If there is one spot in Nashville that visitors are sure to see when they come to Music City, it that section of downtown Broadway they call Honky-Tonk Heaven, Hillbilly Highway or just simply “The District.”
Consisting of the first five blocks of Lower Broad, plus the side streets branching off on either side, for decades it has been a mecca for lovers of Country music, or those just seeking a good time.
While it has been a favorite haunt of musicians trying to make a name for themselves for as long as anyone can remember, the haunting goes far beyond perspiring minstrels trying to make it in the business.
There abide in the old buildings down there the spirits of old-time country stars, workmen and working girls from another era and even a Civil War ghost or three.
Take Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, for example. It’s smoke-stained walls and beer-stained floors have seen the greats of Country Music pass through its swangin’ doors–not to mention a few Rock stars as well.
Behind it is an ally where the same ghosts are alleged to pass into the old stage door entrance of the Ryman Auditorium–originally the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Across the street are two old record shops that house hidden gold–golden oldies that is. Ernest Tubb used to house the Saturday Night Jamboree. The Jamboree is alive and well but now broadcasts from Music Valley, just across from Opryland Hotel. Downtown, the original store also hosts a jamboree of sorts: the old time musicians still return there on Saturday and haunt the place, even though they’re long dead.
Nearby by Ernest Tubbs was Lawrence Records until recently. Now transformed into Nudie’s Bar, it also has its resident revenants as well. They can change the name and change what they sell, but the spirits remain despite the changes.
Truth be told, just about every old building in downtown Nashville has a resident spook or two.
I cover the District’s ghosts in far more detail in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee than here, but as I wasn’t able to include photos in that book for technical reasons, so I thought I’d post a few here as well as on Pinterest. If you prefer to find out about the ghosts of Lower Broad for yourself, there is no better time of year than now to do it!
Many’s the man who they say has met the devil and won, but I don’t know of anyone who’ll look you straight in the face and say they did. Daniel Webster supposedly did; Andrew Jackson confronted the Bell Witch, but even he didn’t claim to have bested the hag. Let me add to the list names you never heard of before, and probably never will again: John Chesselden and James Arkins.
They were just two country boys, living out beyond the bounds of civilized society, in what is today Arkansas but back in 1784 wasn’t even considered part of the U.S. One bright May day they left the frontier settlement of Kenfry in the northeast part of the territory to visit a friend in an outlying hamlet.
The distance as the crow flies was about twenty-five miles, but they had to pass through a forest called Varnum’s Wood, which had a reputation for being haunted. Why, only a few days before, one of the boys said, old Isaac King had encountered the Devil himself and barely escaped with his life. His friend scoffed at the tale and then in a prideful boast declared he was not scared of any demon and defied Old Scratch to appear.
Pride goeth before the fall, they say, and not longer after his prideful boast, the two lads encountered a puff of black smoke and a strange beast which soon congealed into something resembling a human—only a human without a head and hovering eight feet above the ground. Even without a head, however, the Demon talked up a storm, tempting the two boys with thrones and dominions beyond the ken of mortal men.
Of all that befell the lads that day, I haven’t room here to say; and, anyway, I gave a complete account of it in Chapter 6 of Dixie Spirits. That and other true tales that defy logic and reason unfold as best as can be told by this humble scribe. Suffice it to say that the two young men only just escaped being dragged to Hell. When they made it to safety, few would believe their tale, until they showed the local folk where the demon had moved a giant boulder; a boulder so big a dozen men couldn’t move it if they tried.
So if you wander in a haunted wood during the dark of the moon, I advise you to not tempt the Devil, else Old Nick takes you up on your offer. And if all I say is not the gospel truth, well, then: God Bless the Devil!
Let’s take a break, if we may, from trampling through decaying mansions in search of restless spirits, rotting swamps filled with things not quite dead, yet not really alive, graveyards that give one the heebie -jeebies even in broad daylight and morbid mountain hollows where ancient curses still have power to bewitch the unwary passerby, and reflect on the state of the OTHER SIDE in this day and age.
First, while I firmly believe there are many paranormal phenomena which science cannot explain, and I continue to collect accounts of uncanny events and weird doings, I have begun to believe that our collective quest to explore THE UNEXPLAINED may have gone a bit too far. Or rather, that the innate human curiosity to seek answers to the mysteries of the universe that motivates most of us, has been hijacked by many who are only interested in exploiting what has gone from an esoteric endeavor to become a popular pastime and cash in on it by any means possible.
The explosion in “professional” ghost hunting in particular I find a bit much. There are all manner of self-anointed experts these days who conduct very expensive classes in ghost-hunting, “cleansing” or various and sundry other paranormal practices. It is all well and good to go to sites that have a reputation for being haunted and investigate them for yourself or even to help calm folk uncomfortable with the possibility that they are not alone in the old home.
But bringing along truckloads of seemingly high-tech paraphernalia and putting on airs of being “scientific” is not any more valid qualitatively than someone who investigates a site by their “gut feeling.” Sometimes one can divine the truth by what seems to be an entirely subjective and undocumented experience. And one person’s authentic paranormal experience may not be able to be duplicated no matter how many tri-quarter readings you take.
