Dear Doc Knox,
When I was a kid, in the '80s, I used to listen to an old 45 record of my mom's with a song on it called "Knoxville, That's My Hometown." It had to have been recorded in the '50s or '60s. As years have passed I don't know what happened to it. I can't seem to find any mention of it online or on YouTube etc. Do you have any idea who sang this song and where a person could get a copy of it?
Jeromy B. Gahagan
Ah, to have been a kid in the '80s. For the entirety of that peculiar decade, Dr. Knox was sequestered in the nosebleed section of his ivory tower, but has been making a study of the Reagan era and its effects on the American juvenile's psyche. Pee-wee's Playhouse, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Silly String, string cheese, Super Soakers. In Dr. Knox's childhood, such complex delights had never been contemplated except by the elusive Muses.
But your question reaches back to an even earlier epoch. We regret that in our extensive collection, we lack the record in question. Our mom never played it for us.
For this one we had to turn to the world authority on old Knoxville recordings, the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. The co-curator of that unique collection is Mr. Brad Reeves, who spends many hours each week in that his subterranean archives, far beneath the sunny Gay Street sidewalk. He is well aware of the song of which you speak, and has a copy of it.
"We occasionally find copies of this record at thrift stores and estate sales," says Mr. Reeves, who describes the song as a "catchy, swinging little jingle." He believes it to have been recorded sometime in the middle part of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The record label is that of Elm Hill Meats; Reeves suggests that company sponsored the recording, perhaps based on a contest for promotional songs about Knoxville. Elm Hill was then mainly a Nashville-based company, based on Nashville's Elm Hill Pike, but a 1965 merger with Wampler's of Lenoir City encouraged them to raise their profile in the Knoxville market.
Knoxvillians were almost as hungry for a municipal motivation as they were for delicious meat -- and perhaps especially for songs that made Knoxville sound nice. The mid-1960s was a time when the city was just starting to pick up a little momentum after enduring 40-odd years of withering negative national press -- and in the previous 15 years or so, dramatic population loss.
But here came this song that tried to change all that. With the assistance of Mr. Reeves and TAMIS, we gave it a listen. "Knoxville, My Hometown" has a Hawaiian flair, with ukuleles and slide guitars, and a cheerfully insistent female vocal:
"Let me tell ya bout my home town, it's the greatest in Tennessee
It's the home of beautiful women and Southern hospitality...."
She then proceeds to offer the correct spelling of the city in an admirably bouncy fashion -- "Capital K-n-o-x-v-i-l-l-e!" -- and underscores exactly what she means by referencing several of the city's attractions. Some were better known in the '60s than today. "There's the Tennessee River and the Promenade, and the Smokies' scenic view...." Mentioned coequally with the river and the mountains was the Promenade, the back-door automobile access to Gay Street's 400 block, which then included J.C. Penney's, Kimball's jewelry shop, and the Fowler's and Woodruff's furniture stores. Hailed as an innovative faux-suburban wonder in 1960, despite some derision from a New Yorker writer, it's now best known, more or less, as the rear patio the Downtown Grill and Brewery.
"We're proud of the Dulin Gallery, Blount Mansion, the Coliseum, too / The UT Vols, the Knoxville Knights, just to name a few...."
That couplet may require a footnote for those who don't remember Knoxville in the '60s.
The Dulin, Knoxville's first art gallery, was located in a nice old house on Kingston Pike, and was still pretty new then. It closed before the Knoxville Museum of Art opened in 1990.
The Knoxville Knights, the city's first professional hockey team, flourished from 1961 to 1968, the first years of the aforementioned Civic Coliseum. To see two of Knoxville's prides, pro ice hockey in the air-conditioned modernist arena, was a pretty heady thing in early '60s Knoxville. (Though the team was rarely impressive in its own minor league, a few Knoxville Knights went on to big-time fame, including Ray Cullen, Dennis Huxtall -- and Pat Quinn, who became famous as a coach, leading Canada's hockey team to Olympic gold.)
"And right here on Gay Street, there's anything for you," she adds. We can't help but hear, in that remark, a bit of a friendly wink. The claim that Gay Street did indeed offer "anything for you" in the 1960s was close to accurate -- and that fact was a daily concern for the League of Decency and for the Knoxville Police Department.
We don't know the identity of the singer. Perhaps someone out there does. Side B of that 45 is the same song in an instrumental version. The song sounds tropical, as if it was recorded in the same session as the contemporary "Gilligan's Island" theme, but has just a little banjo in it to keep it real.
There's a twist to the story that's interesting, if perhaps a little deflating. A correspondent tells us that exactly the same song, with different lyrics, was once well known in Jamestown, NY. An internet search turned up others, including one from Fresno, Calif. They start out the same way, "Let me tell ya 'bout my home town" and at some point spell out the town's name, with the happy guitar licks in the background.
So "Knoxville, My Hometown" wasn't necessarily recorded at City Hall. We're beginning to suspect it was a national Your Town Here promotional effort. It was probably a lucrative one, appealing to towns with poor self esteem, ones who needed a little cheering up with a spritely jingle.
Still, regardless of the record's motive, or whether the singer had ever set foot on Gay Street or saw a Vols game, we'd like to think it helped.
The website for "Vinyl Frontier," TAMIS's show on WDVX, shows a photo of the 45 in question. Mr. Reeves suggests the reader call the weekly show he and his wife Louisa host on WDVX every Monday night at 9 and request a dedication.
Yr. Obt. Svt.
Z. Heraclitus Knox, Ph.D., USDA