Music History of Georgia: from Roots to Rock & Roll
Georgia has more famous musicians than you probably ever knew. The Peach State’s musical history is vast and diverse across almost all genres, including the likes of Little Richard, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, R.E.M, and Kanye West, just to name a few. The state’s musical heritage has made substantial contributions to African American Folk music, Country, Jazz, Blues, Hip Hop, and Rock music. The African American musical and dance tradition “ring shout” is rare to find in modern United States, but can still be found in the McIntosh County in Georgia.
Going back to the roots, the Ring Shout is a religious ritual, first practiced by African slaves in the West Indies. The first documentation of the Ring Shout dates back to the 1840s. This is one of the few vestiges of music that preserves the spirit of slave music from the antebellum days (before the Civil War). The Ring Shout was a form of spiritual expression that was not allowed in the Christian ritual. It was practiced in praise houses within the plantation communities. This was a private form of worship and a way for men and women to creatively express themselves as well as their cultural heritage. Today, there are only two groups that still perform Sea Island music: the Georgia Sea Island Singers and the McIntosh County Shouters, who keep the tradition alive.
Blues & Jazz Music
Ma Rainey, also known as the “Mother of the Blues”, was born in Rome, Georgia, and is considered one of the first professional blues singers, singing for vaudeville audiences around 1900. She recorded with Louis Armstrong and is honored every year at The Annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival in Columbus, Georgia. From 1920 to the early 1930s a distinct style of country blues performers developed in Atlanta, with the inclusion of instruments and rhythms, typifying the Atlanta sound. Some of the artists that influenced these styles were Robert “Barbecue Bob” Hicks and Charlie “Lincoln” Hicks. These artists sang about not only injustice and heartbreak but overcoming struggle and freeing themselves of suffering.
Another Georgian household name, Ray Charles, pioneered soul music and is one of the most recognizable artists in American music, winning 17 Grammy awards and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although born in South Carolina, James Brown’s music career started in Toccoa, as a gospel singer later moving to blues and funk. Being one of the biggest musicians of the century, he recorded 17 singles that reached number 1 in the Billboard R&B Charts and is considered one of the top 10 greatest artists of all times by Rolling Stone Magazine.
Rock & Roll
Macon, Georgia is home to some of the greatest names in rock and roll. Little Richard, also known as the “Architect of Rock and Roll”, combined elements of boogie, gospel, and blues, creating the standard rock rhythm with “Tutti Frutti”. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. Sadly, Little Richard was recently laid to rest but is remembered by his extensive contributions to music and black culture across the nation and the world, he epitomized the rebellious spirit of Rock and Roll and is a huge influence to musicians past and present. Another big player, Otis Redding, was born in Dawson, Georgia, and is considered one of America’s greatest popular music singers. With a catalog that includes “The Dock of the Bay” and “Stand By Me,” Redding’s successful career was tragically cut short when he passed away at the age of 26.
Athens, Georgia has been an incubator of rock bands since the 1970s, bringing us R.E.M, the B-52’s, and Pylon among others. The University of Georgia is a key element in Athens’ musical culture as most musicians are linked to its arts curriculum, including Curtis Crow and Michael Stipe, founders of Pylon and R.E.M respectively. The success of R.E.M, Pylon, and The B-52s brought Athens to the attention of various music labels, giving the opportunity of a career boost to many other local bands.
From roots to rock and roll, black artists from the Peach State have created some of the most renowned contributions to the music industry. All of them have paved the way for modern black creatives to freely express their own histories and cultures. It is on the shoulders of them that we are able to stand tall and proud today.