In 1801, five men in dusty breeches and leather boots rode up into what was no longer Indian Country but what, a few years earlier, had become the latest addition to the young state of Georgia. This new territory spread from the Appalachee River in the west to the Savannah River in the east. North to south it stretched from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the sandhill lowlands of the Coastal Plain. It was a massive swath of hills and hardwood forests, got by musket and treaty from the Cherokee and the Creek Indians. Once possession was secured, it doubled the size of the state.
A few years earlier, the state assembly was flush with the new independence from Britain and drafted a charter for a university. As an endowment for the school, the legislators set aside five five-thousand-acre parcels of land in the new counties. With that act, they made their yet-unbuilt University of Georgia the first land-grant university in America.
The assembly opened the land to settlers, who steadily rode into the area with a willingness to cut trees, clear land, and fight off the dispossessed Indians, who quickly regretted their fateful and easy cession. There was no lack of new Americans, dislocated during the Revolution, eager to trek into the wilderness. And so they came. During the next two decades they tore violently from the land their plantations and farms.
Although the state had decided to start a school in 1785, it wasn’t until 1800 that the political finagling was finished and the “Senatus Academicus” named a committee to go and look for a site. That next year, 1801, once the spring rains ended, the group of five men rode into the once-wild, now-settled Indian Country. The five men who rode up into that land were all notable Georgians who would one day give their names to their state’s counties, towns, and streets: Baldwin, Milledge, Walton, Twiggs, Lawson.
They rode the old Indian trading trail for a week, scouting locations in the low end of Jackson County. On July 3, they spent the night at a tavern near the county line. On the morning of the fourth they woke early and rode out and up into a ridge of hills between the Middle Oconee and the Oconee rivers.
They came to the wide, granite-bottomed shallows at Cedar Shoals on the Oconee River where a group of settlers had gathered under the trees along the riverbank to celebrate America’s independence. The rum was warm. They made their own music. They sang the old revolutionary hymns. Inadvertently that day, the committee of five set a tone that has since resonated throughout the history of the Georgia town that has since come to be called the Liverpool of the South and the Land of a Thousand Dances:
They crashed the party.
After making introductions, the site selection committee spent the rest of the day lifting mugs of rum and beer in toast to the Senatus Academicus that had sent them on their mission up into the old Indian Country. They toasted the new nation and its constitution. They toasted liberty. They toasted Josiah Meigs, who would be the university’s first president and would graciously give his name to one of the meanest streets of the soon-to-be town. They toasted freedom and all that went with it.
The five had such a good time at the party, and so felt the magic of the spot, that the next day they decided that there, near those tranquil clear-running shoals on a set of hills on a bend in the Oconee River, they would build their new academy. It was the perfect site: fields of corn, cotton, and potatoes flanked the recently cleared hillsides. Clear water bubbled from springs. Livestock grazed the slopes. Apple and peach orchards were already planted and the rivers were full of fish, even though it was mostly shad, an easy breed common to the meandering fresh water. Few noxious vapors rose from the swampy lowland by the rivers, and what little there was blew away eastward with the favorable winds. The decision made, the committee acquired the land, let the contracts for the wood-, stone-, and brickwork for the first building of the university. They laid out lots for a town that would become the cradle for the state’s high culture and the playground for generations of its young.
They knew all along what they would name it: Athens.
Today when you drive out of Athens, the countryside spreads itself green and red and brown: settled, but rural still. Fields along the road are bordered by three-strand barbed wire. The cotton, once king, is gone now. The fields are planted in corn and soil-healing soybeans. Cows graze. Where the fields and pasture aren’t shave-cut to reveal the rolling topography of these uplands, the forest comes almost to the edge of the road: sometimes thick hardwood, but mostly the fast-growing pine: timberland done in straight, machine-planted rows that run up and over the slow hills, rows that blink and strobe as you speed by; rows that the paper company comes and clear-cuts maybe once every twenty years for pulpwood and telephone poles.
