Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

Jim Clark: Music

Miss Ida Belle McHenry Talks to the Man from the State "Stories from Our Seniors" Project

(Jim Clark)
September 11, 2003
Jim Clark

This narrative poem is based on the real-life experiences of my maternal grandfather's mother when she was told by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early 1940s that she would have to move off her homeplace due to the imminent flooding of the area by the Dale Hollow Dam project.  She refused to leave, and ultimately died before she was forced to.

Miss Ida Belle McHenry Talks to the Man from the State

"Stories from Our Seniors" Project


There was a woman lived over the ridge there,

Ruby Donaldson was her name, granddaughter

Of Rachel Donaldson, Andrew Jackson's wife.

The old Donaldson place is under the lake

Now, just out from the dam, about where

The swinging bridge crosses over from

Hickory Grove to the island. She had

An old open-back banjo that Clyde Forrest

Had made for her daddy, but he never learned

To play it. Miss Ruby picked it up

And got right good at it. She'd sit on her porch

In the evening in the hickory rocker,

With her back straight as a board, and she'd hold

That banjo with the neck straight up and down

And play "Cripple Creek," "Fare Thee Well Old Joe Clark,"

"Under the Double Eagle." I never knew

How anybody could hold a banjo

Any such a way and still be able

To play it, but she did. Many a time,

When I was a little girl, I could hear

Miss Ruby's banjo come tinkling across

The holler. Sometimes it'd make our old dog

Buddy commence to howling. My daddy'd come

Out on the porch and holler "Whoa here Buddy!

Shut that ruckus up! You hear me?" And then

The banjo playing would stop, and my daddy

He'd shout across the holler "Never you mind

This old hound, Miss Ruby! He ain't got no sense.

Play 'Shady Grove' for me." And she would.


Anyway, that was long before they built

The dam, before Miss Ruby got the skin cancer.

I recollect it was nineteen and forty-six

When they started the dam. I guess Miss Ruby

Must've been getting on toward seventy then.

She got the cancer a year or two before

They moved her off her place. That woman suffered,

Especially during the summer, what with

The heat and the flies and all. Her daughter,

Lavelle, took good care of her, though, until

The very end. Lord knows it must not

Have been easy. I don't know if I

Could've done what she did.


When the Corps

Of Engineers first started coming around,

Telling folks about how they were going

To build the dam, some people were all for it,

For the electricity and all, and some

Were against it. Just like it is with the

New North/South highway, I guess. Then as now,

It seems like it was mostly the younger ones

That were for it. And so many of them

Ended up moving away, anyway.

The older folks though had lived on their farms

All their lives, and their people before them.

Some of them got plain riled at these TVA men

For telling them they had to move off

The old home place because they were going

To flood it. Bury a perfectly good

Farm under water. It just didn't make sense.

But it was plain as day they were going

To do it. It was just a matter of when.

They got senators and congressmen and such

To come and speak about it. Finally,

Most realized it wouldn't do any good

To try and hold out and just took the money

And moved further up on the ridges. It was

The saddest thing to see some of those families

Leave their farms. They'd pack everything they owned

Up in the wagon and then just stand out there

On the road. And then after a long time

They'd finally call to the mules and the wagon

Would start creeping up the ridge so slow

You'd have though the water would get there

Before they got away. Seems I recall

Ardy Bransom took his porch apart

And took it with him.


Miss Ruby, though, she

Was a fighter. She wouldn't leave for no

Amount of money. The chairman of the whole

TVA—Morgan was his name—even came

Down from Washington, D.C. and sat on

Miss Ruby's porch and tried to get her to

Take the money and leave. They offered her

More money, but she wouldn't go. "I was born

In this house, and I aim to die in this house,"

She would tell them. Then they offered to move

The house. She wouldn't hear of it. Finally—

And this is the part I like the best—

They had to send in a Federal Marshall

With an eviction notice and a bunch

Of corpsmen to escort her off her property.

Miss Ruby just sat in her rocker

With her banjo in her lap and wouldn't budge.

The corpsmen finally picked her up, rocker and all,

And carried her to their truck.


  I was sitting

In our kitchen, across the holler, while all

This was going on. All of a sudden

I heard Miss Ruby's banjo, and then

A bunch of voices I didn't recognize.

I ran out the back door and up to the top

Of the hill behind the tobacco patch

Where you could look across and down to

The Donaldson place. There was Miss Ruby,

Sitting just as stiff as always in her

Rocker in the bed of the truck, just playing

The living daylights out of her banjo.

I remember it was "Shady Grove" she played.

I never heard her play it so fast or so loud.