Days Gone By - stories from the past

Is there a music muse in Muscle Shoals? Read this and decide for yourself [pictures & video]

Called the Singing River

The Cherokees who lived in the northwestern corner of Alabama called the river that flowed through their territory “Unashay” — the “Singing River”.


“They believed a muse lived in the river and sang songs to them.” The legend seems to have inspired a man in North Alabama to build a rock wall in tribute to his Cherokee ancestor.

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.

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. yuchi

Another version of the Legend

Another version of the Singing River Legend has it that the portion of the Tennessee River that flows through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, got its nickname “The Singing River” because of a talented Native American girl. Visiting the river to swim, bathe or fetch water, the young maiden was so enthralled with the effervescent rhythm of the waterway that she couldn’t help but add a melody.

The girl’s voice carried far down river and was heard by people who couldn’t see her and mistakenly thought it was the river itself that was doing the singing. Whether or not there’s any truth in this old tale, no one knows. But one thing’s for sure: If the songstress did in fact exist she was the first in a long line of singers, songwriters and musicians who continue to be inspired by Muscle Shoals and the Tennessee River to this very day. muscle-shoals- music

Once flowed around rocks

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

Sounds of shoals are now gone

With the advent of buried by the reservoirs of TVA and its reservoirs, the sounds of the shoals are now gone. Sometimes when river waters are high and TVA releases waters through the shallow tailwaters below these dams, it is possible to hear the loud, boisterous singing princess and one can imagine the sound when the entire volume of today’s river flowed 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.

Wilson Dam at Flood Stage with gates open

What a sight it must have been!

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!

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.

Meaning uncertain

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.

The area along the Tennessee River in Alabama called The Shoals is actually make up of 4 separate cities: Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals..elk river

Rivers flow together to begin the Tennessee

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.From railroad bridge at singing river bridge and dam

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ALABAMA PIONEERS Transcribed Wills and Abstracts of Wills Book I (Alabama Pioneer Transcribed Wills & Abstracts of Wills 1)


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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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21 comments

  1. The name *Tennessee* comes from an old Overhill Cherokee village, *Tanasi*, in Monroe county, TN.

  2. Ann Harrison

    One of my GG Grandmothers was born in Florence which first attracted me to learn about this area.

  3. […] James Robertson attempted to make a settlement in Muscle Shoals 1787, but was again forced out. A third try was made by pioneer Zachariah Cox with an armed colony […]

  4. Charlie Price

    PBS had a documentary on Muscle Shoals last summer and it was mainly about the music that was produced in that fabulous small town. But the “Singing River” was the theme throughout that show. I liked it so much I bought the video on iTunes.

  5. Judith Gresham Walker

    Mr. Tom Hendrix built a long, winding, dry-stacked rock wall to honor his G-G-Grandmother, Telahnay. She was a member of the Euchee tribe who was sent to Oklahoma, along with her sister, when they were teenage girls. After being in Oklahoma a year, Telahnay was homesick for the “Singing River,” and eventually made her way home, walking from Oklahoma. Each stone in Mr. Hendrix’s wall represents a step in her journey. This wall is located just off the Natchez Trace, near the Florene, AL exit. Mr. Hendrix’s wall is inspirational, as is his story. I highly recommend visiting this memorial wall and talking to Mr. Hendrix!

    1. Sabrina Baker

      Mr Hendrix is a wonderful man. The wall he built is amazing and his book called ‘if the legend fades’ tells the story of his family. The wall is for his family and everyone else that walked and or died on the trail of tears.

  6. John J. Ryan

    Amy, you might enjoy this. Haven’t seen it myself (it’s on Netflix) but hear it is really good:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2492916/?mode=desktop

    1. Amy Chenault

      Thanks John! I will have to check it out

  7. Susan Griffitt Garrigus

    Lea Stark Riddley we need to go there on a camping hiking trip!!

  8. Remember Tuscumbia

    Muscle Shoals documentary I’ve seen twice. Great music in it.

  9. Was born south of shoals area in Haleyville, AL (Winston county) grew up in Phil Campbell, Franklin County. These areas in Shoals were about only places to shop…the mall etc. So I grew up crossing the dam and bridge a lot. Have taken many hiking trip on the trails, a lot of fishing, watching a beautiful huge fireworks display yearly on the fourth, and some swimming. Grandpa retired from TVA. Beautiful place. Love living here. I wish the dam did not have to be built and all the natural beauty was still here for me to see. That would be awesome. If you do ever get the chance to visit it won’t be a regret. You will be well pleased. Just don’t dig anything. They got real serious about preservation of the mounds and what’s left of the artifacts and have no problem putting you in jail. West from the falls and dam area just a piece is a small boat ramp and a trail to the water. On the south side off the river. That spot is a honey hole for sure. The water rushes by and the bank comes out making a circle area I suppose is the best easy to describe it. The water is only about ankle deep and it is running over rock bed and has some little falls. Some places where the rock bed is not there it is deeper than 6′ a lot off kids were always sun bathing there, partying, disrespectful, littering., etc. But a lot of diggers too destroying what was left off the natural beauty. Ppl were digging burial ground etc. One man got caught one night coming outta there with an entire skeletons etc…So disrespectful. So laws got set. I think needed to be set. I hate that part of that trail is off limits period. It was beautiful trail to walk and look at God’s creations. Just visit if you ever get the chance. You will love this area as much as I still do after 40+ yrears……Christie

  10. […] father determined to move to Alexandria, La. We started about the first of December, by way of the Mussel Shoals, thence down the (Tennessee to the Natchez Trace, down which we proceeded within twenty miles of […]

  11. Rejetta Balentine

    Tom Hendrix’ grandmother and my mother were best friends. I remember walking the 1 1/2 mile to “Miss Pamelia’s” house many times.

  12. Jeff Pollard

    God Bless Mr. Tom. He lives near my granddaughters, they love him, and he has given them both native american names. He is a treasure to Alabama.

  13. Sonya Lindsey

    My old stomping grounds…

  14. Jeremy Britt

    Yall should watch the documentary, i think it’s titled muscle shoals, on netflix. Amazing the way those guys influenced the golden age of music. And they’re still at it today

  15. […] verse in the lyrics refers to Muscle Shoals, a city in  northwest Alabama which in the 1960’s was known as “The Hit Recording Capital of the […]

  16. I met Tom a few years ago with his friend and mine Bill Parkhurst. He kindly showed all the wall he had built and told me his story about his ancsstor. Who
    Came alll the way back to AL after the Trail of Tears. I bought a stone bench from him which is in my yard today, and then flew over his wall with my small airplane
    And took pictures of it from the air which I sent him to help him promote his great accomplishment. I hope the public could see them for him. I was very saddened to see in our Wednesday paper that Tom had passed. I hope everyone can take time to seeTom’s wall. It is truly magnificent

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