Good Golly! It's Macon Music

The Georgia Music Hall of Fame celebrates such genres as jazz and swing, gospel, rhythm and blues, and country.
The Georgia Music Hall of Fame celebrates such genres as jazz and swing, gospel, rhythm and blues, and country. (Macon-bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau)
By David Kirby
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Little Richard welcomed me to Macon.

Okay, it was a recording of Little Richard's voice, not the actual artist who sang "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "Tutti Frutti," which, in June of this year, topped Mojo magazine's list of "100 Records That Changed the World."

Still, when you call the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, you can't help feeling happy when you hear a familiar voice shout, "Hi, this is Little Richard, the architect of rock-and-roll, talking to you from my home town of Macon, Georgia!"

And then you think, architect? The word conjures up a larger world, that of Leonardo and Michelangelo, say, who were to Renaissance Florence what Little Richard, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers were to 20th-century Macon -- one group making paintings and statues and cathedral domes just as the other made soul music, rock and blues, each in a small town and at the same time.

Now how does that work, I asked myself. The Florence answer came easily: The artists there were banked by wealthy merchant families who competed with each other to commission great works. To answer the musical half of the riddle, though, I hopped in my car and headed to Macon. Why not? After all, Little Richard had invited me.

Located on the banks of the Ocmulgee River, Macon is a town of 97,255 citizens, at last count. It's also an anthology of 19th- and early 20th-century architecture, from Federal and Victorian styles through art deco. It seems that General Sherman had Macon on his checklist during his infamous march to the sea, which left a 60-mile-wide path of destruction between Atlanta and Savannah, but he left the town untorched when he had to move his troops quickly to fend off an anticipated Confederate attack. Notable among the buildings are the many Greek Revival homes on College Street, one of which is now the 1842 Inn, where I spent my nights.

At the visitors bureau, I watched a video in which locals speculate on the same question I was asking myself. And in guessing why their town had produced so much great music in such a short period, no fewer than three of these thinkers offered that "there must be something in the water."

Fine. It was broiling outside, and I intended to drink my fair share of water during my stay. First, though, I needed something solid after my time on the road, so I stopped in at the Market City Cafe, where I had the warm meatloaf sandwich with homemade chips and coleslaw. The owner said his meatloaf recipe was his grandmother's, which naturally meant that the particulars couldn't be divulged, though he did insist that I try Market City Cafe's signature banana pudding, which came in a fried tortilla bowl that had been dusted with cinnamon and sugar.

It was so delicious that I raved about it to everyone I met during my three-day stay in Macon, which turned out to be a little like claiming that the baby you just saw is more beautiful than all the other babies in town. "I'll put my banana pudding up against theirs any time" was a typical response, as was, "No, baby, you got to try my mama's before you can say you had real banana pudding." Hmm. Could it be that the wellspring of local musical talent lay not in the water, after all, but in a creamy dessert?

Smothered With Hospitality

I figured I'd confront the music head-on, so I walked over to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, just two blocks from the visitors center. The exhibits are organized as "villages," each devoted to a different genre: jazz and swing, gospel, rhythm and blues, country and so on. There's also a kids' area that features such hands-on displays as a drum kit and a composition station where you can press buttons, see notes appear on an overhead screen and then hear your opus played back.

The list of annual inductees gives a sense of the extraordinary range of music found in a single state: There's Johnny Mercer, who wrote "That Old Black Magic" and "Moon River," but also James Brown, Lena Horne, Chet Atkins, groups like R.E.M. and the B-52's, Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden and soprano Jessye Norman. Acknowledging the importance of collaboration in the music business, the Hall of Fame makes a point of inducting both entertainers and background figures. The first induction ceremony, which took place in 1979, honored Ray Charles and music publisher Bill Lowery.

I got up early the next day and headed for the Ocmulgee National Monument, just outside town. Once home to a farming people known as the Mississippians, the site is memorable mainly for the enormous mounds that constitute a sort of earth-and-timber Machu Picchu connected by seven miles of hiking trails. Every September there's a two-day Ocmulgee Indian Celebration on the grounds during which Creeks, Choctaws and other Native Americans perform ancient ceremonial dances.

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