Hakim Rahsul and I stood in a poorly-lit cobblestone alley off River Street in Savannah, Georgia. The tenor saxophonist had just finished a set at the Bayou Café & Blues Bar. Combing his gray-flecked beard with steely fingers, he shared stories of life as a musician in the Deep South, between Savannah and Nashville, Tennessee.
Fifty years ago, the world was a very different place for the 68-year-old artist. The civil-rights movement was in its infancy, and even though Savannah was less segregated than most other towns in the Deep South, opportunities for African-American artists didn’t include integrated clubs.
By contrast, Rahsul now finds his clean, silky notes welcome almost everywhere in this coastal city of 160,000. Tunes like “In a Sentimental Mood” burst from his horn with all the tenacity of the alligator on the Bayou’s gumbo menu. And Hakim’s CD, “Smooth Like This,” its selections jumping from Duke Ellington to Brazil’s Antonio Carlos Jobim, was a gift I accepted with gratitude when our conversation came to an end.
Rollin’ on the River
Dark and dingy like any good blues bar, The Bayou occupies the second and third floors of a historic building overlooking the lazy Savannah River. From its porch, I could see the massive red-brick Savannah Cotton Exchange that once gave this city its moniker, “Wall Street of the South.” Across the street, the Georgia Queen paddlewheeler was returning from a dinner cruise on the lower reaches of the Savannah River, just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
The river was once a highway for the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa. Shackles and chain holes where newly arrived West Africans were once held, pending their sale to plantation owners, may still be seen in arched holding cells off a cobbled, ramp-like alley known as Factors Walk. From where Rahsul and I stood and talked, we could have heard their despairing wails.
River Street’s hand-laid cobblestones were ballast from those trade ships, which arrived with human cargo and left with cotton for ports all over the world. Prior to the great yellow-fever epidemic of 1818-20, these rocks were welcomed as a cheap and abundant building material. Many went into the construction of the foreboding River Street Inn, formerly a warehouse where cotton was stored, sampled and graded before export
Thanks to a $7 million urban-renewal project completed in 1977, the hub of early Savannah commerce has been reborn. There are now dozens of restaurants, bars, galleries and gift shops extending for about a mile west from Felix de Weldon’s famous statue of Florence Martus, “Savannah’s Waving Girl.”
I had come to Savannah for its annual mid-autumn film festival, sponsored by the Savannah College of Art and Design. Here, you can read about my experiences in “A Meeting of Minds at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival.” But once I arrived in Savannah, I found there was so much more.
According to Visit Savannah, the city got its start in 1733 when General James Oglethorpe landed his ship, the Anne, and established the last of the 13 original American colonies. He named it “Georgia” after King George II of England. Yamacraw Indian chief Tomo-chi-chi welcomed the new arrivals and Savannah flourished.
Shops and businesses were built atop the bluff along Bay and Bull Streets. Wealthy residents built their homes and churches around 24 shady public squares. Twenty-two of these squares remain today, laid out on a grid in was America’s first planned city.
Rum and slavery (and lawyers!) were initially forbidden. Following the American Revolution, however, the profitability of cotton and rice in the humid climate led Georgia to follow the example of adjacent South Carolina and legalize slavery. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin near Savannah and vast plantations arose in the hinterlands.
Hurricanes, devastating fires and yellow fever took their toll. But Savannah held onto a reputation as the most picturesque and serene city in America, its grand oaks draped with Spanish moss. When General Sherman’s infamous Civil War march ended here in 1864, he was said to have been so impressed by the city’s beauty, he could not destroy it.
The Historic Savannah Foundation, established in the 1950s, saved dozens of buildings from the wrecking ball. That led to the 1966 designation of the Savannah Historic District as a National Historic Landmark, one of the largest in the country.
No building in Georgia is as old as The Pirates’ House, built in 1734. A seaman’s tavern from which unwitting seamen were once shanghaied, it was cited in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” as the place where Captain Flint drew his last breath. “I was with Flint when he died at Savannah,” said Long John Silver. Some say Flint still haunts the house on moonless nights.
Midnight in …
With its reputation as “the most haunted city in America,” Savannah lures those intrigued by the paranormal. It only made sense that on October 31, Halloween night, I should tell you about my tour of “The Haunted Pubs of Savannah.”
But the city’s most popular tour traces the events of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a bestselling 1994 nonfiction novel by John Berendt and 1997 movie starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey.
I started at the 1868 Mercer-Williams House on Monterey Square, designed for Confederate General Hugh W. Mercer (great-grandfather of 20th-century singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer). Jim Williams, an antique dealer and preservationist, purchased the building in 1969 and, after two years of restoration, made it his permanent home and a place for locally famous holiday parties.
The parties ended in 1981, after Williams shot and killed his volatile handyman and lover, Danny Hansford. After four highly publicized trials, he was found not guilty of murder. Six months after the verdict, however, he died of heart failure, collapsing near the very spot where he had shot Hansford.
Some believe it was Hansford’s ghost who killed Williams, despite his having hired a voodoo practitioner to cleanse the house. But don’t try to convince the current owner, who runs it as a museum: She is Williams’ sister.
… the Garden
Several vignettes from Midnight (notably, scenes where a quirky local walks an invisible dog) take place in 30-acre Forsyth Park, a few steps from Monterey Square. Its beautiful cast-iron fountain, rising above a bed of flowers, has been a Savannah showpiece since 1858.
On a show bill outside a former Bay Street nightclub, I discovered a memorial to The Lady Chablis (1957-2016), a transsexual entertainer who played a key role in Midnight in the Garden. “In loving memory of the Grand Empress of Savannah,” it read. “If you enjoyed the show, my name is The Lady Chablis, and if you didn’t, I have a motto: Two tears in a bucket, motherf*** it.”
Conservationist John Muir once raved about the live oaks and other foliage that flourish in Bonaventure Cemetery, 4 miles east of downtown. Like many other visitors, I went looking for its iconic “Bird Girl” statue (by Sylvia Shaw Judson), placed in the graveyard in 1938. But the attention it received from Midnight in the Garden, on the book cover and in the movie’s opening credits, led to its museum placement in 1997. I found it in Savannah’s Jepson Center for the Arts.
Among those interred at Bonaventure are Johnny Mercer (1909-76) and Conrad Aiken (1889-1973), both native sons. Mercer’s epitaph, the title of one of his songs, is “And the Angels Sing.”
The words on the grave of Aiken, a renowned poet, reads: “Cosmos mariner: Destination unknown.” With your permission, Mr. Aiken, I’d like to adopt that epitaph as my own.