Elizabeth Reed, a young Southern woman, came to Macon, Georgia to attend Wesleyan College in 1860. She married a Confederate Army Captain named Briggs Napier in 1865 and began a long life as a farmer’s wife and the mother of 12 children. She passed away in 1935 and her body was laid to rest at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon.
Over three decades later, a group of young men, aspiring local musicians, regularly frequented the very same cemetery that held Elizabeth Reed. They congregated under the ghostly blue light of the Georgia moon to find inspiration while the eerie ambience of the buried dead hung thickly around them. The young men, six of them, Duane, Gregg, Dickey, Berry, Jaimoe and Butch, all burned with youthful passion for creating music and basked in the foreboding atmosphere the cemetery offered. While there is speculation as to exactly how it may have occurred, one thing is certain. Dickey, a guitarist, noticed the tombstone of Elizabeth Reed Napier and gave free rein to his imagination. Little did he know that he was creating possibly the greatest instrumental song in the history of rock music.
The young men became the Allman Brothers Band and Dickey Betts wrote the music for his opus “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” with the looming impression of that woman’s grave serving as his inspiration. The song became an instrumental concert warhorse with its hauntingly melodic, jazzy opening guitar line that slowly crescendoed into a full out musical assault, unparalleled in the annals of rock music.
The version of “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” from the historic At Fillmore East recordings is universally recognized as the definitive manifestation of the all encompassing experience of the song. From its weepy, mournful opening to its monumentally dynamic jam, the song is preciously alive and musically conveys all of the emotions, hardships, joys, beginnings and endings that make up a lifetime. If a key purpose of art is to create a window that offers a view to the essential elements of what it means to be human while at the same time removing the sense that there is a window then, at the very least, “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” musically achieves that major artistic intention.
Two of those boys, Duane and Berry, once burned with wide eyed enthusiasm under that pale moonlight, unaware that they were standing on the precipice of musical greatness. Just like Elizabeth probably felt when she left her home for Wesleyan College, they were brimming with excitement over the possibilities that life offered. And just like Elizabeth they now rest in peace at Rose Hill Cemetery. Their memory serves as a reminder, like the tombstone of Elizabeth Reed, of the steady march of time and the fleeting moment that is life.
Gravesite of Elizabeth Reed in Rosehill Cemetery