There are few physical remains of late-19th- and early-20th-century blues star Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who is alternatively called the Mother of Blues or left out of the original story of blues, although she was integral in writing it.
During her 30 years of performing, she recorded more than 100 blues records with Paramount, many with legends that carry the weight today that Rainey’s name did in her day, including Louis Armstrong. But it wasn’t until her home was restored and reopened in 2007 as a historic landmark run by the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department that Rainey got her due.
“As soon as she died, her family started selling off her stuff; but we do have some things: a Victrola cabinet, piano, steamer trunk and some things like that,” said center director Deb Wise.
Wise leads a 45-minute- to one-hour guided tour of the museum for all visitors narrating Rainey’s life, from when she first started singing at Friendship Baptist Church and her professional debut at Spring Opera House to her return to Columbus and burial at nearby Porterdale Cemetery. The church, opera house and cemetery can still be visited today, although there are no official tours offered.
It’s hard not to mention Macon and music in the same sentence. The city’s music heritage is one of the city’s top attractions, due to a star-studded history of both homegrown chart toppers like Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers Band and the influence of local record producer Capricorn records.
Even though it’s been nearly 50 years since Macon’s musical heyday, its heritage is still strong for visitors. The popular Rock Candy Tours gives visitors an overview of the city’s music heritage; it can be led by Jessica Walden, daughter of producer Phil Walden, who grew up with firsthand stories of her father’s discovery of Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others. Step-on guides are available, as well as longer Friday and Saturday night walking venue crawls.
Groups can step back into Macon’s headier times at the Allman Brothers Band Museum, also known as The Big House, where band members have redecorated the rooms upstairs to look as they would have when the brothers lived there; or by special appointment, they can visit the Douglass Theatre, where Walden first discovered Redding.
Though it’s small, groups should stop for lunch at H&H Restaurant, a crucial part of the Allman Brothers’ legacy. Mama Louise, who still oversees the dining room from her chair behind the corner, even traveled with the band.
If the music history of many of Georgia’s smaller cities focuses on a specific style, period, or musician, then Savannah is the state’s melting pot, a place where jazz, blues, folk, gospel and rock are constantly intermingling and rubbing shoulders, everywhere from the annual Savannah Music Festival, the largest music festival in the state, to the bars of River Street.
Though the city’s brightest native son in the music world is Johnny Mercer, co-founder of Capitol Records, whose grave can be visited in Savannah’s scenic Bonaventure Cemetery, the unsung stars of its gospel music scene are one of the highlights of a group visit to town.
“One of our most popular events for groups are the Monday night gospel cruises on the Savannah Riverboat,” said Mindy Shea, director of tour and travel sales for the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce. “We have the historic First African Baptist Church that was originally built by slaves, and their choir goes out into the community to sing and often performs on the riverboat.”
For groups looking to experience Savannah’s music culture in a more casual format, Shea advises taking advantage of the New Orleans-style beverage laws and hopping from venue to venue on River Street, where there are multiple live-music stops showing the full range of Savannah’s musical tastes any night of the week.