Schweid’s latest book a good look at Nashville’s past

Friday, August 20, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 34

Richard Schweid

-- Contributed Photo By Patricia Esteve Gracias

It’s not true that the first thing I did after buying the new Nashville history book was to flip through looking for the picture I took that appears in it.

That is, it’s not entirely true*

The book is “Nashville: Music and Manners,” by Richard Schweid, a former colleague of mine at The Tennessean. I’d previously read books by Richard on Tabasco, the catfish industry in Mississippi and the antique car culture in Cuba.

Even at that I’m a slacker. He’s written lots of others, with topics including homelessness, immortality and cockroaches. How’s that for range? He’s entertaining and informative, with the kind of style that might be described as conversational, but that’s too facile. Conversations are rarely as agreeably structured as Richard’s prose.

He’s also well-suited for this particular topic. A Nashville native and Hillsboro High graduate who now lives in Barcelona and Rhode Island, he brings to the table his own experience during some of Nashville’s turning-point years.

In one section, he recounts having watched a “stand-in” at the Paramount Theater on Church Street in 1960 as Black students lined up to try to buy tickets at the “white” ticket window, only to be refused, menaced and punched. After which they would placidly go to the back of the line and start the effort again. Repeat until arrested.

“That was a long time ago, and I’ve seen a lot of amazing things since then, but nothing ever affected me more deeply, or made me think harder,” Richard writes.

I call the book a history, but it’s also about Nashville’s present. After a prologue titled “A City in Transition,” the first half or so deals with origins, going back to earliest inhabitants, nomadic tribes of the Woodland Period, perhaps dating to 1000 B.C.

From there it follows a largely chronological progression, from the early settlers to the Civil War and Reconstruction and so on until current times.

The degree to which any of the content is unknown to you will depend on how familiar you already are with Nashville’s history. I don’t know that Richard is breaking any particularly new ground with his account, and he routinely borrows (with attribution) from the works of others, including the late John Egerton.

It was Egerton who provided this:

“One historian of the period, writing on Nashville’s cultural life, characterized the city in 1850 as having ‘much unwarranted pretension’ and a ‘tendency to boast and to exaggerate.’”

I’m a sucker for that sort of tidbit, something that in a nutshell can provide a telling glimpse of a particular time or situation. These are a few more that stood out for me:

“As late as 1898, the city counted only 682 indoor toilets, 212 bathtubs and 52 urinals among a population of more than 80,000.”

In the 1950s, Harvey’s Department Store had a soda fountain, the Monkey Bar, “in a room featuring real monkeys in a huge cage.”

The Dutchman’s Curve train collision in 1918 that killed 121 people “remains the worst railroad accident in the United States’ history.” (Some accounts tally the dead at 101 and rank it second to a Brooklyn crash the same year that killed 102.)

There actually was a treatment for scalping, in cases where the victim didn’t succumb. It involved drilling holes in the skull. “I have found that a flat, pointed awl is the best instrument to bore with,” the Nashville founder James Robertson wrote in an 1806 medical journal. Alas, “There is always part of the scalped head over which little or no hair afterwards grows.”

Draw what you will from the fact that those items imprinted on my brain. There is much more in the book, including looks at local music, the literary and artistic scene, and the evolution of the food landscape (Richard’s affection for barbecue is clear).

No book on Nashville can be complete now without a discussion and analysis of the “It” city ranking, and Richard obliges. He frequently refers to what had been Nashville’s “second-tier” status, tracing its transformation into today’s “iconic destination both for young people looking to move their lives to new surroundings, and those country music fans just looking to spend a little time in their Mecca.”

All that transformation is not without its tensions, he notes.

“[S]ome Nashvillians worry that their city’s relaxed charm is imperiled by so much growth and development,” he writes. “It is this struggle that defines the city today.”

Ain’t that the truth.

* I waited until I got home to thumb through. The picture, of a downtown mural, is on Page 183. Looks great, if I do say so myself.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com