Thursday, May 15, 2008

Roan Mountain Mystery Noise a Real Humdinger

In just a few weeks, the rhododendrons of Roan Mountain will be in full bloom. It’s one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen. But that’s not the only reason I’m itching to get back there. What I really want is to hear some good old mountain music. And Roan Mountain is the place to find it.

No mournful ballads. No droning dulcimer. No scratchy fiddle. No plinkety-plunk of a banjo. This Roan Mountain music is something altogether different, as described and explained (with great certitude) by Henry E. Colton in an 1878 newspaper article:

Several of the cattle tenders on the mountain and also General Wilder had spoken to us about what they called Mountain Music. One evening they said it was sounding loud, and Dr. D. P. Boynton, of Knoxville, Hon. J. M. Thornburg, and myself accompanied General Wilder to the glen to hear it. The sound was very plain to the ear, and was not at all as described – like the humming of thousands of bees – but like the incessant, continuous and combined snap of two Leyden jars positively and negatively charged.

I tried to account for it on the theory of bees or flies but the mountain people said it frequently occurred after the bees or flies had gone to their winter homes or before they came out. It was always loudest and most prolonged just before there would be a thunderstorm in either valley, or one passing over the mountain.

I used every argument I could to persuade myself that it was simply a result of some common cause and to shake the faith of the country people in its mysterious origin but I only convinced myself that it was the result from two currents of air meeting each other in the suck between the two peaks where there was no obstruction of trees, once containing a greater, the other a less amount of electricity, or that the two currents coming together in the open plateau on the high elevation, by their friction and being of different temperatures, generated electricity.

The ‘mountain music’ was simply the snapping caused by this friction and this generation of electricity. Many have noted the peculiar snapping hum to be observed in great auroral displays, particularly those of September, 1859 and February, 1872.

As the amount of electricity in the air currents became equalized or surcharged, they, descending to the other side caused the thunder storm daily in the valleys near the mountain and sometimes immediately on the edge of the timber surrounding the great bald top. The air currents of the Western North Carolina mountains and the East Tennessee valley form an aerial tide, ebbing and flowing.

The heated air of the valley rises from nine in the morning until three or four in the afternoon, making a slight easterly wind up and over Roan Mountain. As night comes on the current turns back into the valley, almost invariably producing a very brisk gale by three or four o’clock in the morning which, in its turn, dies down to a calm by seven and commences to reverse by nine o’clock. This continual change of currents of air makes it an impossibility for any great malarial scourge to exist in the East Tennessee valley, especially its northeastern end.

A 2006 Australian newspaper reported something similar to the Roan Mountain Music, but failed to confirm a source for the sound which had been heard in New Zealand. That article mentioned a novel inspired by the auditory oddity:

This is not the first incidence of humming in New Zealand. In 2005, New Zealand author Rachel McAlpine wrote a book called The Humming. In her novel set in small town, an artist called Ivan and a number of the townsfolk are plagued by a low frequency humming noise. The book was largely inspired by the author's own experiences in the seaside town of Puponga on the northwest tip of New Zealand's south island which was itself at the centre of a humming mystery some years back.

Two copies of the said novel are available on Amazon, at a cost of $196.13 and $469.81!

It looks like I’m going to have a difficult time getting to the bottom of the Roan Mountain Music mystery. Any clues to understanding this curious phenomenon would be greatly appreciated.

And if you're going to Roan Mountain any time soon, I'd suggest you take a camera...

...and a tape recorder.

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