“Who We Are” by Margaret Britton Vaughn
Poet Laureate of Tennessee, 1995–2023
I love writing the occasion poems. For me, they write themselves.
I’ve had the honor to write many of them over the past 27 years of being Tennessee Poet Laureate. I’m proud to have written five occasional poems for four governors. I’ve also had the honor to write the Tennessee Bicentennial poem, The Tennessee State Quarter poem, the U.S. Air Force 50th Anniversary poem, which was recorded into the congressional records in Washington D.C., The Tennessee Women’s Suffrage poem, The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College 100th Anniversary poem, The Grand Ole Opry’s 100th Anniversary poem, the poem for the opening of Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s restored boarding house where he grew up, and many others.
I got my voice from country music at an early age. When I was old enough to walk over to the old upright Philco radio, I turned the dial to this kind of voice coming through the airwaves. The songs were about life, love, sadness, happiness, and Momma. When I was in 3rd grade I went to Momma and said “I want to be a poet and country music song writer. Here’s my first song.” It was titled “Here I Sit Alone at the Bar.” Momma said “Are you sure you don’t want to be a nurse?” I answered, “No, Momma” and kept my dream. I have been so lucky in my life to have written songs for Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Ernest Tubb, Charlie Louvin and others. When I was in my late 30’s, I wrote my first book that was published by THE TENNESSEAN. It was written through the voice of the old Ryman Auditorium.
When I was 42, I moved to Bell Buckle. I quit my career to write for a living. Since then I have written over 20 books with my given voice. People relate to what I write. I wish I could write academically, but I had to look up that word to know how to spell it. My poems start with the heart, go to the mind and return to the heart. I have picked the Tennessee Bicentennial poem for you to read. There were thousands of people who attended the event, including the governor, Vice President Gore, and many other dignitaries. People loved the poem. They stood and cheered from the very first line. It reminds the people what Tennessee stands for. The poem hangs in the state capitol, courthouses, schools, and homes across the state. The ear is more important to me than the page. Write what you feel and let people feel your words. You’ll never go wrong.
Who We Are
The Bicentennial of Tennessee, 1796-1996
The fertile soil of Tennessee
Grew more than corn, tobacco, and cotton.
It grew a crop of people who are
Trailblazers, child raisers, flag wavers, soul savers.
Like the roots of the tulip poplar,
Our feet are planted deeply
Into good living, neighbor giving, God fearing.
Like the iris, buttercup and wild daisies,
Our towns have sprung up
In valleys, basins, mountains, plains and plateaus
That house cabins, mansions and hillside chateaus.
We're the one-room schoolhouse in the hollow;
We're the university grad and the front-porch scholar.
We're Davy Crockett at the Alamo,
Sergeant York, World War I hero.
We're Cordell Hull who served Roosevelt;
We're Chief Sequoyah and his Cherokee alphabet.
We're W.C. Handy and the Memphis Blues;
We're Ida B. Wells and Civil Rights news,
And Grand Ole Opry with old wooden pews.
We're "Star Spangled Banner" before the game.
We're mockingbirds singing Appalachian folk songs;
We're country church sing-alongs.
We're hand clappers, toe tappers, knee slappers
And Mama's lap lullaby nappers.
We're Jackson, Johnson and James K. Polk;
We're city slickers and poor hill folk;
We're Anne Dallas Dudley and the Suffrage Vote.
We're John Sevier, Don Sundquist and governors galore;
We're congressmen, mayors and Vice President Gore.
We're Wilma Rudolph's run for the gold
And Sunday golfers' eighteenth hole.
We're Christmas Eve and the Fourth of July;
We're 4-H and homemade chess pie.
We're TVA rivers, creeks and man-made lakes;
We're ruts in dirt roads and interstates.
We're all religions, creeds and peoples of race;
We're Tennesseans who love the home place.
We're the Volunteer State and will always be
Ready to go when someone's in need.
As our trees turn green and our barns turn gray,
We celebrate our two hundredth birthday.
We know we've done our best, stood the test,
And will be laid to rest
In the fertile soil of Tennessee.