You drive along. . . . Houses and yards come cut out of the forests and the fields: white clapboard, gray asphalt-sided, quick-rigged brick ranch-style with a mother-in-law trailer. Some yards are lawns, lush green. Others are packed dirt, kept bald and head-cracking hard by bounced basketballs, rolling dogs, and scrambling kids. Around the sides of some of the houses, as you get out past eight, ten miles, are an outdoor well and a tank of propane gas; a parked new pickup, an aging Le Baron: a rusty, once-candy-striped swingset.
Go still farther out . . . and you’re past any threat of suburb. You enter the realm where roving feral dogs feed on wildlife killed on the road and dumped in ditches. Out there, old sharecropper shacks come up from the brambles and kudzu, gray-planked, tin roof–rusted, falling in from broken center beams, some already fallen all the way to leaving just a crumbled clay-brick chimney. Out that far the tract houses stop. It seems a wilderness on both sides but for the pavement, the speed-limit signs, and the churches, which appear more frequently than stoplights along the two-lane, out-there highways that lace the once-wild Georgia countryside and strap it down.
It’s all what you would expect, but going south on Highway 15, out of Athens and through Watkinsville (where stands the tavern that lodged the university search committee two hundred years ago), there is an incongruous sight, one that serves as an object lesson to explain the cultural climate that set the stage for what would happen as the 1970s ran out, down and up into the eighties, when the whole Athens music thing took off:
In a field, across the road from a sandpit on Highway 15, there stands an iron horse:
If you are a student at the University of Georgia, at some point in the four-or-more-year sojourn through college that the usual student makes, you somehow find out about that horse. It stands on a low rise, miles out of town, and in the fall, let’s say at a full moon, you ride out there. It’s far enough out of town that the car ride becomes a trip in itself, without any chemical aid. Once gone from town and into the dark, empty countryside, you drive along and after a bit find yourself on the edge of the Oconee Forest. There, in the field, off to the left, stands the horse.
On that clear night (you choose the night) you leave the car and walk out there, keeping a hold on whomever you’re with. Together you list from side to side and trip across the cut stalks and huge, disc-disturbed dirt clods. You hear dogs barking, alert somewhere in farmyards down the road, through the woods. You keep telling each other that the dogs are too far away to be barking at y’all. Trying to convince yourselves you’re safe, you repeat to each other, giggling, tripping, that nobody knows you’re there.
You cross the field, walking from the road, and you get to the horse. The iron gives off its cold. All around you is nothing but a slowly rolling field of cut corn. You see the dark edge of the forest’s beginning on the other side of the river. You see the strip of the highway that hosts your car, parked leaning on the shoulder, angling into the thick grass of the ditch, separated from the field by only the low boundary fence of three-strand barbed wire. You climb on the horse, sit and share cigarettes, pass on the lore, telling about how you first found this incongruous statue. You look up at the thickness of stars and talk about how weird it is that there’s this iron horse out in the middle of a cornfield on the edge of the Oconee Forest, ten miles outside of Athens.
The horse is an abstract sculpture commissioned in the fifties by the University of Georgia. At the time, the notable annual events in Athens were an International Livestock Show and the American Legion Carnival. The horse sculpture was the result of an effort to encourage the fine arts. But the statue wasn’t anything like the town-square-style tributes to Robert E. Lee, that hero of the Old South rearing back on Traveller, man and horse clad with the flesh and semblance of real life befitting works of art. The piece was “abstract,” or so the more sophisticated locals called it, welded so that the guts were visible gears, looking like a cubist doodle cast in two tons of iron. Its ribs were few, and it stood six feet at the shoulder.
When the work was finished, the university found a site for it: an empty rectangle of dead grass that served as play and parade ground for the students who lived in the Reed and Payne Hall dormitories. The university set aside a spare few feet for the horse, but when it was set on its pedestal in the middle of a perfectly good softball field, the students would have none of it.
