The Song of the Chattahoochee

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The Song Of The Chattahoochee
Sidney Lanier, 1842 – 1881

Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover’s pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.

All down the hills of Habersham,
All through the valleys of Hall,
The rushes cried ‘Abide, abide,’
The willful waterweeds held me thrall,
The laving laurel turned my tide,
The ferns and the fondling grass said ‘Stay,’
The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
And the little reeds sighed ‘Abide, abide,
Here in the hills of Habersham,
Here in the valleys of Hall.’

High o’er the hills of Habersham,
Veiling the valleys of Hall,
The hickory told me manifold
Fair tales of shade, the poplar tall
Wrought me her shadowy self to hold,
The chestnut, the oak, the walnut, the pine,
Overleaning, with flickering meaning and sign,
Said, ‘Pass not, so cold, these manifold
Deep shades of the hills of Habersham,
These glades in the valleys of Hall.’

And oft in the hills of Habersham,
And oft in the valleys of Hall,
The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook-stone
Did bar me of passage with friendly brawl,
And many a luminous jewel lone
— Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
Ruby, garnet and amethyst —
Made lures with the lights of streaming stone
In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
In the beds of the valleys of Hall.

But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
And oh, not the valleys of Hall
Avail: I am fain for to water the plain.
Downward the voices of Duty call —
Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
And the lordly main from beyond the plain
Calls o’er the hills of Habersham,
Calls through the valleys of Hall.

Sidney Lanier composed “Song of the Chattahoochee” in November 1877 for a small paper in West Point, Georgia; nonetheless, at the time he considered it the best poem he had ever written, and critics have generally agreed that it is one of his finer efforts. Originally from Macon, Georgia, Lanier travelled much in Georgia, Maryland, Florida, and North Carolina for employment and for his health. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and was eventually captured by Union troops. He spent the rest of the war in prison, where he relieved his own sufferings and those of his fellow prisoners with melodious tunes on the flute he had taught himself to play when he was younger. But unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis, and he spent the rest of his life trying unsuccessfully to restore himself to good health. These circumstances—travel, flute-playing, military discipline, and a keen awareness of his own mortality—may account for the major elements of his poetry: nature, music, moral duty, and religion. Lanier was able to see much of the South’s natural beauty, and he found much religious and spiritual significance in it. As a poet, he is regarded as a minor writer in American literature whose prime contribution was to lyrical or musical poetry in the tradition of the American poet Edgar Allan Poe and the English poet Alfred Tennyson. “Song of the Chattahoochee” is primarily a musical poem whose words flow very much like the river that is its speaker. The river’s aim is to do its duty, answering the call of God.

The Chattahoochee River rises in what used to be Habersham County, Georgia. The county, originally comprised much of Northeast Georgia, was cut up dramatically in the latter half of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th Century. The “valley of Halls,” which refers to where the Chattahoochee flows through Hall County, Georgia, became Lake Sydney Lanier in 1953 with the damming of the Chattahoochee River.

I have always loved this poem, but it also always brings to mind the Alan Jackson song “Chattahoochee .”  Every time I think of the Chattahoochee River, I think of this lady I used to work with, who always turned red when this song came on.  It only took the opening stanza:

Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee
It gets hotter than a hoochie coochie
We laid rubber on the Georgia asphalt
We got a little crazy but we never got caught

You’re probably wondering why would that cause her to get embarrassed.  With her daughter, she had always used “coochie” as her word for a woman’s lady parts (Southern women just won’t call it what it is.  I know one that refers to it as a squirrel.). So when this song first came on, her daughter was very confused by the line “It gets hotter than a hoochie coochie.”  Most people seem to think that “hoochie coochie” refers to a hoochie, or sexually provocative woman, and a coochie, just what my old coworker had told her daughter.  In fact, this is not what it means at all.  It means a sexually provocative belly dance that originated at a Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876. And while some may think that Jackson was referring to the former and not the latter, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he used “hoochie coochie” because it was a phrase he had heard before and it rhymed nicely with Chattahoochee. It still makes me laugh though.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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