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The Songs of Norris Dam

By Bob Fulcher

Lewis Hine-photo courtesy of TVA


Norris Dam, the first-born child of the Tennessee Valley Authority, was attended by praises and curses as it came into the world.

Government had rarely been so bold in the name of social change. About 3,000 families were displaced by the project. World War II forced a new perspective on the arguments, requiring much greater sacrifice, while justifying the need for power development.

The drama of the development of the Norris Dam project inspired films, books, theatrical productions, and songs. The songs excited, especially, a small, but increasing cadre of scholars and enthusiasts who loved American folk songs. To a 1930s folklorist, the discovery of these items was somewhat comforting-it proved that "the folk" were still composing and singing ballads, as they had done for hundreds of years. The art was still viable and relevant, and could be called upon to express deep feelings and document events, just as they were happening.

To become a folk song, most scholars agree, a song must be shared with a lot of people, enough to separate the text from its composer. In an almost Darwinian manner, passing a song around changes it, as singers add, delete, or invent new lyrics and bend and swap melodies. Edwin C. Kirkland, a professor of English at Knoxville's University of Tennessee from 1931 to 1946, and his wife, Mary Neal, collected a handful of Norris Dam songs soon after their composition, and saw in them a fascinating opportunity for future scholars. If "taken up and transmitted by the folk of Tennessee we shall see what students of ballads and folk songs have long wanted-the original version," he wrote. "If we are able to find, some time in the future, various versions... we shall have the material for an interesting study on the oral transmission of ballads and folk songs."

None of these Norris Dam songs passed into common currency, but each is important for other reasons. There is more authentic emotion, more wit and honest opinion in these verses than in hundreds of journalistic accounts and many documentary studies. With vivid enthusiasm or with gentle anguish, these words strike us with the power of a first-hand account.
The Kirklands found the praises of Roosevelt sung along the streets of Knoxville by Buck Fulton, a well-known performer on the WNOX Midday Merry-Go-Round radio program. The gates of Norris Dam had opened in 1936, one year before his parody, sung to the tune of the folk song, "Casey Jones," was recorded by the Kirklands. One line of the song exclaims, "He didn't take twelve years to start the Coal Creek Dam." Coal Creek was a common misinterpretation of Norris Dam's original name, Cove Creek Dam, which was built six miles from Coal Creek.

"CASEY" ROOSEVELT [excerpts]
Recorded by Buck Fulton for E.C. and M.N. Kirkland, July, 1937

"Come all you people if you want to hear
The story about a brave engineer;
He's Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Washington D.C.
He's running the train they call 'prosperity.'

"Now he straightened up the banks with a big holiday;
He circulated money with the T.V.A.
With the C.C.C. and the C.W.A.
He's brought back smiles and kept hunger away.

By 1939 the Kirklands found three more songs inspired by the Norris Dam project.
Jean Thomas was another folk song enthusiast of the 1930s who reported two more songs lauding the Norris project. Thomas, who had once worked as a Hollywood script girl, became notorious for her unabashed exploitation of the romanticized view of Appalachian culture. Modern scholars have criticized her distortion of Appalachian culture, manipulation of traditional artists, and self-promotion.

In her book, Blue Ridge Country, in 1952, she published a poetical "ballad" entitled "Norris Dam," composed by George A. Barker, whom she described as a "Tennessee mountaineer." It gives Norris Dam a sanctified status, as formed by the hand of God.

"And so, this miracle today
You see with your own eyes,
Was planned ten million miles away-
In "mansions in the skies."

"So let us give a rousing cheer
For our dear Uncle Sam,
Whose mighty arm reached way up there
And brought down Norris Dam."

Two years after the Kirklands had recorded their TVA songs, Jean Thomas, in 1939, published a text that had already become, by far, the most distributed of the Norris songs. She claimed, in Ballad Makin' in the Mountains of Kentucky, that she had heard "The TVA Song," many times in "various sections off the Kentucky mountains."

There is no corroborating evidence that "The TVA Song" ever spread among the people of Kentucky, but it did take on quite a life. In 1937 Thomas had joined the Federal Theater Project in New York City to play the role of a farmer's wife in the dramatic production, Power, and brought the song with her. The play, like many others developed by the Federal Theater Project, was harshly criticized as poor work and New Deal propaganda. Its New York staging, at the Ritz Theater, off-Broadway, though, led to a run of over 130 performances, becoming the most successful work by the organization, and the play traveled to Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.

