Recently my wife Kathy and I, both loyal Tennessee Volunteers since 1966, traveled to China for a vacation and Far East sightseeing. One of the unique features of the two-week excursion involved a scenic cruise down the Yangtze River, which flows from its headwaters in the Kunlun Mountains through the central part of China to the Yellow Sea. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, winding through Southeast Asia for nearly 4,000 miles, although our cruise segment was about 400 miles.
Cruise ships typically provide a variety of activities for tourists, and the Viking Century Sky was no exception. Excellent accommodations, efficient and courteous service, and the finest western and eastern styles of cuisine added to the experience and enjoyment of the trip. There was, however, one very unique and memorable element that was featured nightly in the ship’s lounge. A Bulgarian husband and wife duo teamed up playing two matched keyboards while offering medleys of standard western songs for the passengers’ listening and dancing pleasure. Although the two eastern European entertainers had limited English speaking skills, they very capably handled the lyrics from a number of popular classics sung originally by performers ranging from Frank Sinatra to Paul Anka to Bill Haley and the Comets to Madonna. When the female member of the team began her rendition of The Tennessee Waltz, I actually thought Patti Page had taken the microphone.
Ever since entering UT in 1966, I recall with the fondest of memories my first Southeastern Conference football game with the Vols taking on Auburn University. Just prior to the kickoff of the game, the Pride of the Southland Band played The Tennessee Waltz before 65,000 screaming Volunteer fans. Following the song, a well-trained Tennessee walking horse pranced around Neyland Stadium adding enthusiasm to an already avid group of cheering fans and warming up the crowd for the Saturday afternoon football spectacle.
Back in the ship’s lounge, somewhere in the middle of China, I shared my moment of nostalgia with the Bulgarian duet team and also mentioned that Rocky Top had emerged as the most recognized state song for Tennessee during the past three decades. Rocky Top has special significance for me, and my recollections of the roots of the original composition remain etched in my memory.
While attending UT I became friendly with another business major named Dane Bryant. We shared a house on Highland Avenue with three other students from New Jersey and another roommate from Punjab Province in India. Dane was from the Nashville area, and the diversity of our group added to our university experience. During fall semester of 1967, Dane invited all the roommates to spend the four-day Thanksgiving weekend with his family, and we eagerly accepted this generous invitation. Dane may have mentioned that his father and mother were song writers; however, we never imagined the magnitude of talent possessed by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. The walls of their lovely home were decorated with gold and platinum records. Songs that I adored as a teenager had sold tens of millions of copies. Wake Up Little Susie, Bye, Bye Love, All I Have to Do Is Dream, and Devoted to You were just a few of the dozens of hits with music and lyrics by Mr. and Mrs. Bryant. I was honored to meet such accomplished musicians and recall with certainty that the Bryants’ musical talent may have been surpassed only by their sincere humility and graciousness as hosts for the Thanksgiving celebration.
On the Friday following Thanksgiving, Boudleaux was scratching out some musical notes on a writing pad in the family’s living room. He was also playing a few bars of the rough draft on his violin. I realize that in Tennessee a violin is referred to as a fiddle, but I discovered that Mr. Bryant had been a concert violinist and thought it would be acceptable to use the terms interchangeably. Mr. Bryant mentioned to me that he and Mrs. Bryant had just returned from a short trip to the Smoky Mountains and had stayed at the Gatlinburg Inn where, he had been inspired to write a song entitled Rocky Top. During the next few days, the song was edited and completed, lyrics were added, and the final composition was recorded a few weeks later by the Osborne Brothers. Rocky Top vaulted to Number 1 on the country chart in Billboard Magazine, and today the song has been sung by scores of talented performers including Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gale, John Denver, and Roy Clark.
Any loyal Volunteer alumnus relishes the playing and singing of Rocky Top on or off the athletic field. However, I cannot begin to convey the utter surprise when the Bulgarian duet team offered three full verses of the song in the lounge on the fifth deck of the Viking Century Sky cruise ship as we sailed down the Yangtze River in the middle of the Peoples Republic of China. The innovative Bulgarian singers may not have understood the history and significance of Rocky Top, but they were clever enough to download the words and music from an Internet web site that they were able to access while onboard the ship.
I enjoyed listening to every word of the song, and Rocky Top will always remain “home sweet home to me.” Never, in my wildest dreams, could I imagine that the song would be delivered flawlessly by two Bulgarians. The two Eastern Europeans had never heard of Tennessee and certainly had no idea as to the meaning of a “moonshine still” or “drinking corn from a jar.” My wife and I have been fortunate traveling to many special places throughout the world. We have shared many memorable experiences, but the Rocky Top moment in China definitely tops the list.
One important note must be included to complete my recollection. The Bulgarian lounge act has permanently added Rocky Top to their repertoire. Other tourists, especially Tennessee Vols, cruising the Yangtze River on board the Viking Century Sky will now have the opportunity to enjoy the song and perhaps try a little two step.
Isenburg (’68, ’69, ’77) is a retired vice president of Indian River Community College. He and his wife, the former Katherine Handler ’76, live in Port St. Lucie, Fla.