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"Georgia On My Mind" by Hoagy Carmichael

Tish Oney By

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Great American Songbook composer, Hoagy Carmichael, (1899-1981) penned many more standards besides the timeless "Stardust" and "Georgia On My Mind..." He also is credited with writing "The Nearness of You," "Heart and Soul," "Skylark," and "I Get Along Without You Very Well," to mention a few more classics. Carmichael starred in a couple of films as a pianist-actor, making his permanent mark in that medium as well as in recorded music and in the writing of American standards. The enduring quality of his songs hinges on stunningly beautiful melodies and the ability to equal an exquisite text in his musical contribution. "Georgia On My Mind," penned in 1930, became the official state song of Georgia in 1979. It was originally recorded in its birth year by Carmichael (vocals), Bix Beiderbecke (cornet) and Eddie Lang (guitar), and even reached hit status, but the song will forever be associated with Ray Charles, for whom it became a major international hit again in 1960.

Melody

Melodically, "Georgia On My Mind" drips simplicity. Two-note motives (ascending, then descending) followed by long rests distinctly set apart the name "Georgia," literally painting the premise that this name alone encompasses the whole of the singer's thoughts. Phrases are organized in two-measure units. The melodic outline of the third phrase ("just an old sweet song") delineates the tonic (major-major 7th) chord quality in a straightforward manner. At the bridge in this AABA form, the melody takes on a more haunting quality built upon the relative minor, using vi as the new temporary tonic. It rises to a melodic high point on "see" before releasing built-up tension in a descending phrase to end the section.

Lyrics

The timeless lyric of this song demonstrates how eloquence and/or cleverness are not always necessary to create a musical work of art. The secret of this text is in the feeling it evokes in the listener. The song's vague lyrics mean different things to different people. To some, "Georgia" represents a person (Carmichael's sister's name was, in fact, Georgia, although he denies that the song was about her), while to others, especially the entire population of the southeastern United States, the subject of the song may be interpreted to refer to the Peach State. Either way, whether about a beloved place or a beloved person—who cannot relate to melancholic fixation? Indeed, human characteristics we all share include missing someone far away, and longing to be someplace else. Locking into that wistful human frailty in a simple, universally relatable way was Carmichael's great achievement here.

Text Setting

At the bridge, the lyrics darkly reflect the relative minor harmonic atmosphere. The singer confesses that he receives invitations from other love interests and friendships vying for his allegiance. However, his heart always guides him back to Georgia... Carmichael's pairing of this text with music reveals that vi (the relative minor key) refers to the places or people drawing him away, and I (the major tonic key) refers to home, or the arms of his beloved. When talking about "other arms" and "other eyes," the harmonic context of the relative minor prevails, but when ruminating about Georgia in each of the A sections, the harmony, though traveling through the chord changes like a troubadour leaving home to wander for a time, ultimately resolves in the original tonic key. Harmony that leads to the dominant (strongly pointing toward tonic) underlays the text "the road leads back to you," creating an ideal textual/harmonic segue as the perfect authentic cadence (V7-I) connecting B to the last A completes the singer's journey home.

Harmony

The piece begins with only a measure to establish the major tonal center before descending a half step to vii half-diminished 7-V7/vi-vi, landing for a moment in the relative minor key. Already the happy/sad, major/minor, joyful/melancholic dichotomies of the song begin to unfold, like moonlight through the pines... From vi, the bass motion descends chromatically until it utilizes a colorful, non-diatonic ii-V7 progression (measure 4) that resolves upward by step to the original tonic. The next four bars of A simply traverse a I-VI-ii-V7 in, first the tonic major, then the relative minor key center. So simple, yet so elegant is Carmichael's choice to move freely between both tonalities even on his way toward the turnaround (m. 8) back to the repeat of A. This major-minor movement strongly supports the bittersweet nature of the text and theme of this exquisite composition.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme rather traditionally matches the end of the first phrase with the end of the third ("through" matches with "you). The second and fourth phrases rhyme as well: "mind" with "pines." During the bridge, the rhyme scheme changes, per normal practice, which serves to limit predictability and promote variety. The rhymed words are closer in proximity here—a rhyming syllable appears every two bars. Hoagy rhymes "me" with "tenderly," and even further with "see," unifying the bridge text and driving this rhyme scheme even harder home... He significantly leaves the final thought of the bridge unrhymed as if to suggest a daydream recalling the subject of the song: "the road leads back to you..." In the final A, Carmichael rhymes the end of the first phrase with the end of the second ("find" with "mind"), a departure from the other A sections' rhymes. His playing with various rhyme schemes serves to create a memorable text that is unique and non-stereotypical in its compositional devices.

Conclusion

"Georgia On My Mind" may be one of the most recognizable songs within the Great American Songbook, and for good reason. Its melding of melodic and harmonic interest with a well-crafted lyric, and plenty of space for improvisation in its rest-filled phrases, provide many listeners and musicians with a canvas of possibilities for creative interpretation and expression. An attractive lyric that every human can relate to on some level also adds to its universal appeal, and its accessible melody can be whistled and hummed by even the least musical among us. The song has been performed by blues artists, jazz artists, rock artists, folk artists, and classical artists, because it speaks a musical message that resonates regardless of genre. Such a song makes its home in the hearts of all who hear it—it is unpretentious and honest, and occupies another gem in the crown of our beloved American Songbook.
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