Incredible Story of a Hit Song: ‘Georgia on My Mind’

The tune and its fascinating history — including one standout performance — perfectly capture the American dream

by Lee Habeeb | Updated 05 Jul 2017 at 2:17 PM

Some say the song was written about a girl. Others say it was about a place. A state. The Peachtree State. The two men who know for sure can’t answer that question because they died a long time ago.

“Georgia on My Mind” was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell. Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1899, the son of a horse-drawn taxi driver and a mom who played piano for a living. His family had a hard time making ends meet. The 1918 death of his baby sister, Joanna, from influenza had a profound effect on his life.

"We couldn't afford a good doctor or good attention, and that's when I vowed I would never be broke again in my lifetime," said Carmichael.

He never would be.

He graduated from Indiana University and Indiana School of Law and began to practice law in Indianapolis; but his real talent, and where he'd end up making his living, was in the world of entertainment. Music, specifically, and even more specifically, it was coming up with the melodies to some of Tin Pan Alley's biggest hits — some of the most memorable melodies in popular music history.

American composer and author Alec Wilder described Carmichael as the "most talented, inventive, sophisticated and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen" of pop songs in the first half of the 20th century. Few people ever write one standard, but Carmichael wrote a bunch: "Stardust," "The Nearness of You," "Skylark," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of The Evening" — and, of course, his most well-known composition, "Georgia on My Mind."

Related: Dylan Speaks: Nobel Speech Is Defense of Western Canon

The song's lyricist, Gorrell, was born in Knox, Indiana, and went to college with Carmichael. The two became friends. After hearing his pal play his fresh new melody at a party, Gorrell pulled an all-nighter and ended up with the lyrics for the song.

Gorrell would become a banker — and never wrote another lyric in his life.

Neither man ever lived in the state of Georgia. Carmichael did have a sister named Georgia. You can decide if the song was about a person or a place.

Here is Carmichael's version of the song, recorded on September 15, 1930, with Carmichael on vocals and Eddie Lang on guitar.

Others recorded the song. In 1931, saxophonist Frank Trumbauer had a Top-10 hit with "Georgia on My Mind." Indeed, he was the guy who suggested the song to Carmichael. Other versions followed, among them by Louis Armstrong and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, but hits proved elusive.

"After rock and roll, I never even got a phone call from an A&R man about anything," Hoagie Carmichael later told a writer at Downbeat Magazine.

That song — with Carmichael's entire catalogue — was a victim to changing tastes and changing musical styles. It would take Ray Charles to bring the song back to life. (go to page 2 to continue reading)

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