During this last 2020 election cycle, the state of Georgia was very much in the spotlight. Long a hotbed of political activity, Georgia was one of the last states to report in the US elections, and (as of posting) continues to be a battleground in the Senate race. On social media, the news, and around the water cooler, I kept seeing people share the classic song, “Georgia On My Mind,” so I thought I would share my Georgia story.
Perhaps topical or perhaps just amusing. Or neither. But this really did happen to me.
A few years ago, I was playing my weekly Tuesday gig at Seasons 52 Restaurant in Sacramento. With a clientele that included local business professionals, conference attendees, and upscale couples and families, Seasons 52 was one of the remaining live piano bar restaurants in the area. At that time, they had a small piano on a raised rotatable platform behind the bar, and I would do four long sets of piano bar—Ed Sheeran, Maroon 5, Sara Bareilles, and the occasional classic Elton John or Carole King—as drinks were poured around me.
It had been a typical Tuesday, with mostly families in the restaurant and subdued banter at the bar. I was on the back end of my last set of the evening, and there were only a few people remaining in the entire restaurant, so I decided to deep dive into my songlist and pick out something I didn’t do very often. I chose to sing “Georgia On My Mind,” made famous by Ray Charles.
“…Other arms reach out to me, Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see, The road leads back to you,
Georgia, Georgia, no peace I find,
Just an old sweet song, Keeps Georgia on my mind…”
It was in the last refrain that I first heard him. Yelling in a smattered, slurred voice, I turned and saw an older black gentleman pointing accusingly at me. He was a regular at the bar, and I was taken aback, of course, at the sight of this wobbly, drunk, but otherwise distinguished-looking man in a three-piece suit suddenly berating me loudly as I sang. Finally, one of the bartenders came up beside him and calmly escorted him out of the restaurant. After my set, I asked her what that was all about.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “He was drunk…and angry about something. Don’t worry about it.”
But I did worry. It bothered me for days. Why would he be angry? What did I do? Was it the song, or was it me? Or both?
So I did a little homework. Written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorell, “Georgia On My Mind” has been covered by many musicians over the years, from Willie Nelson to Michael Buble to most recently John Legend. Rolling Stone Magazine listed it as the 44th greatest song of all time. In fact, the song recently celebrated its sixtieth anniversary of hitting #1 on the charts. But aside from its brooding lyrics and haunting melody, the song has historical significance as well.
“On March 15, 1961, shortly after the release of the hit song “Georgia on My Mind” (1960), the Albany, Georgia-born musician was scheduled to perform at a dance at Bell Auditorium in Augusta, but cancelled the show after learning from students of Paine College that the larger auditorium dance floor would be restricted to whites, while blacks would be obligated to sit in the Music Hall balcony. Charles left town immediately after letting the public know why he wouldn’t be performing, but the promoter went on to sue Charles for breach of contract, and Charles was fined $757 in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta on June 14, 1962. The following year, Charles did perform at a desegregated Bell Auditorium concert together with his backup group the Raelettes on October 23, 1963…”
I found out later that the black gentleman was a downtown lawyer and politico. So he was someone who didn’t just know Georgia. He had lived it. And so for him, I wasn’t just singing a song. I was unearthing memories, mining emotions, and perhaps prodding at deep scars and lesions in his soul. With respect and with humility, I can only imagine what his version of the civil rights story might be.
It was a profound reminder to me of the power of music. That the songs we sing have capacities and potencies to uplift and influence and excite and inspire—or to frustrate and inflict and sabotage and harm.
It was more than a few weeks later that I saw him again, quietly sipping at his usual stool at the bar. And between sets, I took the opportunity to introduce myself and ask him a little bit about his story. I also shared a little bit about my father and his role in the civil rights movement, and he offered me a compliment on my playing.
“Georgia, Georgia, no peace I find,
Just an old sweet song, Keeps Georgia on my mind...”