“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.

“Vernon and Molly”

Vernon Raney was 49 years old when he met Molly Motts, and didn’t need to get married, but that is just what he ended up doing; to a girl more than half his age.

The Raney family were bootleggers, had been making clear whiskey for more than a century before Vernon took over the still (see song, “Lonsom Raney 1828“).  He made a change, though, from the family recipe, he began to age the distilled product in charred oak barrels, turning the clear shine to a golden tobacco color, and mellowing the taste considerably (see song, “’57 Fleetwood to Memphis“).

Molly Motts, from Delta, Louisiana, just across the river from Vicksburg, was a precocious young woman, who was looking for any way out of Delta when she met Vernon at a party on the Mississippi bank of the river, just outside Vicksburg (see song, “When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney“).

Long story short, Vernon and Molly got married; Molly took over the moonshine business and turned it into a drug enterprise.  With the help of her two sons, they established a distribution network from Natchez to Memphis (see songs, “Louanne in Vicksburg” and “Molly on the Mountain“).

You could say that Vernon never knew what he was getting into when he married Molly, but then again, he was never known to say a cross word about Molly or their life together.

Vernon and Molly
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Vernon had his whiskey business
And his V-8 coupe
But he felt something was missing
He wasn’t sure just what to do
He wasn’t sure what to do

There was a party at the river
Vernon drove by real slow
Molly was tall and slender
He felt something inside let go
Something inside let go

Vernon was old enough to be her daddy
Molly was wiser than her years
She wanted more than what a small town could deliver
Vernon was her ticket out of there
Her ticket out of there

Once a month he went to Memphis
Delivering a load of shine
He did okay with his bootleg business
Could show Molly a good time
Show Molly a good time

They were always seen together
Then her belly began to show
Vernon said let’s put it on paper
She said I’m ready, let’s go
I’m ready, let’s go

Vernon was old enough to be her daddy …

Molly gave him three kids
Two sons and a daughter
She had plans beyond his
Vernon never fought her
He never fought her

Molly took over the business
Began selling pot and more
Vernon stopped going to Memphis
Spent his time down at the store
Spent his time down at the store

Vernon was old enough to be her daddy …

© 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.

“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.

“Molly on the Mountain”

Molly Motts was born in Delta, Louisiana, a tiny hamlet at the Louisiana-Mississippi border,  just across the river from Vicksburg.  Because of a difficult home life, she often dreamed of getting out of Delta.  Vicksburg just across the river looked like a dream garden to her and she thought she’d do anything to get there.  She did: marrying Vernon Raney, bootlegger, more than twice her age; but a good husband to her (see song, “When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney“) .

They had three children, Lonnie, Ronnie and Ginny.  Molly was an ambitious girl and decided early on to piggy-back a drug distribution business onto Vernon’s already prospering bootlegging enterprise (see song, “’57 Fleetwood to Memphis“).

Despite the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many states continued to outlaw alcohol for several more decades.  But bootleg whiskey began going out of style in the mid-‘60s, by which time liquor by the drink had become legal in most states, and there was less and less demand for moonshine except out of nostalgia. Transitioning,  first, to marijuana and then harder drugs, seemed to make good business sense to Molly.

Molly got her oldest son, Lonnie elected sheriff as a way to offer protection to her and her second son, Ronnie, as they operating the drug business with little interference from law enforcement. This they did and quickly established a lucrative distribution network of dealers from Natchez to Memphis (see song, “Louanne in Vicksburg“).

Molly lived to see both of her sons die violent deaths: Ronnie was murdered by his wife, Louanne Bowden, and Lonnie was killed in a stand-off with U.S. Marshalls and DEA agents.  As the drug network wound down, Molly grew into her role as grandmother to Ginny’s children, living a quiet life in Vicksburg.

The second summer after they were married, Vernon built Molly a small cabin in the north Georgia mountains, on a section of the old Raney homestead (see song “Lonsom Raney 1828“).  Molly would often go there as a retreat.  This song describes her last visit there, when she looks back on her life and contemplates the impact on her family of the choices she has made.