As Shakespeare phrased it, “by the prickling of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
Please don’t put me in the category of the professional debunkers who, while pretending to investigate paranormal incidents objectively in reality approach every occurrence with the same closed mind, and simply seek to validate their predetermined opinions and present it as “proof” that it is all bunkum. I have read some ghost hunting groups’ accounts that I personally find quite impressive; but I also know that insofar as the scientific community goes, their evidence will not convince any academic investigator.
The flurry of paranormal Cable TV shows in particular yank my chain. Some, admittedly, are worse than others; a bunch of idiots running around an abandoned sanitarium with flashlights attached to their faces and scaring themselves is not only a waste of time, it’s just plain silly.
Likewise some dude on tv daring a spirit to “come out come out wherever you are” is an exercise in the moronic. Moreover, if they are treading on territory where they are dealing, not with the deceased, but with the demonic, they may even stir up something they are unprepared to handle. Genuine cases of demonic possession are very, very rare–fortunately–but they do exist and, as the saying goes, don’t go kicking a nest of hornets unless you want to get stung.
The latest scam is some of these celebrity ghost-busters offering–for money–certification to people as ghost hunters. Of course, if any of these media mediums read this criticism, I doubt they will be much dismayed–they are crying all the way to the bank as I speak.
Of course, charlatans exploiting a popular movement relating to the paranormal is nothing new. In my book, The Paranormal Presidency, I document the birth of Spiritualism and the story of its suppressed relationship with President Abraham Lincoln.
In the book I tried to maintain a certain objectivity about this subject. The truth is that, at that time and since, there have been many sincere people involved in Spiritualism, psychics, medium-ship, and also those involved in partaking in seances. In some instances these earnest explorers of the beyond may even have had genuine psychic experiences.
But the truth is that there has also been a chronic problem with phonies and fakes who pretended to be psychic and have bilked gullible people over and over again over the years. Moreover, with the advent of cable TV these charlatans have gotten a mass media following.
Unlike the professional debunkers, the Joe Nickols of the world, I refuse to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater. Paranormal phenomena are real; I know of many people who have genuine experiences, even if only once in their lifetime. Similarly, I have met a few people whom I believe to be genuinely psychic. I think that everyone has that potential, at the very least.
But there are also those only too willing to exploit popular interest in the subject for a fast buck. The truth is, that some people want to tell us what is behind the beyond, when they don’t even know what is beyond their behind!
In honor of that spookiest day of the year—October 31—I am penning thirteen blogs daily, now through fright night.
Why thirteen? Well, we have the twelve days of Christmas—or at least we used to. Yuletide should run from December 25 through January 6 by rights, although lately it seems folks want to get the holiday season over with early on December 26. I am among that obstinate minority who prefer to enjoy Yuletide for as long as possible–and that means quaffing flagons of Yuletide Cheer from big Christmas to Little Christmas. Moreover, in Wales, not only are black cats considered lucky, so is the number 13. Ultimately, for no particular reason other than it sounds good, I chose thirteen for Halloween.
Black Cats and Thirteen anything–what could be more Halloweenish? Of course, the Welsh being Celts, they have a strong contrary streak and so whatever superstition their English neighbors adhere to, one can almost guarantee the Welsh will tend to believe just the opposite. My black cat, Enoch, was certainly lucky: he got to sleep all day, ate when he wanted, and pretty much did as he pleased (which was not much). And if cats normally have nine lives, Enoch was blessed with at least double that amount.
Speaking of superstitions, one Southern superstition that Yankees north of the Mason-Dixon Line may not have heard of is enshrined in the expression “jumping the broom.” Among folks in Dixie, to “jump the broom” is another way to say getting married. It comes from the belief that if newlyweds place a broom across the threshold to their new home, witches can’t follow them in and put a hex on the marriage. Although in Appalachia they don’t call it hex, they call it “spelt.”
In the old days, couples literally did put a broom across the entrance to their cabin on wedding day and then physically jumped across it. Brides and grooms who jumped the broom were believed to enjoy a more harmonious and fruitful marriage, and to judge by the number of children they had in the old days, this seems to have been true.
The Mid-South abounds in uncanny and unexplained phenomena, from professors who suddenly burst into flame, to sightings of strange craft over the Tennessee Valley in the days when no such craft existed, to the numerous “Spook Lights” found in almost every state of Dixie. This is in addition to the many ante-bellum manse’s that each is a Gothic horror show in itself. Of course, what would Appalachia be without it’s “Wise Women” and whether you regard them as a bane or a boon, you best not get on their bad side in any case.
Halloween marks the beginning of the season when all life dies away–to the eye–not to be truly revived until its sister holiday, April 30. The ancient Celts called the two festivals Semaine and Beltaine and the period in between was a time when one gathered round the hearth and told tales to enchant young and old. Beltaine is also known as the Witches’ Sabbath when, like Halloween, all manor of spirits, uncanny creatures and other fey folk are abroad in the dark. On Halloween we have the additional bane of evil beings such as politicians roaming the land seeking votes.
Fear not, however, we shall limit our discussion only to the supernatural and similar things and while we won’t limit these thirteen entries just to the South, there are more than man can ken in the region to venture farther afield in search of the uncanny. So curl up with your favorite flagon–or favorite dragon–stoke the hearth (even if it’s just a video loop on Roku) and enjoy stories to curl your toes and give you goosebumps!