Power was presented as a "Living Newspaper," (this was also the name of the troupe which produced the play,) with a cast of nearly 100 actors, staged in short blackout scenes adapted from current news reports and court records. It portrayed the struggle to establish the government's right to sell electricity, and the challenge by monopolistic private power companies. Farmers' needs were being ignored, city dwellers were suffering, and, if the Supreme Court allowed it, TVA would "make a vivid reality of the New Deal's plan to provide 'a more abundant life.'"

"The TVA Song," copyrighted by Jean Thomas, became an important musical theme in the play. In the final scene of Act I, actors filled the stage, many carrying lanterns, parading, singing "The TVA Song" with full orchestral accompaniment. At the close of the play, for the curtain call, the orchestra again struck up a final reprise of "The TVA Song."
The T.V.A. Song [excerpts]
Reported by Jean Thomas in 1939

"My name is William Edwards
I live down Cove Creek way.
I'm working on the project
They call the T.V.A.

"The Government begun it
When I was but a child;
But now they are in earnest
and Tennessee's gone wild.

"Just see them boys a-comin'
Their tool kits on their arm;
They come from Clinch and Holston
And many a valley farm.

"Oh, see them boy a-comin,
Their Government they trust;
Just hear their hammers ringing
They'll build that dam or bust.

"I meant to marry Sally
But work I could not find;
The T.V.A. was started
And surely eased my mind.

"Oh things looked blue and lonely
Until this come along;
Now hear the crew a-singing'
And listen to their song.

"The Government employs us,
Short hours and certain pay;
Oh things are up and comin',
God bless the T.V.A."

Two years later, Tennessee, A Guide to the State, published by the Works Progress Administration, included three verses of "The TVA Song" in the music section. Although the source was probably from Power, it was craftily implied that it was a Tennessee folk composition: "Government activity in the Tennessee Valley has called forth many new verses for the old-time tunes. One of these, set to an old English tune..."

The only Norris song released as a commercial record had a very different message. Early country music was filled with warnings-don't drink, don't marry a drunkard, don't marry a scolding woman-but "She Sleeps Beneath the Norris Dam" was the only warning song about the dangers of speed boats. The text presented a cruel twist of fate, the loss of a sweetheart to the very dam that the singer had built with his own hands. The Cope Brothers of Bean Station recorded it in 1946 for King Records, a very respectable label based in Cincinnati. They often performed the number on Cas Walker's famous Knoxville radio show in the 1940s. Clay Cope helped a young friend compose the song, which was not based on a real tragedy. The Cope Brothers brought their ballad back to the shores of Norris Lake in 1982, performing it again at the first Big Ridge Music Festival, (an event that continues to present fine Norris area musicians each August at Big Ridge State Park.) The Cope Brothers have all now passed away.

The Cope Brothers, recorded by Brent Cantrell in 1982
for the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project

"Way down in sunny Tennessee,
Beneath blue Dixie's skies,
In the silvery lake of Norris,
Where my poor darling lies.

"I helped construct that tower of strength,
I worked from day to day,
Not thinking that the Norris Lake,
Would take my love away.

"We went out in a motor boat,
Trying out its speed,
They told us it was dangerous,
But youth would not take heed.

"The boat it gave a winding swerve,
And threw and awful spray,
My darling she was gone from me,
When it had cleared away.

"Take me back to Tennessee,
When I am free from care,
Lay me down in the Norris Lake,
So I can be with her.

"We'll both be in our watery grave,
I hope we won't be found,
We'll both be in our watery grave,
Above the Norris Dam."

In 1984, the Tennessee Folklore Society celebrated its 50th anniversary. Mary Neal Kirkland, the widow of Dr. Edwin C. Kirkland, traveled to Cookeville to introduce a newly-produced record album, The Kirkland Collection, which drew upon the hundreds of field recordings she had made with her late husband in Tennessee and North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s. It included the most touching, beautiful, and clever of all the Norris Dam songs, "The Song of the Cove Creek Dam," by Cleatus Burnett. Dr. Kirkland had purchased a printed copy for 15 cents from Burnett on a Knoxville street in the summer of 1935. The "ballet" sheet (a single sheet with printed lyrics) was marked with handwritten corrections, including a note that the composer was from Sharp's Chapel, a community in Union County. Apparently, the printer had even incorrectly spelled Burnett's name.