Molly on the Mountain
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Molly was at her cabin on the mountain
Thinking ‘bout her life, and all she’d done
A jelly glass of Vernon’s tobacco whiskey
Sparkled in the late October sun
She thought back to the day she married Vernon Raney
Not yet 21, June of ‘58
Three months pregnant, walking down the aisle
To a man more than twice her age

Molly on the mountain, don’t wanna come down
Molly on the mountain, don’t wanna be found
Molly on the mountain, gonna leave it all behind
Molly on the mountain, knows it’s time

The cabin had a chill, she built a fire
With the last of the wood Lonnie’d split
Lonnie’s gone, his brother Ronnie too
Molly blamed herself for all of it
She’d grown harder through the years from that life
Harder, than she could describe
The pot and drugs, the men she fought, some she killed
All she’d ever done was survive

Molly on the mountain …

Ginny was the one who turned out okay
Molly sure loves those three grandkids
She made sure to keep Ginny away from it all
That’s one good thing that she did
Lonnie’s Donald and Vern, went to East Mississippi
Took off when things got hot in Vicksburg
They’re selling pills and meth to the kids at Starkville
That’s what they learned from her

Molly on the mountain …

Molly’s great grandma, Mamie, was a conjure woman
She knew plants for curing or killing dead
Mamie passed it down to Molly’s grandpa Motts
That’s where Molly got it, was what they said
Molly pressed the jelly glass against her cheek
It was time to drink that whiskey down
She looked into the woods, found that old maple tree
Watched a yellow leaf drift to the ground

Molly on the mountain …

© 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.

“Meridian”

The lineage of Crawford Harper and the Donald and Vern Raney, is a little complicated.  They were distantly related to each other, although they did not know it at the time of the events described in this song.  In order to set the stage we have to go back to Alabama, before the Civil war.

Celsie Crawford Monroe (1844-1936) was born into slavery but was freed by Will Monroe, her father, a wealthy white planter, in 1863 as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Celsie’s mother, Jessie Crawford (1828-1905), was a slave from a neighboring plantation of whom Will Monroe had grown quite fond. Monroe made sure Jessie was provided for and also insisted that she be freed in 1863 by paying off her owner Carson Crawford.

Celsie was what was called a “yellow gal”, and quite beautiful. Once she was freed at age 19, Celsie began seeing a white man, Joshua Tate (1828-1867), and their relationship developed into a common law marriage, although the possibility of such a union being recognized was not possible at the time.  They had one child, a son, Tullison Tate, “Monroe’s Tully” (see song “King Cotton“).

In 1872 Celsie’s first actual marriage was to a African-American man, Jesse Harper (1850-1922), and Celsie and Jesse enjoyed a long and happy union, raising four children, seven grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. However, Celsie’s oldest child, Tully, was raised by his spinster Aunt Ruth, his father’s sister.

Donald and Vernon Raney were distant descendants of Tully Tate, his daughter marrying Virgil Raney, whose son Vernon was Donald and Vernon’s grandfather.  Their father Lonnie Raney, had been a crooked Warren County sheriff, who was killed in a shootout with U.S. Marshalls, during a drug raid. The Raneys were descendants of Lonsom Raney, longtime moonshiner in North Georgia (see song “Lonsom Raney 1828“).

Lonnie’s generation of Raneys had become major players in the drug trade stretching from Memphis to Natchez, with Lonnie’s mother Molly Motts Raney acting as matriarch of the family drug enterprise (see songs “When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney” and “Louanne in Vicksburg“).  Donald and Vernon were Molly’s grandchildren, who were trying to carry on the family business, albeit on a much smaller scale, in Meridian, Mississippi.

One of Celsie Monroe’s great-grandchildren, William Crawford Harper (1942-2001), had marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 (see song “Crossin’ the Edmund Pettus Bridge“). Crawford Harper was Willie’s grandson, and this song describes the events of Crawford’s first summer home from college, when he visited his grandpa in Meridian, Mississippi.

