Macon, Georgia is known for its music, past and present. From modern artists like Jason Aldean and Robert McDuffie, to legends like the Allman Brothers Band and Otis Redding, music flows alongside the banks of the Ocmulgee River. But over a century before Little Richard’s first “A whop bop-a-lu a whop bam boo” thrilled audiences and before Otis ever sat on the dock of a bay, Macon’s native son Sidney Lanier was born. In the late 1800s, his ode to the marshes of Glynn earned him prominence in the world of poetry, and his flute playing garnered him first flute in a nationally renowned orchestra.
Lanier was born in a “cottage” atop a hill in downtown Macon on February 3, 1842. After a short move to Griffin, Ga., he returned to Macon where he attended school until age 14. He continued his education at Oglethorpe College near Milledgeville, Ga. where he graduated in 1860 with high honors. In 1861, he joined the Confederate Army, and three years later, he was captured. During five months of incarceration in federal prison, he developed consumption (tuberculosis), with which he would struggle for the rest of his life.
When the Civil War ended, Lanier returned to Macon and married Mary Day. A new husband, he joined his father and uncle’s law practice, where he worked for four years. Today, Sid’s Sandwich Shop, located in the same building as his law office, bears the poet’s name. A self-taught flautist, he was able to attain the honorable position of First Flute for the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in Baltimore, Maryland, a position he held for seven consecutive seasons.
During the last 13 years of his life, Sidney was often sick from his struggles with tuberculosis. His illness, though, never stopped Lanier from composing music, writing poetry, and teaching English literature. Two of his most widely known poems, “The Marshes of Glynn” and “Song of the Chattahoochee” are widely considered masterpieces. Both were written during his time in Maryland, but were based on his memories of Georgia.
Today, the cottage where Lanier was born is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1976, the location was designated a Landmark of American Music, and in 2004, it was designated a Landmark of American Poetry by the Academy of American Poets. More than 40 cities across America have some sort of tribute or memorial honoring Sidney Lanier, and the first battleship to land in Japan during WWII was the USS Sidney Lanier.
On February 3, the Historic Macon Foundation will celebrate the 171st anniversary of the birth of Sidney Lanier at the Sidney Lanier Cottage. The event will feature L. Ward Abel, a poet, composer and performer of music, teacher and retired lawyer. Abel is a published poet, a Mercer Law School graduate, and a devoted fan of Lanier. The Sidney Lanier Birthday Celebration begins at 2 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
“We are very excited to have L. Ward Abel as our guest to observe Sidney Lanier’s 171st birthday, as there are so many parallels between the two men,” said Janis Haley, Historic Macon Foundation development director and Sidney Lanier Cottage museum director. “Lanier was a poet and musician, and since Abel is as well, there is no better fit to help us celebrate the occasion.”