I have so many Georgias on my mind.
The place called Georgia is the theme of many popular songs. One of my favorites is Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind”. Famous popular songs always bring us back to a special place when we hear them. But, depending on who you are or where you live, which Georgia that is on your mind will be quite unique. What place does that song bring back to you?
Ray Charles was singing about the State of Georgia, in the southern United States. He didn’t write the song, although his rendition made it famous. The original song was written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1930. The original song was about a woman named Georgia, but after Ray Charles’ version made it to the top of the charts on Billboard Magazine’s top 100 list in 160, it became a famous song about a state instead of a woman. In 1979, the state of Georgia designated it the official state song. The Georgia Tourism Bureau still uses it to attract visitors to the Peach State. Rolling Stone Magazine declared “Georgia on My Mind” as being one of the top 50 greatest songs of all time.
When I think of that Georgia, I remember a young man from New Jersey moving to the North Georgia Mountains for a college education at one of the largest campuses in the country, learning how to camp in the outdoors. He read Eliot Wigginton’s “Foxfire” books and learned the traditions, culture and skills of old timers and how they survived in the Appalachian foothills. He and his friends built a lean-to shelter in the woods near the shore of a large reservoir on campus, even though camping on campus was illegal. They called the structure “Walden III.” Weekends spent there would have a profound influence on the rest of his life.
Years later, that same young man would be a section overseer for the approach trail to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,160 mile hiking trail from Springer Mountain, GA to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. He learned to like to eat Grits and Fried Okra, but never did pick up a taste for Catfish. He still views them as nasty, scavenging bottom feeders.
Vladimir Putin also had Georgia on his mind in 2008. But he was not thinking of Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta or Macon. The Georgia he had on his mind was the former republic of the Soviet Union in the Caucasus Mountains, which had gained its independence in 1991. It is where Europe meets Asia. He had Tbilisi, South Ossetia and Abkhazia on his mind. Today he has Ukraine on his mind too. Perhaps he already had it on his mind back in 2008. But it all started with Georgia being on his mind.
Georgia the Country is home to about 5 million ethnic Caucasians (only about half as many people as Georgia the State has), most of whom are Orthodox Christian. Due to their proximity to other historical empires, Georgia has a long history of being dominated by other cultures….the Ottoman Turks and Persians, among others. Their unified kingdom in 1008 A.D. was disintegrated first by the Mongols and then by the Timurid invasions. The last of their great kings, George V the Brilliant, died in 1346. In the early 20th century, it was annexed by Russia. Putin would like to have it back and make Russia great again….
Today, although maps will show that Abkhazia is part of Georgia as a semi-autonomous region, the Russians still have a military presence there. A few years after they invaded Georgia in 2008, they were emboldened enough to pry away the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Now they seem to want it all back, and maybe even more. When will it all end?
Referring back to the United States, the state of Georgia is the subject of many songs. Another famous song about Georgia the state is Brook Benton’s soulful “Rainy Night in Georgia”. His silky smooth voice has been described “like melted honey and warm brandy….pure heart and soul”. They don’t make songs like that anymore. It rose to #4 on the chart of top songs in March of 1970. When I hear it, it brings me back to my first Alaska trip, where a drunk was singing it outside of the Red Dog Saloon at 2 AM, on a rainy night in Juneau in 1980. Whenever I hear that song, I am immediately transported back to that moment decades ago, listening to the raindrops tapping on the tin roof of the hotel I was staying at on Franklin Street in downtown Juneau.
Why is the state of Georgia the subject of so many popular songs? I don’t hear many songs about South Dakota…..or Delaware for that matter. It may be that a lot of Hall of Fame musicians can trace their roots to Georgia, especially African American artists. The demographics of the state show it to have a higher percentage of African Americans than most other states, at 36%. Ray Charles was born in Albany, GA in 1930, the same year that Hoagy Carmichael composed the song. James Brown lived in Augusta, GA after the age of five. Otis Redding and Little Richard have roots in the Peach state. All were music legends.
