Like a jaunty reel, “Hills of Swannanoa” opens briskly with Julian Pinelli’s fiddle weaving under and around Anya Hinkle’s guitar, Billy Cardine’s dobro, Thomas Cassell’s mandolin, and Johnny Calamari’s bass. The tune shifts spryly between major and minor chords as the song unfolds slowly to create bucolic scenes of a “little red house” by the railroad tracks with “green, green grass” and rabbits and deer all around. The singer is led mystically down to the banks of the Swannanoa River, which flows peacefully beneath the railroad trestles. When steady and torrential rains come—“seven days and seven nights”—the river overflows its banks, uprooting trees, rocks, and trestles, and even drowning prisoners in the local penitentiary.
As the song slows, instruments fade away, leaving only Hinkle’s plaintive vocals as the song comes to a momentary stop. Following the pause, the tune swells with an urgency and the instruments spiral around each other in ever more frantic runs as the song winds down to the last quiet note. The final minute evokes the fear and loss of the cascading flood waters, even as the last notes capture the helplessness and speechlessness of the devastation wrought by the waters.
As Hinkle says, “‘Hills of Swannanoa’ is the story of the Great Flood of 1916. The unusually heavy mid-summer rains that year, coming in addition to heavy logging in the Carolina mountains, caused severe flooding of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers and heavy damage in the Asheville area. My friend, Akira Satake, had written an instrumental tune called ‘Swannanoa’ after moving to nearby Black Mountain almost 20 years ago to start a ceramics studio, and he asked me if I might want to write some lyrics. I let my mind wander to the beautiful Swannanoa Valley, where I spent a lot of time with my daughter when she was very small. There is a mystical feeling there: vibrations from the ancient Cherokee, heavy mists that shroud the hills, generous green that carpets the valleys. It feels sacred, sad and beautiful…I began to read about the flood and let the story develop from there, creating my own song that knits together seamlessly with Akira’s instrumental melody. The story is fictional but based on true events: prisoners really did drown in their cells, all of Asheville’s bridges were washed away, hundreds of houses were destroyed, dozens of people were killed.”
Anya Hinkle’s “Hills of Swannanoa” captures the beauty and mystery of the area around Asheville, Swannanoa, and Black Mountain, North Carolina, vividly telling a story of an event that shaped the lives of individuals and the community for years. Moving so adeptly between moods of light and dark, she brilliantly captures the ways that beauty often carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, as well as the inarticulate sadness that such destruction brings.
“Hills of Swannanoa” is available for pre-order and pre-save – HERE