Some think, when Hoagy Carmichael wrote this song in 1930 (with Bix Beiderbecke singing it), it was in honor of his sister Georgia, but Carmichael said no, it’s about the state, and of course Ray Charles grabbed it in 1960, made it his, owned it, and sang it in front of the Georgia State Legislature in 1979 (after years of being on the outs with Georgia officialdom) when the state finally adopted it as their state song.
I’m a fan of the song, and the beauty of rural south Georgia it evokes. Every now and then I feel like going back, but I resist.
The road leads back to you…
Before Maine, we lived in Decatur, just east of Atlanta, for 10 years, and took many road trips throughout the state, cameras loaded and ready. My wife and I were both shooting medium format film back then – Pentax 67 for me, Hasselblad for her – and these are some of my favorites.
New Mexico is often a strong, irresistible tug –I want to get back! Rural Georgia is more a soft breath in the ear. Y’all come back… it’s sultry, suppliant, sloooowww.
The air here, any time of year, is never like Maine light, New Mexico light – electric, stabbing. Georgia light is more like a kerosene lamp glow.
When I was very young I drove through the deep south before I-95 was finished, and sometimes found myself on dirt back roads slowly ambling by lines of old sharecropper’s shacks – this is late 1960s – with their sagging front porches and black families and kids and grandparents gathered outside on the porches, kids in underwear, staring at me as I drove past, and sometimes I waved and maybe they waved back. I’ve never forgotten it. Those shacks have all but disappeared, even in the remotest parts of the deep south. I remember from those side trips: Wow. Very poor. Very. I’m white, driving very slow, they’re on alert.
Six years after “I Have a Dream.” Four years after the Civil Rights Act. Jim Crow doesn’t go easily. They’re still on alert.
Window of The Whistle Stop Cafe, Juliette, Georgia. They shot the movie here. The town still celebrates Idgie Threadgoode, the tomboyish hero. We went into the restaurant, had fried chicken and, yes, fried green tomatoes. Can’t beat ’em. We still make them at home.
Bar-B-Que is king in southeast Georgia. Was. Still is. We had a friend, a native Georgian, who hunted alligator and wild boar. By crossbow. He gave us boar meat that he’d dressed himself in the wild. It was rib meat, right along the upper side of the tenderloin, loaded with flavor. He never got all the skin off it, though, or the hair. It’s not easy eating boar meat with bristles.
You know that the deep South has history, much of it not very pretty. What we’ve seen in our travels in rural Georgia isn’t history, but the silence of it. What we see doesn’t tell tales. They just sit there.
I’ve been to Plains a couple of times, Jimmy Carter’s home town, and talked at some length with a good friend of Billy Carter, the President’s late younger brother who ran a gas station and promoted Billy Beer for some years before he died. The friend spoke with such a raw, broad accent that my son, who was with me at the time, didn’t catch a syllable of sense or meaning. My son later asked me, “Did you understand any of that?” I said yes, and I did, I’d been in the South awhile and I’d learned to parse it all out. Billy Carter’s friend was was as eloquent and outgoing as you could ever hope to find anywhere, and really wanted to talk with us.
Restored slave shack, Eatonton, Georgia. Eatonton is the home town of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories (as in “Song of the South” and Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox), and this shack is part of a small monument to Harris and his stories.
Beyond my chat with Billy Carter’s pal, no conversations stand out in my memory except one, and it included two words.
It came from a young black kid, maybe a teenager, in southeast Georgia at a small country store. I looked at him, said “hi,” and he said “Yes Suh.” It was 2007.
Georgia yields slowly. Beautiful gentle smooth lustrous languorous corner of the nation, moving slowly into our time.
This is my favorite photo of all time – film or digital. Sapelo Island, southeast Georgia, 2005. It hangs in the Sapelo Island Museum. Pentax 67 film. (my wife going fishing).
Food next time. Had to get back to red clay country…