Johnny Mercer’s Southern sound

A biography written by Glenn T. Eskew paints of colorful picture of the iconic musician
Photograph courtesy of Georgia State University Library

Historians have tried to define the South, but few will leave you humming the Great American Songbook quite like Glenn T. Eskew does in Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World (University of Georgia Press). This exhaustively researched biography of Savannah’s own John Herndon Mercer (1909–1976) examines the songsmith’s life through the prism of the influence he wielded on the world stage. “At the same time that a Southern literary renaissance remade American letters and influenced world literature, so too the sounds from the South altered music made nationally and globally,” Eskew writes.

Mercer’s unique interpretation of jazz, filtered through his affection for the folk music of coastal Georgia and the blues recordings of black and white musicians alike, kept his songs relevant and popular from the 1930s through the 1960s and beyond. As a lyricist, Mercer won four Academy Awards, including one for the irresistible “Moon River,” and he collaborated with a who’s who of composers and jazz musicians. By focusing on Mercer and his music as part of the Southern diaspora—an eighty-year period when more than 20 million people left the southern U.S. for the North and West—one man’s life takes on much greater context.

Eskew is a history professor at Georgia State University, where Mercer’s personal and professional papers are housed. That background makes this biography a little daunting because of the sheer volume of details, and the writing occasionally veers too far into academic territory. But nothing detracts from the richness and depth of Mercer’s life story.

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This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue under the headline “Too marvelous for words.”