One night, pranksters stacked wood underneath the work and set the pile on fire. A few days later they hung a bag of oats over the horse’s head, swaddled the sculpture in diapers made from bed sheets, and piled the ground around it with manure. The students issued statements that they didn’t want art in the middle of their quad. It was a monstrosity, a foreign, urban-derived hallucination. It was “mod’ren art,” the work of some “feygit” imagination. In the fifties, the students at the University of Georgia weren’t as open to artistic deviance as they would become.
Finally, they rioted.
The artist in residence who made the thing protested to the administration about the mistreatment of his work. The school cast around for a way to get rid of the sculpture. The only place they could find for a two-ton iron horse cut in a modernist design was ten miles outside of town in the middle of a field on a rise just this side of the Oconee River on Highway 15. They put the horse there, and there it still stands.
That was the cultural atmosphere in the little southern town as it entered the modern age.
Things changed slowly during the sixties. There was scattered stone-throwing to protest desegregation and the war in Vietnam. The ROTC building was spray-painted “Che Lives” and then blown up. In 1969 a day of protest against the war was held, and Governor Lester Maddox (the Georgia governor best known for chasing blacks from his fried-chicken restaurant with an ax handle) condemned the protestors as traitors and, while he was at it, condemned desegregation as “sick.” While the war in Vietnam was protested by a handful of activists, the fraternities collected skin-mags to airlift to the boys in the Southeast Asian combat zone, and the sororities solicited candidates for the Maid of Cotton contest. During a Derby Day celebration, one gang of overexcited sorority girls accidentally crushed a pig and were made to promise never to do it again.
On the art front the students demanded that more rock bands be brought to campus. “Led Zeppelin, not the Lettermen,” they chanted during one lunchtime protest. The University Union responded. When Henry Mancini canceled an appearance, the union booked Iron Butterfly in his stead.
In February 1969 a significant cultural advance was made. A student club called Dante’s Domain opened in the basement of Memorial Hall on campus. Memorial Hall had been built in the 1920s as a tribute to the boys’ blood sacrificed in World War I. Bands played at Dante’s and it quickly became a hangout for both students and kids from town. It was there that the germ of rockthrill was laid down in Athens. Unfortunately, things got carried away at one show as the kids ran through the hallways of the building, trashing tables, tearing up carpets, smoking “grass” in the janitor’s closet. The administration was scandalized. By the end of 1969 Dante’s was under scrutiny for giving the University Union a bad name due to the “freaks and longhairs” that hung out there. As the seventies began, it was converted back to a coffee house featuring acoustic folk music and a sit-down crowd.
Dante’s was suppressed, but local kids kept coming onto campus to feel the heat of the thousands of students at critical mass. One spring day in the early seventies while Nixon was still president, Keith Strickland, a local kid, walked onto campus with some of his friends to check out a band that was playing on the plaza in front of Memorial Hall. At that time fraternity and sorority kids were still clipped in khaki and oxford cloth, and the free-boy hippies went barefoot and shirtless, wore mustaches and long, lank hair; the straight-haired earth mamas wore bells, halter tops, and peasant dresses.
Unlike everyone else in town, Keith was into the stacked heels of the latest thing—glitter rock.
On that spring day, Keith walked the UGA campus in a gold lamé jacket with a Mack Truck mirror hung around his neck and his hair jacked out stiff from half a can of Aqua Net:
On that spring day, Keith wandered onto campus and met Fred Schneider, setting in motion the series of meetings that would result, after a few quick years, in the creation of The B-52’s, and after them the Athens music scene:
On that spring day, nineteen-year-old Keith strutted up to the plaza, peered through his cat’s-eye sunglasses, and saw nobody interesting. The band was awful. Nobody was dancing. Except some girl. And this guy. This guy in a tacky Hawaiian shirt. That was Fred. “Oh, okay,” Keith thought, “they look all right.” Keith was carrying a bag of pillow stuffing he’d picked out of a dumpster he’d passed on the way through town to campus. Keith didn’t know Fred and the girl. He just thought they would get into it. He danced up to them, stretched his painted lips into a laugh, and shook above their heads a shower of shredded foam.
And so it began. . . .