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The Singing River Legend

By M. Keith Hudson

Back To YBO Home PageThe legend of The Singing River is well known to many people in northwest Alabama, a beautiful story and description of the early Muscle Shoals of the Tennessee River.

Among the more interesting descriptions of the shoals is the legend associated with the Yuchie tribe, who in their language called the Tennessee Nunnuhsae or The Singing River.

Photo courtesy Chris Brown
Cherokee Indians called the river Kallumchee, but the Yuchi tribe called the Muscle Shoals the Singing River.
Photo courtesy Chris Brown.

According to the Yuchi, these flowing waters sounded to them like a woman singing. In times of low water, she sang sweetly. But when the river was raging, she sounded loud and angry.

Today, the sounds of the shoals are gone, buried by the reservoirs of TVAs Wilson and Wheeler Dams. However, sometimes when river waters are high and TVA releases waters through the shallow tailwaters below these dams, one can again almost hear the legend of the loud, boisterous singing princess.

In times of low water, the area behind and below the dams is mostly still or moves slowly and silently. And sadly, we can no longer hear the princess soft song, calling her lover.

Before the Mussel Shoals were dammed by the TVA, the waters flowing around rocks, over low waterfalls and rushing through natural sluices could be heard many miles distant, even before the shoals were seen.

Imagine the entire volume of todays river flowing through a 20-mile-long shallow canyon, down a series of extensive shoals  the Elk River Shoals, Big Muscle Shoals, Little Muscle Shoals, the Bee Tree and Colbert Shoals.

Photo courtesy Chris Brown
Before the Mussel Shoals were dammed by the TVA, the flowing waters could be heard many miles distant,
even before the shoals were seen.
Photo courtesy Chris Brown.

Over these shoals the river dropped some 140 feet. Waterfalls cascaded from the bluffs along the river into the rapids. Wading birds, waterfowl and wildlife were everywhere. What a sight it must have been! What a sound it must have made!

And, what an opportunity it afforded early peoples as a place to cross the river, fish in the shallows and exploit the freshwater mussels found among the shoals.

Alabama historian William L. McDonald notes the cascading waters . . . to the Indian was the spirit of a princess calling for her lover. Sometimes her song was loud and boisterous. On other occasions she sang softly. Now and then could be heard a most inaudible humming from her throat and lips. Yet, the princess is always here, hidden under the mysterious waters of an ancient river as she reveals her secrets through a thousand summers.

Cherokee Indians called the river Kallumchee, McDonald says. The area we now know as the Muscle Shoals they called "Chaka tsh locko," which means big shoal. The Chickasaw referred to the great bend of the river in Alabama as Thegalego, and called the Muscle Shoals Dagunahi, meaning a place of mussels.

This area along the river in Alabama was home to several of the historical Native American tribes, each which had their own name for the river or particular sections of it. These included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Shawnee, Creek and Yuchi, also called Euchee or Uchee, tribes.

The meaning and origin of the word Tennessee itself is uncertain. Some suggest it is a Cherokee modification of an earlier Yuchi word. The word has been said to mean meeting place, winding river or river of the great bend. According to ethnographer James Mooney, the name cannot be analyzed, and its meaning is lost.

The Tennessee River flows generally east to west across north Alabama. The waters that ultimately become the Tennessee River have their headwaters in the springs and streams of the Appalachian Mountains.

Near Knoxville, Tenn., the Holston and French Broad Rivers flow together and begin the river we now know as the Tennessee. The river flows southwestward across Tennessee into Alabama where it makes a huge sweeping curve northward, and flows back across Tennessee before emptying into the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky.

The Alabama Legislature renamed the new bridge just downriver from Wilson Dam the Singing River Bridge to pay homage to the areas rich Native American heritage and Muscle Shoals modern musical history.

-- By M. Keith Hudson, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

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