Kirkland learned nothing else about Burnett, and later used a high school student to sing the piece for recording purposes, but Kirkland's lectures soon included the song as an example of contemporary topical compositions in the folk style. He commented, "it has the possibilities of becoming what I should call a folk song. [Burnett] is speaking for the folk of his community; yet he is sadly lacking in metrical skill, good taste and other qualities which are necessary for a first-rate folk song."
Most have disagreed with Kirkland on that point. Burnett's song clearly and poignantly set down the seeming contradictions in the actions of TVA-get a job, but lose a home; flood the productive land and save the waste land; give a home to the wild beasts, and break the hearts of the old folks-all through the bidding of a senator from Nebraska.

Folklorist Charles Wolfe called the song "powerful," in his notes to The Kirkland Collection album. Duncan Emrich, who managed folk lore collections at the Library of Congress for decades, included it in his 1974 anthology, American Folk Poetry, and it was adapted for the soundtrack of The Electric Valley, a major documentary film about TVA that premiered in 1983.
What became of Cleatus Burnett? Though folklorists and historians had admired his work, he had remained almost as anonymous as the composer of "Barbara Allen" until his children were located this past March.

"He never did have worldly goods, because if they'd of had it, and seen someone else needed it, that's where it would have gone. He'd give a person the shirt on his back if they needed it worse that he did," said his daughter-in-law Anna Burnett, of Sharp's Chapel. Ruble Cleatus Burnett was 37 years old in 1935 when he wrote the "Song of the Cove Creek Dam." He had just purchased 50 acres of land, after having apparently rented it for some years, when the TVA land appraisers looked it over. He supported his wife and three children, his older brother, and mother in a three room house by the sale of chickens, eggs and a tobacco crop. His income in 1933 was $180, and his expenses on the farm just $30.75. He fed the family with two milk cows, two hogs, 50 chickens and 17 ducks, by TVA's count. The TVA interviewer also noted: "House is a small boxed one, and is equipped with very little furniture," indicating no car, radio, piano, phonograph, sewing machine, floor covering, or dining or living room furniture in the home. The interviewer considered Burnett "suspicious," and noted, "He said the T.V.A. was a bad thing for the people of this section," and, optimistically, "his conversation leeds altogether along the line that he believes the government will jip him But began to gather a different idea before I left him [sic]."

"I believe what hurt him most was moving the graves," says Aundra Ditmore of Maryville, Burnett's daughter. He was hurt by the removal of his infant daughter, who died from meningitis, and his father's remains to a new cemetery, and he grieved for the families whom he felt would not be able to recover their loved ones in poorly marked or unmarked graves.

As it turned out, Burnett did not have to move his family's home. TVA leased a right of way from him, but did not force him to a new location. For a couple of years he owned a guitar, and, rarely, sang for friends and neighbors. His son, Milus, remembers hearing him sing the Cove Creek Dam song only three or four times, but learned a number of the verses himself.

Norris Dam continued to affect his life. His daughter, Bonnie Sanford, remembered, "Someone asked Dad, 'what good are the C.C. boys?' He said, 'For son-in-laws.'" Both daughters married C.C.C. members from the nearby camp. He finally got electricity, around 1950, 14 years after the promise of it. He fished in Norris Lake occasionally, but more often scouted the banks for fishing tackle abandoned in the brush, which could be reused or resold.

In 1980, at a family gathering, a granddaughter asked Cleatus to sing the Cove Creek Dam song again for her tape recorder, probably the last time he performed the piece. He spent his final two years in a nursing home in Maryville in poor health, and died in 1984, the same year his song was reintroduced on the Tennessee Folklore Society's record album, The Kirkland Collection. Though none of his children or grandchildren had a complete version of the song he wrote in 1935, his daughter, Aundra, kept an envelope with the shredded remains of one of the old printed ballets. Like the copy Kirkland purchased, it shows handwritten corrections that Cleatus must have made on each sheet, to set straight the only song he ever wrote. The outside of the envelope is marked in Cleatus' own hand "a True Song of the Col Creek Dam by R.C. Burnett." Inside is a most eloquent account of the sacrifice called for by the creation of the Norris Dam.

(Bob Fulcher is regional interpretive specialist for Tennessee State Parks. His office is at Norris Dam State Park.)


July 1, 2000; Send comments to Department of Environment and Conservation.

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