“That Night in Columbus”

Sonny Tate (1936-2003) was born in Opelika, Alabama and displayed musical talent at an early age. He could mimic Hank Williams and would stand on his father’s bar and entertain the patrons who were delighted with the youngster’s uncanny ability. Sonny would later go on to have something of a professional career as a country singer but never making it really big.

The events of this song took place in 1999 when Sonny Tate was 63 and living in Columbus, Georgia. A serious thunderstorm had hit the town leaving most of Columbus without power. That night, a local bar decided to go ahead and open up despite not having power: They put a case of beer on ice and set candles on each table, and Sonny entertained the regulars with his guitar until power was restored.

That Night in Columbus
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Sonny had his guitar and was singing the blues
It really hit the spot for us
The power had gone out from a storm that passed through
That night in Columbus

They opened up that bar and let us in
Some beer was iced down in a wash tub
It sure felt good getting out and seeing friends
That night in Columbus

A lot of rain, oh boy, the wind sure did blow
But we were all right in that dark club
Listening as Sonny sang in the candle glow
That night in Columbus

It could have been worse, least nobody died
As it was the storm just hurt some stuff
We passed the time safe and dry inside
That night in Columbus

Bad weather comes and then it goes
Go ahead shake your fist and cuss
Made you feel a little better I suppose
That night in Columbus

Sonny’s packing up, his guitar’s in the case
The lights are on, but we ain’t in a rush
The storm turned that old bar into a sacred space
That night in Columbus

© 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.

“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.

Jess Harper Returns to Macon
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

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.

“Tybee Island”

Ruthann Robison (1951) was a paternal aunt of Pearl Robison (1973) but instead of Conyers, Georgia, Ruthann grew up in Savannah.

This song describes a weekend in the summer of 1968 when a seventeen-year-old Ruthann and her boyfriend Billy Wainwright spent a romantic night on Tybee Island.  Ruthann and Billy would go on to marry and have three kids, Pearl’s cousins.

Depending upon your orientation, Tybee Island is either the terminus or starting point of Highway 80, which at one time ran continuously from Tybee Island to San Diego, California.  During the 1960s, US 80 was decommissioned west of Dallas.

Tybee Island
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Billy Wainwright was from Savannah
Ruthann Robison was his girlfriend
July ’68 they took East 80
And drove to the highway’s end

Billy built a fire near the lighthouse
As shadows began to grow
They shared a bottle of Mateus
And sang songs like “Ode to Billy Joe”

On Tybee Island, Tybee Island
The waves sparkle like diamonds
The sand on the beach
The salt and the sea
Billy picked a Georgia peach on Tybee Island

Ruthie spread out the tattered blanket
That Billy kept in that old truck
They talked underneath the starlight
Until the sun came up

On Tybee Island, Tybee Island
The waves sparkle like diamonds
The sand on the beach
The salt and the sea
Billy picked a Georgia peach on Tybee Island

Ruthann said she wanted ten children
Billy told her all his deepest dreams
They kissed and the world stopped spinning
That’s how love is when you’re seventeen

On Tybee Island, Tybee Island
The waves sparkle like diamonds
The sand on the beach
The salt and the sea
Billy picked a Georgia peach on Tybee Island
The sand on the beach
The salt and the sea
He picked a Georgia peach on Tybee Island

© 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.

“Ransom Raney”

Ransom Raney (1848-1905) was the oldest son born to Lonsom Raney (1828-1923) and was the first child born to the Raney family on their new mountain home in North Georgia after moving from southwestern North Carolina. Originally from Scotland the Raneys were one of many families who were encouraged to move from southern Scotland to northern Ireland, the Ulster region.

These people have been called Scots-Irish and made up a significant number of the immigrants to America in the 17th and 18th centuries. They brought with them much of their way of life, including distilling whiskey in copper stills, with the idea that this was their right, one for which they would not tolerate any infringement from government.

Scots-Irish tended to be impetuous and hotheaded, having been marginalized back in Ulster, they defied any easy definition. In fact, they bristled at others’ labels for them—”Irish,” “Irish Presbyterians,” “Northern Irish,” or even “Wild Irish.”  Already twice transplanted, they had acquired a migratory habit. Once acquired, such habits are liable to persist; when the constraints of government caught up with them, these wayfarers often chose to move on.

This trait did not evaporate once they were in America and often they would keep moving west, keeping just ahead of civilization and legal constraints on their way of life.

This song is about three things: 1) the resilient nature of the Scots-Irish of the Appalachian mountains, 2) making whiskey and in general living off the land, and 3) fighting to preserve their independence, but being loyal to their way of life instead of any abstract sense of patriotism.

