It has taken a while, but I have come to know that writers are shaped dramatically by the places from which we come. Those places — the ones we call home — are the underlining, unsung melody to our words. That melody enlivens the compositions we create.
It is fortunate for me that I was birthed and raised in the South, a place of magical, moonlit and sun-kissed areas where the landscape is the melody and the people are the harmony in our stories. There is an alluring cadence in the pace of our life and our words that is captivating to those who do not live here and unifying to those of us who do.
From the South rises up most of America’s music: jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop, country and quartet gospel. All of this music is earmarked by the stories told and the deep emotion wrought. Never was one more deeply inspired by the lyrical South than my all-time favorite mainstream lyricist, Johnny Mercer. He would often say that it was his hometown of Savannah that inspired and pumped life into the poetic images he created, such as the Academy-award winning song “Moon River” (one of my favorite songs ever), which he penned to Henry Mancini’s music.
The South of his childhood, Mercer pointed out, was an echoing part of every song he wrote. The region has a way of grabbing storytellers and pulling them in. My husband is a television writer, successful long before his introduction to the capital of storytelling with our intriguing characters and places. He was raised in a suburban area and lived in the urban area of Los Angeles for nearly 30 years before finding a home in the South. Almost immediately, his writing became more richly textured, layered splendidly by his Southern encounters and experiences.
One day, I walked into his office and overheard a studio executive and high-powered producer during a conference call on speaker phone. They did not merely praise the new script they had in hand, which was inspired by the South that Tink loves so. They gushed. To the point that Tink — modest and humble, uncomfortable with praise — tried to shush them (a Southern word he now loves). The producer said firmly, “Please hear me out. I have to tell you how wonderful this writing and story is.”
“That kind of writing,” Tink exlained when the call ended, “is a gift from the South. My eyes have been opened in a new, welcoming way.”
At age 18, Mercer left the South to follow his dream, but as evidenced by the enormous catalog he produced, the South never left him. He carried its resonance wherever he went and, as a repayment, the South rewarded him with repeated inspiration. Truman Capote said, “Southerners always go home. Even if it is in a pine box.”
When Mercer died, he, too, returned to the South. He is buried in Savannah’s famous Bonaventure Cemetery (the inspiration behind “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”). It was a very cold January day when I visited Mercer’s grave. Despite the howling, brutally cold wind, I stood for a long while at the Mercer family plot. The inscription on Mercer’s grave acknowledges his four Academy Awards for Best Song, his co-founding of Capitol Records and concludes with “And the Angels Sing.”
On the tombstone of his wife, Ginger, is the title to the Mercer composition “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” But it was the inscription on a bench — one engraved with the titles to many of his songs, that says it perfectly: It is the words to a hit song recorded by Sinatra, “Buddy, I’m a poet, and I’ve got a lot of things to say.”
When you are blessed to come from the South, there’s always going to be lots to say.
Rich is the author of “There’s a Better Day a-Comin’.” Go to www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.