

(d) Providence Canyon State Conservation Park I have suggested previously the geological importance of the Chattahoochee Trace, and this stunning destination-within-a-destination should not be missed, especially by anyone interested in that particular science — and by photographers. Ironically, however, the canyon is the result of poor land use practices that led to extensive erosion.

(e) The Wiregrass Museum of Art in Dothan, Alabama. This region of the South is also an arts + travel destination. This particular contemporary art museum is also very special in the way in which it blends the special sense of place with innovative visual media.

(f) The Wiregrass Festival of Murals in Dothan, Alabama. The town has a unique display and expression of public art on public buildings throughout the downtown area. Each mural is an historical record in itself. Look especially for the mural dedicated to the Tuskagee Airmen, America’s first black military airmen who served during the Second World War.

(g) The George T. Bagby State Park and Lodge; Fort Gaines, Georgia; and The Southern Rivers Birding Trail all in or near Fort Gaines. Soft adventure, ecotourism, green tourism — this too is the Chatthoochee Trace

Melodic Chattahoochee

It is the melody that gives music its richness and distinct character. And the melody also serves as an aide to listening and remembering.

Once you have visited the Chattohoochee Trace, the melody will linger on.

Chatthoochee Medley

Video…

Westville, Georgia: an 1850 Living History Museum

Jimmy Rane’s Fillin’ Station in Abbeville, Alabama

Miss Hilda Plays Piano in Eufaula, Alabama

A Remarkable Time Capsule: Suttons Corner Frontier Museum, Georgia

The Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge

Additional Resources

The Historic Chattahoochee Trace Commission

The City of Bainbridge

Donalson/Seminole County Chamber of Commerce

Dothan, Alabama

The Eufaula Heritage Homes Tour

Suttons Corner Frontier Country Store Museum

Westville

Wiregrass Museum

Fort Gaines Historical Society

Clay County, Georgia

Walter F. George & George W. Andrews Lakes

Landmark Park

The Free Magnolia: The Voice of Southern Life and Culture

The Trail of Tears

Jameson Inn Bainbridge

Recommended Reading

A Chatthoochee Album, Text and Photography by Fred C. Fussell

In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley

“The ‘faithful slave’ is about played out”: Civil War slave resistance in the lower Chattahoochee valley”, by David Williams in the Alabama Review

Mr. Tony’s Lessons of La Famiglia, by Lynn Byrd with contributing writer Phillip Marshall

The Magic and Mystery of Westville Photographs by: Mike Haskey, Essay by: William W. Winn

Fendall Hall: A True Story of Good Times and Bad Times on the Chattahoochee River

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