Ransom Raney
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

This is the tale of a mountain man
Lot of grit, lot of sand
Ransom Raney his name
From Scotland his people came

He was Lonsom Raney’s oldest son
1848 he was born
Stood at his daddy’s right hand
Taught to be a mountain man

Keep your mouth shut, your head down
Live off what comes from the ground
Make your shine, dig ginseng root
Live your own truth

When he was fifteen he went to war
Butternut was what he wore
Fought for what he could understand
Get the blue basterds off his land

Chickamauga; Second Vicksburg
Mansfield was the call he heard
But Ransom slipped away
From the fighting of the blue and grey

His year was up so he went back home
Grateful to get through it whole
In the winter of ’64
Ransom Raney was done with war

Back at the farm what he found
It had been burned to the ground
His daddy rebuilt the barn
While the ground was still warm

Lonsom had buried his copper still
Set it back up on same hill
The first batch after the war
Was his best he swore

The Raneys are a real hard bunch
Won’t be stopped, not by much
A war ain’t nearly enough
The Raneys are a hard bunch

Ransom Raney loved one wife
She gave his seven children life
He taught his two eldest sons
To do what their grandpa done

He lived long enough to see
A brand new century
He was satisfied
In 1905 he died

Ransom Raney stood alone
But he could be counted on
When you needed a friend
Against flatlanders or gov’mint men

© 2019 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.

Clara Sprague Robison (1911-1993)

Clara Sprague Robison was born in the mountains of north Georgia, in early 1911.  Her father was a sustenance farmer but after a series of deaths from influenza in the early 1920s, first her younger brother then her father, the family fell on hard times. Eventually, a fellow from off the mountain heard about their situation and stopped by their farm one day on his way back after delivering a piece of furniture to offer this help.  This was Johnny Campbell, a local carpenter and general handyman who lived in the valley.

There was an attraction felt immediately between Clara and Johnny but they did nothing to act on what they both felt, initially somewhat scared of the power of the emotions.  It wasn’t until he came to her mountain church, a not insignificant journey, did Clara allow her feelings to grow into love (see song “A River Running Wild“).

Clara and Johnny would soon marry and have three children, Marcus, Nora and Emily before Johnny is killed in WWII.

Clara is the great-grandaunt of Pearl Robison.

© 2018 Frank David Leone. 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.

“A River Runnin’ Wild”

This story takes place in the north Georgia mountains, early 1933.  Clara Sprague Robison (1911-1993) sees her future husband, Johnny Campbell (1905-1944), at church one Sunday.  Clara had met Johnny before, but only briefly, and she knew he lived off the mountain. The fact that he came to her church, as opposed to the one he regularly attended, was significant to her, letting her know that he made the trip specifically to see her.  

Clara is the great-grandaunt of Pearl Robison. Clara and Johnny would have three children, Marcus, Nora and Emily before Johnny is killed in WWII.

A River Runnin’ Wild
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Johnny came to Clara’s church that Sunday,
Him on the mountain was a surprise
She’d have to walk right past him
Lord she thought she just might die

She seen the look in his eye
Like there was no one, just them two
Something rose up in her heart
Like a river runnin’ wild busting loose

Johnny touched his new wool cap
As Clara hurried past him up the steps
All through the preachin’ she felt his eyes
On the back of her neck

She seen the look in his eye …

Soon as the service was over
Clara felt her face burnin’ red
Johnny took her hand, they went walkin’
She couldn’t tell you a word of what they said

She seen the look in his eye …

© 2018 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.

Ruby Jones Robison (1955)

Ruby Jones Robison is Pearl Robison’s aunt, on her father’s side. Ruby was also from Conyers, Georgia and for whatever reason, wanted to get as far away as she could. She chose Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas when she went off to school, over 1,100 miles away.

She was a freshman when she met Darrel Haynes, a senior and with his wiry frame, Restitol hat and slow Texas drawl, he swept her off her feet. He was an engineering student and had a job in hand upon graduation at Baker Oil in Midland, Texas.

Ruby just managed to graduate before marrying Darrel in 1977.  An engineer at Baker Oil makes good money, and compared to her upbringing, Ruby felt like she was rich.  They lived in a 3,000 square foot house, to her a mansion, and she drove a Mercedes Benz. They had a good life and were happy for the first few years, but things started to sour when it became obvious that marriage was not enough to keep Darrel from succumbing to the attractions of single women in the local bars.

When Ruby lost their first baby, a little girl, and Darrel’s reaction was crudely insensitive, the next piece of evidence that she found of his cheating pushed Ruby over the edge and out the door. It took some courage for Ruby to walk away from the kind of life she had, but she was made of strong stuff.

She rode a bus the entire 1,000 mile journey back to Conyers, nursing a bottle of bourbon the whole time. By the time she got back home she had pretty much put Darrel behind her. What she grieved over more than anything was the loss of her little girl, whom she named Catherine Jane after her mother and grandmother.

Ruby stayed in Conyers and went to work for an attorney, who later proposed, and remained a close confidant to Pearl. Eventually Ruby told the story of the failure of her first marriage to her sister Ruth Ann Robison long after the fact (see song “Feel Like Dirt“).