The behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary essay series about preparing songs for performance.
Georgia On My Mind
-- (1930; Music by Hoagy Carmichael; Words by Stuart Gorrell)
From the script for “A Little Travelin' Music”:
Georgia was the last and furthest south of the original 13 colonies, but in 1788 became the fourth state to ratify the new US Constitution. The Peach State was later celebrated in song by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930. According to Carmichael, bandleader Frankie Trumbauer requested a song about the state that began “Georgia, Georgia…” and left the rest to the pair of writers.
Nearly 20 years after first recording the song, Ray Charles performed Georgia On My Mind before the state’s General Assembly in 1979 as a symbol of reconciliation in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. About two months later, the Assembly adopted it as the official state song.
Recap: The Sounds of Indiana barbershop chorus presented what we call ‘The Travel Show’ in 2018, following the same “standard documentary format” that had been so enthusiastically received for the previous year’s ‘The Indiana Show.’ As before, this concert format presents a mix of chorus and quartet songs set around a particular theme, interspersed with slides of short video clips each paired with a Ken Burns-style voice-over narration to introduce and sometimes close out each song. The song order for The Travel Show was determined roughly by the geography of each song. From Kentucky last week, we now continue southward to Georgia.
Compared to some songs I’ve already discussed, like Indiana Medley and Let’s Get Away From It All, I didn’t develop my own internal “music video” for Georgia. Instead, the story behind this one was more collaborative, stemming from full-group discussions at rehearsals. And at least for me, the story isn’t one continual visual narrative like those other two, but a series of flash images, memories called to mind in succession by the strains of an “old sweet song.”
Let me share the lyrics and then talk through their accompanying pictures:
Melodies bring memories that linger in my heart,
make me think of Georgia, why did we ever part.
some sweet day when blossoms fall and all the world’s a song,
I’ll go back to Georgia, ‘cause that’s where I belong (belong).
Georgia, Georgia, (the whole) the whole day through,
just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind, Georgia’s on my mind.
Georgia, Georgia, (a song) a song of you,
comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines,
through the pines.
Other arms reach out to me, other eyes smile tenderly,
still in peaceful dream I see the road leads back to you
(to you, bah-bum-bah)
Georgia (love that), Georgia (Georgia), (no) no peace I find.
Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind, on my mind.
Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind, on my mind.
The last time we featured this song in concert (2017’s ‘The Indiana Show’), the narration focused more on the song itself:
Some have supposed that the lyrics refer not to the state of Georgia, but to Hoagy’s sister, Georgia Carmichael. In 1961, the song’s lyricist, Stuart Gorrell, declined to confirm either theory, writing in a letter, “My Mother… once asked a very penetrating question about the song. I had sent her a copy of the sheet music and, after reading the words over several times, she wondered aloud: “What is ‘Georgia’? A girl—or a State?”” Gorrell concluded his note, “What do you think?”
In order to present a song visually to the audience, not just sing it nicely, each singer must have his own story in his mind. If you see it, the people in front of you will see it, through your body, face, and eyes. And so as a performer of this song, you have to know, have to see in your mind’s eye, “Is it a girl, or a state? Or could it be both?” It is for me: a time with that person, in that place.
The first spark of memory is in the very first line: it’s triggered by a melody. We imagine we’re in a car, on the interstate, a long way from Georgia. But then something comes on the radio, and we’re suddenly taken back, and taken aback.
“Oh, yeah: that. That place, that time. Phew, it’s been a long time
since I thought about them.
“Why did I ever leave there? Why did I give up and just get outta Dodge?
“Someday, when everything’s better, when everything’s calmed down
and it’s all peaceful again,
“I’ll go back there. I can’t not go back there.”
“Georgia, no matter how hard I try to not think about you,
“Some little melody always hits my memory again.
“That little song
“Keeps floating back to me, the same way it did back then.”
“I get tempted by other places and people,
“But then in my dreams, I know the road leads back to you anyway.”
“Georgia, why have I been torturing myself in denial like this?
“It’s that song, every time. It won’t let me forget.
[the tune on the radio ends, but the last note hovers in the air]
“And if I actually let myself be honest with myself… I don’t really want to.”
Well, I said it wasn’t one continuous visual narrative, but I guess it turned out to be one in terms of thought process. Visually, then, the pictures for all these lines have to come through on our faces, especially on the repeated words, like Georgia and sweet. Each time we say the former, the audience should be able to see whether we’re talking about a girl or the state. And if we do mean both at once, they should be able to tell, not just wonder if we, the singers, even know what we’re singing about.
Each time we say the latter, the audience should see a difference: how sweet are the day, the blossoms, the song, the moonlight, the pines? “As sweet as southern sweet iced tea!” I once responded to that question in rehearsal. Talk about the involving senses: the sweetness of the tea transferred to the mental image of moonlight dappling a pine forest (not to mention the scent of the trees), transmitted from my brain to the audience’s via the reactions of my face and body. But each one isn’t the same. They’re all a different level, a different quality of sweetness.
Our director, Joe, likes to say, “Barbershop is a full contact sport!” When we cover pieces like this that invite and require so much physical input into the performance, I have to agree.
November 25, 2018
PS: Speaking of not forgetting, I accidentally skipped a song: in between Kentucky and Georgia, we should have stopped in Tennessee for a ride on the Chattanooga Choo-Choo! That one was another quartet number, so I’ll have to talk to Jordan River Crossing about their insights into the piece for next week’s essay. Then back on schedule!