Meridian
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Crawford Harper was in Starkville
Mississippi State
He’d be the first in the Harper family
Who might graduate

His Grandpa Willie lived in Meridian
Crawford spent the summer, wanting to earn
He’d heard about two fellas with a business
That’s how Crawford met Donald and Vern

The Raneys were from North Georgia
Moonshiners back in the hills
When they came down off that mountain
They were selling pot and pills

When Crawford met up with the Raneys
Vern gave him a duffle bag full of meth
Told him how much money to deliver
Crawford could keep the rest

One night Grandpa Willie found his stash
Asked him, “where’d you get this money?”
Crawford said, “don’t worry, old man,
I got it working for somebody”

Willie Harper had marched at Selma
Five miles from the same plantation
Where his ancestor had been a slave
Going back six generations

Willie asked, if that somebody
Might be named Donald and Vern
Crawford grabbed his duffel bag
Told him, “it ain’t none of your concern”

But see, Willie’d had a visit
From the Raneys late one night
Crawford owed them money
That had to be made right

Willie Harper was a welder
Vern said, “you’re gonna have a partner”
Willie looked at him with stone cold eyes
Said, “only name on that sign is Harper”

Under his welding gloves
Willie kept his service forty-five
He told Vern, “if you think I won’t use it,
You’re in for a surprise”

When Crawford came home, his grandpa told him
“The Raneys won’t be ‘round no more”
He took that duffel bag and torched it
Into a pile of ashes on the floor

Crawford Harper was back in Starkville
Mississippi State
He was the first in the Harper family
To graduate

© 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.

“Say Roy”

Royal Raney was the grandson of Lonsom Raney, legendary moonshiner and general hell-raiser of the North Georgia mountains.  Here, Lonsom is with a young Royal, spending some time on the family farm telling some history of their clan and in general initiating him into the Raney fold.

Say Roy
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Say Roy, get my walking stick
I want to take a look around the place
Get up boy, and you best be quick
I’m old ‘n’ ain’ got time to waste
Come on Roy, find your sense
I want to see that stretch o’ fence
Did you mend it right?
Let’s go, it’s almost light

Get up and make your bed
Boy don’ keep me waitin’ long
Ain’ you heard a single word I sed?
I want to sweep off your Grandma’s headstone
It looks like it might storm
Gonna stick my head in the barn
Did you milk the cow?
I wanna go and go now

[…]

I can see it just like yesterday
Walkin’ with my pap just like this
I was just about your age
And wanted a walkin’ stick just like his
Pap cut a branch, gave it to me
He cut it from a hickory tree
Said, “when that dries it’ll be good”
We’re standing where that hickory stood

Say Roy, let’s head back home
I done looked around the place
Come on boy, get a move on
I’m old ‘n’ ain’ got time to waste
Light the lamp, trim the wick
Here, take this walkin’ stick
It’ll be yours from now on
Come on Roy, let’s go home

© 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.

“Molly’s Got a Secret”

Molly Motts was sexually molested by her step-father in Delta, Louisiana from the age of 12.  But Molly is resilient and refuses to identify herself as a victim.  As soon as she was grown up enough she crossed the river to Vicksburg and attracted the attention of a prominent Mississippi man, Vernon Raney.  Molly marries him and over time becomes the matriarchal  figure of the Raney family whose criminal enterprises began with bootlegging and under Molly’s leadership branched out into marijuana and pills.

Molly’s Got a Secret
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Molly’s got a secret, a deep dark secret
She ain’t told, but don’t know if she can keep it
It’s burn’d a hole in her heart, all the way up to the skin
Once it’s out, it can’t be put back again

She’s protected him for so long
She knows he hurt her, knows it was wrong
She still feels guilty all the same
Even though she knows he’s the only one to blame

Molly’s got a secret, a deep dark secret …

[…]

Molly’s got a secret from years before
She can’t forget it, can’t live with it no more
She drinks a little too much, laughs a little too loud
When his name comes up she don’t wanna be around

Molly’s got a secret, a deep dark secret …

First chance she got she put Delta behind her
Won’t let what that man did define her
What happened in Delta she’s buried it deep
Her skin is thicker now, it’s a secret she can keep

Molly’s got a secret, a deep dark secret …

© 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.