Highbrows, Hillbillies, and Hellfire
Public Entertainment in Atlanta, 1880–1930

Steve Goodson

A lively portrait of a southern boomtown in search of fun-and itself


"In this well-written treatment, the author manages to maintain the multiple levels of perspective, never letting anecdote, colorful characters, or scandal—all part of the story—deviate from the chronological momentum."
Bloomsbury Review

"An engaging social history of a city forever torn between boosterism and insecurity, between progress and provincialism."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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From the end of Reconstruction to the eve of the Great Depression, Atlanta was the New South's "Gate City." Steve Goodson's social and cultural history looks at the variety of public amusements available to Atlantans of the day, including theater, vaudeville, dime museums, movies, radio, and classical, blues, and country music. Revealed in the ways its people embraced or condemned everything from burlesque to opera is an Atlanta unsure of its identity and acutely sensitive of its image in the eyes of the nation.

While the general populace hungered for novelty and diversion, middle-class Atlantans, white and black, saw entertainment as a source of--or threat to--status and respectability. Goodson traces the roots of this tension to the city's rapid and problematic growth, its uncomfortably diverse population, and its multiplying ties to national markets. At the same time he portrays some lively individuals who shaped Atlanta's entertainment scene. Among them are impresario Laurent DeGive, tightrope walker Professor Leon, patent-medicine salesman Yellowstone Kit, country music great Fiddlin' John Carson, and blues legends Bessie Smith and Blind Willie McTell. Goodson also brings alive the atmosphere of such venues as DeGive's resplendent Grand Opera House, George Johnson's tacky Museum of Living Wonders, the pioneering Trocadero vaudeville house, and the notorious 81 Theater on Decatur Street, an avenue whose decadent promise rivaled that of Beale in Memphis and Bourbon in New Orleans. Milestone trends and events are also showcased: performances of the play Uncle Tom's Cabin and showings of the film Birth of a Nation, visits by the Metropolitan Opera Company, the debate over Sunday entertainment, the beginning of broadcasts by "The Voice of the South"--radio station WSB--and the rise of Atlanta as the earliest capital of country and blues recording.

Accepted historical views of public entertainment in America suggest that ethnicity and class would be the most pronounced forces shaping this aspect of Atlanta's popular culture. Goodson finds, however, that race and evangelical Christianity also heavily influenced the circumstances in which Atlantans went about their fun. With implications for the entire urban South, this is an engaging look at how and why its major city once grasped at sophistication and progress with one hand while pushing it away with the other.

Page count: 272 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9

Read more about Atlanta at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.


List price: $29.95

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Steve Goodson is an associate professor of history at the State University of West Georgia.