Weeping on Rocky Top

By the time they were three, both my sons knew the lyrics to “Rocky Top,” the fight song not only for the state university, but for all of East Tennessee. Most fight songs bespeak valiant effort and ultimate glory. Not this one. It has lines like, “Corn don’t grow at all on Rocky Top, soil’s too rocky by far. That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top get their corn from a jar.” (Yankee translation: what they mean is moonshine.) Not every fight song will make a joke about the murder of federal agents. The last verse is maudlin, about feeling “trapped like a duck in a pen.” It is far from a song that the mighty would sing. It’s the song of people with a chip on their shoulder. You might wonder why.

The term “hillbilly” has its roots in Scotland and Ireland, and so does the blood of the people the term tries to name. The Scots-Irish left all they knew, many, after being shoved off the land, when the Enclosure Acts began to fence off public commons so British aristocrats could have their deer preserves. After that, where was the land that the animals of a poor man could graze? On to Ireland, where struggling Presbyterians never could get a foot-hold. Then America, where the good land on the coast, and the rich tidal soil, had already been taken. So, into the hills of Appalachia, where farming never was easy. The soil, they say, was too rocky by far. Soon enough, the men were sent down, deep into those hills, far from daylight, after enough coal to power a young, striving nation. Their backs broke, their lungs black, they got nothing but company scrip. When the Civil War came, it was not these dirt farmers who were eager for it. East Tennessee leaned toward the union, perhaps not because of any great allegiance to Washington, but because, when you don’t have much to lose, you don’t have much to fight for. But it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. So they did. The football team is called the “Volunteers,” because, when war comes to any generation, East Tennessee will send more than its share of its young off to fight, and then sometimes to die. And, to these families who sacrificed their own children? Here is one way to say how the nation gave thanks.

When someone decided the mountains were too beautiful to live in, they shoved the people off the land and called it The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When someone decided to improve the whole region, they shoved families off their farms in the valleys, which they then drowned with lakes, stopped by powerful dams. This was TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority. When someone decided we would beat the Germans to the atomic bomb, they shoved other families off their land in Anderson and Roane Counties, and put a fence all around it: the Manhattan Project. How to keep hold of the land for more than a generation or two? You might ask the Cherokee, but they are long gone, down the Trail of Tears.

In the Book of Job, everything Job loves is lost. In anguish, he cries out to the Lord. Lashes out, even. In a whirlwind, the Lord responds, not with what Job is after, but to say that the power of the Holy transcends human reason. The Lord is the Lord. Things in this life simply are as they are. And that’s something, in time, that you can learn to live with. But what if the power that moves mountains, fills valleys, and separates people from all they hold dear is not a force that is holy, but instead seems demonic? Or, worse, simply human?

Imagine the longing that lives there, in the hollows. The high, lonesome whine of the pain never eased.

In 1996, the federal government gave the green-light to a pharmaceutical giant, Purdue Pharma, to release a new pain medication, an extended-release formulation of oxycodone they called “OxyContin.” They marketed to doctors throughout Appalachia. What they didn’t say–until pleading guilty in 2007, and paying more than a half billion dollar fine–was that their product was highly addictive. Tennesseans no longer got their corn from a jar. Now, they got prescriptions. In the year 2008, 43 hydrocodone pills were prescribed for each Tennessean. By 2011, that number had risen to 51. And if the prescriptions were rising, so were the consequences. Between 1999 and 2010, there was a 250% percent increase in fatalities from overdose. In the year 2010, deaths from drug overdose surpassed those from traffic fatalities. Think of those smiling young drug reps who visit your doctor, building trust and rapport. This year, it’s predicted that people entering treatment for prescriptions will be greater than those entering treatment for alcohol. Babies born through Appalachia to mothers who are addicted start out their fragile lives addicted themselves. They begin life in withdrawal. Listen. You can hear them crying. And crying. And, bless their tiny hearts, they can’t stop. They can’t stop. Can you hear? They can’t stop.

It all opens sweetly. “Wish that I was on old Rocky Top, down in the Tennessee hills. Ain’t no foggy smoke on Rocky Top. Ain’t no telephone bills.” But the song itself can’t stick with its own optimism. The verse where we sing about being “trapped like a duck in a pen,” falls apart at the end. It says, “All I know is, it’s a pity life can’t be simple again.” In a life where nothing is certain, even less will be simple. So, talk all you want about individual choice. How somebody made his own bed, and now has to lie in it. Point your finger. Say, “What is wrong with those people?” But there is a whirlwind. And it has been generations. When you can’t any longer get coal out of coalmines, the coal company will start blowing up mountains. When you can’t any longer get your prescription filled, the heroin dealer is just a phone call away. Heroin, they say, will ease your worries a while. But the pain never ends. It runs through everything. It’s there when you’re born. It is there when you die. And your babies (they’re crying) will know it, as well. Given this life, that anybody at all would think to sing is a blessing.

  • lyndsay

    What a wonderful post. I am from Eastern Kentucky, and I can relate to so much of this. Having a hard life seems to be nearly genetic around here and clearly a self-fulfilling prophecy in many cases. If it weren’t for the stigma that Appalachia receives from the outside, things would be so much better. Again, wonderful post.


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