Nowadays, the state of Georgia is on the minds of many politicians on both sides of the aisle. After a historic Senate election of two Democratic Senators in January of 2021, Georgia moved to the top of the mind of both Republicans and Democrats. People in both parties from other states now have Georgia on their minds. It is viewed as either newly gained territory as a sign of a hopeful future, or lost territory that needs to be reclaimed. The parts of Georgia they have on their minds are either the Atlanta city and suburbs, or the majority, white and rural mountain communities. The state of Georgia is diverse in geography as well as being demographically diverse. Compare the following two maps to see how Geography shapes voting patterns. Both Stacy Abrams and Marjorie Taylor Greene call the state their home. It was the place where John Lewis got in some “good trouble”, as well as the place where men in white hoods burned crosses. Some picture it as a remnant of the Antebellum South, while others see it as a harbinger of political change.
Sir Ernest Shackleton also had Georgia on his mind. But he wasn’t thinking of Tbilisi, the Caucasus Mountains, or Okefenokee Swamp or even of the Master’s Golf Tournament in Augusta. His Georgia was a remote island in the South Atlantic.
In the early 1900s, Shackleton headed many of Britain’s expeditions to Antarctica. From 1914 to 1917, while the rest of the world was at War with one another, he led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His ship, the Endurance, ended up being trapped by encroaching sea ice and was crushed.
His story is one of the most incredible survival stories ever recorded. With no chance of rescue from the outside world, the expedition spent a winter hunkered down and waiting for the ice to break up. The next season, they floated on drifting sea ice and then manned lifeboats and traveled 5 days in Antarctic seas to land at Elephant Island on the Ross Peninsula of Antarctica. From there, he took a few of his best men on a perilous journey in a small 20′ lifeboat and rowed 830 miles to the remote outpost of South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station where he could summon a rescue party to save the men still stuck in Antarctica. And he did this crossing the stormiest waters on the planet, braving hurricane force winds which he later found out sank an Argentine freighter. Just being able to navigate and find a small island so far away was a feat in itself. Had they missed the tiny island, the next land lay 2,000 more miles away at the southern tip of Africa.
If that wasn’t bad enough, their tiny boat landed on the south shore of South Georgia island and the whaling station was on the other side. Between them lay steep mountains, which had never been crossed by any man. The men climbed the icy cliffs and made it down to an astonished crew at the whaling station who could not believe what they saw. A rescue party was put together and a ship sailed back to Antarctica to hopefully rescue the rest of Shackleton’s group. Miraculously, nobody died, as the Antarctic sailors had lived on Elephant island eating penguins and seals, along with whatever rations they salvaged before the Endurance broke apart.
Today, that South Georgia is on the mind of many ecologists, biologists and nature lovers. South Georgia Island has one of the most dense agglomerations of wildlife on the planet. It is home to 50% of the world’s Elephant Seals. 2 Million Fur Seals call it home, and 30 million breeding birds make their nest there, including 7 million Penguins and 250,00 Albatross.
Access to South Georgia island is limited today. The number of human visitors is regulated to protect habitat of endangered species. But you can visit there in a stopover on an Antarctic voyage, but that cost will set you back a bit.
I’ve always wanted to visit Shackleton’s South Georgia island, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance. However, just knowing it exists adds value to my life, whether I ever see it in person or not. In that way, this Georgia is often on my mind.
It is late at night here in Oregon. The air is crisp and cold on this March evening. I watch the steam rise from the hot tub and look up into the sky and see low stratus clouds marching steadily to the south, towards Shackleton’s South Georgia. I have a lot of Georgias on my mind, as well as a lot of other special places.
A student asked me the other day what is my favorite place I’ve been to. Having visited 50 countries and all 50 states, I said that is a difficult question to answer. Then, after thinking a bit, I responded. My answer was “In my wife’s arms.” She is from South Georgia, not the island, but the southern part of the Peach State. She is already asleep at this late hour. Time to dry off and join her.
I haven’t even discussed some of the other Georgias which have occupied my mind, such as the beautiful Strait of Georgia which separates Vancouver Island from the mainland of British Columbia and Washington state. Or, the small hamlet of Georgia in Monmouth County, New Jersey, just minutes from my childhood home.
As I quietly crawl under the covers, I say a prayer for my wife’s sister in the southern part of the state of Georgia who is presently going through a hard time. I fall asleep with a myriad of Georgias on my mind.
Which Georgia is on your mind?