Atlanta, 1934-1944

Born under the Capricorn moon of September 8, 1931, Marion Brown, Jr. was delivered by Sister Emma Peters at his maternal grandparent’s home on West Fair Street in Atlanta, Georgia. While not much is known about his namesake and father Marion Brown, Sr., his mother Marie Brown was a fifteen-years old at the time of his birth.

Under the care of his mother, maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, Brown grew up in the African-American neighborhoods of Beaver Slide and Buttermilk Bottom (to become the title of a piece on 1973’s Geechee Recollections). With a high school education, Marie worked as a practical nurse. An amateur singer and piano player, Marie kept a musical household. Marie’s parents had no formal education, and cobbled together a living from colorful trades.

At some point, Brown claimed his ancestors as the Gullah Sea Islands people of Eastern Georgia, a community of former slaves that was able to retain many African linguistic and cultural practices due to their relative geographic isolation. Once custom of this group is the root doctor or medicine man, and it was this role that Brown’s maternal grandfather performed in his community. This grandfather would go and collect roots with some of Brown’s uncles that his grandmother would then turn into ointments and elixirs for various ailments. Another function of this position was that Brown’s grandfather would tall fortunes. Both grandmother and grandfather ran the numbers, and from all these different sources of income, Brown remembered a comfortable existence in segregated Atlanta.

While there were not many cousins, Brown’s uncles were also early role models. One, Ulysses Brown, was a cartoonist in Chicago. Another was a plumbing contractor and small business owner, with whom Brown remembered plying his trade.

Brown fondly remembered the summers his family gathered in the mountains of northern Georgia at the home of his paternal grandfather. The cumulative impact of these summers reverberates throughout the Georgia-inflected works of the 1970s, especially that of Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun.

This grandfather was a well to do master carpenter, and, as Brown remembered, one of the few African-Americans living in the small rural community. It was during this time that Brown became aware of music and sounds, drawing inspiration from what might seem unlikely sources. As Brown later recalled there was no traditional Black music in the community, so the sounds that floated from down the road on weekend nights were that of square dancing and country and western music. This exposure to what at that time was still referred to as “hillbilly” music was compounded by nights spent by the radio with his grandfather listening to WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, though the conversation would be attuned to the current issues facing the African-American community: “voting, politics, Haile Selassie, [and] Joe Louis.”[1]

Back in Atlanta, there was plenty of culture to take in as Brown’s family lived within the nexus of The Atlanta University Center. In those heady years, W.E.B. DuBois held a position as chair of the Sociology department at the Atlanta University. As if that weren’t enough, every year there was a Black art show. While Brown remembered these details, he was likely too young for influence to be anything but incidental. As a young child, he likely spent more of his time playing with friends in “Shit Creek” behind Washington High School than in the halls of Atlanta University.

Musically, Brown was exposed to a variety of secular and sacred sounds. Of the latter, church figured prominently in Brown’s adolescence and teenage years for as each Sunday came, the dutiful son attended church with his family. Tacking it to their bourgeois aspirations, the Browns attended Flipper Temple, an African Methodist Episcopal church, the nicest in their part of town. In church, Brown heard the lively congregational sounds of vocals accompanied by organ.

During that period, jug bands were still in vogue, the cries of street vendors filled the area, and extraordinarily Brown remembers having full access to the blues jukebox (likely just a phonograph and blues records) left on his neighbor’s front porch. Marie Brown, as an amateur singer and pianist, frequently had musical guests. It was one of those guests, an alto saxophonist who persuaded the ten-year-old Brown to follow his muse, and in 1941 Brown took up study of the C Melody Saxophone.

 

[1] Recollections, p. 41