“Jess Harper Returns to Macon”

Jess Harper (1949) and Dooley Johnson (1949) grew up in Macon, Georgia in the 1950s.  During this decade the civil rights movement was gathering momentum, but it would still take a decade or more before a change in consciousness, especially in the South, would coalesce and the culture would begin to change.  This process was helped along by the participation of progressive Southern intellectuals, like the family that produced Dooley Johnson, who offered their support to African American leaders by writing editorials, raising money and pressuring local elected officials.

Dooley and Jess met in grade school and grown up together forming a close friendship which by the time they were teenagers deepened into a romantic relationship.  However, interracial dating was considered taboo, particularly in Macon, Georgia, in the Sixties.

Jess was 18 in 1967, the Summer of Love, and had heard about all the exciting things going on in California, Haight-Ashbury, and elsewhere.  She desired to escape the claustrophobic racism of Georgia and the lure of California was strong. Despite her young love for Dooley she reluctantly began to believe that their relationship was doomed and chose instead to try her luck in San Francisco.  This song is a flashback to the day she left Macon soon after graduating from high school.

Dooley who had been interested in history as a small child, reading about the early settlement of Georgia and forming a critical opinion about the treatment of Native Americans as well as the racial reality of his state.  Dooley remained in Georgia where he pursued a degree in history eventually earning a doctorate and becoming a tenured professor of history at Mercer University in Macon.

Jess spent two years just hanging out in San Francisco until she learned that the University of California-Berkeley had created an African American Studies program.  She realized that this is what she wanted to do with her life and enrolled in 1970.

She kept up on news from Macon through her mother, and when she learned of Dooley’s death in 2007 she made the long trip back to Macon for his funeral.

(F.D. Leone, Jr.)

Jess Harper threw some clothes into a suitcase
Took what she could but left a lot behind
She’s been thinking ‘bout leaving Macon
Got an early start ‘fore she changed her mind
She didn’t tell nobody not even her mama
Just got on 80 heading west
She’ll try and call Dooley from Alabama
The first chance that she gets

Her mama said they were asking for trouble
She could love a black boy just as easy as one who’s white
Plenty of Georgia don’t like to see a mixed couple
Jess began to think her mama was right

Jess met Dooley Johnson in first grade
They’ve been best friends ever since
He opened up her mind to new things
Like no other boy ever did
When Dooley was sixteen and had his license
He took Jess to see the Indian mounds
Left there by the great Mississippian people
A thousand years before the white man was around

Many nights Dooley told Jess stories
About the Choctaw and the Creek and their fate
Dooley’s family’s been in Georgia for generations
Jess knows Dooley’ll never leave this state

Jess pulls off the highway at Columbus
Stands at the river as a warm rain starts to fall
Her destination remains undecided
Dooley never did get that call
Forty years will pass before Jess returns to Macon
From California back to the land of her birth
In his Georgia drawl Jess hears Dooley talking
As they lower his body into the blood-red earth

© 2020 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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f. d. leone


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