Holding a single blooming rose, a haunting memorial to a little girl has become part of Southern rock folklore
By Travis Fain
Telegraph Staff Writer
10 November 2003, Macon Telegraph
Copyright (c) 2003 Macon Telegraph. All rights reserved.
Little Martha’s death is not her own.
The Southern myths of rock adopted her long ago, bringing pilgrims to her feet bearing flowers for a stone hand soft from the lichen underneath. She stares up the slopes of Rose Hill Cemetery, her eyes always locked, her lips forever pursed in a silent little frown.
If you stare at her long enough, Martha looks devastatingly sad.
This is her story, a story about a girl who died a month before her 13th birthday.
It’s also about drugs and death and music, and how a little girl got mixed in with all that some 70 years after her death, all because of a song that seems to bear her name.
But mostly about a girl who died in 1896.
Love personified Martha Ellis was born in 1883, the youngest of Theodore and Eugenia Ellis’ seven children. Presumably, she was named for her grandmother, listed as Martha J. Gray Ellis on a family tree at the Washington Memorial Library.
Martha’s tombstone calls her “Our Baby” and bears a 4-foot statue of a little girl holding a single blooming rose.
“She was love personified and her memory is a sweet solace by day and pleasant dreams by night to Mamma, Papa, brothers and sisters,” the stone reads. “We will meet again in the sweet bye and bye.”
Her obituary ran 34 words and Martha’s funeral, like her father’s, was held at the family home, a fine house on College Street.
“Miss Ellis was only 13 years old,” the coverage read, “but she had a large number of friends and admirers, who deeply mourn her loss.”
According to records, Martha died of peritonitis, an inflammation of tissue in the abdomen caused by naturally occurring bacteria that typically escape the body’s organs through a tear. The condition can be treated by antibiotics, but those didn’t come into general use until the 1930s.
Judging from descriptions of the disease, Martha’s death was a painful one. That she had it is about the only record of her life.
Martha has at least this: a line in the city’s ledger of deaths, a worn-out old book kept at the county health department. She has her newspaper obituary and another 76 words’ coverage of her funeral.
Apparently no birth certificate exists, and Georgia law didn’t require them until 1919.
She has this beautifully carved tombstone, which puts her birth 12 years and 11 months before the day she died: Jan. 18, 1896.
The ledger moves her death a day to Jan. 17. It gives her age as 13.
She has one more thing: a sweet little tune that may well have had no connection to her when Duane Allman recorded it in 1971, but undoubtedly does today.
‘Cosmic conjecture’ In the volumes written about The Allman Brothers Band, little is written about “Little Martha,” the last track from the Brothers’ fourth album. A short and wordless tune, it weaves acoustic tones from Duane’s and Dickey Betts’ guitars. At the same time, the song is sad and happy.
Like so many things about The Allman Brothers Band, its genesis is twinged in sorrow and uncertainty.
The band’s management has often said the song has no relation to Martha Ellis’ grave despite coincidence connecting statue and song.
Marty Willett, who founded the Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association, a fan group, sees a connection, but he got a letter from the band years ago to clarify “factual misconceptions” about the song. It was written for a woman Duane was involved with nicknamed Little Martha, the letter states.
“Any inference or similarity of an inscription on a statue in Rose Hill is merely a coincidence,” the letter reads, “or cosmic conjecture.”
Martha’s gravestone is 896 steps away from the band’s old house at 309 College St., where band members lived together and slept on mattresses strewn across the floor. That house is about a block from the site of Martha’s family home.
The statue also is in a natural walking line from the Brothers’ house to the gravestone of Elizabeth Reed, namesake of another wordless Allman Brothers tune, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Like Duane, Dickey wrote that song for a woman he wouldn’t name in writing.
There’s a story that Duane wrote “Little Martha” after Jimi Hendrix came to him in a dream and played the song on a hotel faucet. But who can say where a song comes from?
Candace Oakley, sister of Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley, believes the tune was in Duane’s head long before the Hendrix dream. She said there’s a little girl buried in Martha’s grave, not a song.
Still, fans visit Martha’s grave with flowers, treating her with something approaching reverence, although something knocked her over earlier this year.
“(The song’s) definitely related to the statue,” said Chank Middleton, who met the Brothers while shining shoes at the barbershop next to their studio in 1969. “Ain’t no doubt.”
Others close to the band essentially said there’s no way you take drugs in Rose Hill as many times as Duane and the rest of the Brothers did and not end up seeing Martha.
“There was something about that statue that really attracted everybody,” said Middleton.
He still sees Duane’s brother, Gregg Allman, but messages sent through him and current band manager Bert Holman about the song were not returned. Other members of the original band also didn’t return messages. They’ve said their part.
“I can tell you the answer,” Willett said. “All of the above. … Little Martha has become such an enigma, she’s still so precious to Allman Brothers fans.”
‘The road goes on forever’ Every story needs a back story, and the subtext here is one band’s insoluble connection to Macon. The saga of The Allman Brothers Band is a long and convoluted one, reaching back almost 35 years and continuing to this day.
Martha’s story is but a little part, like her life itself.
To start with, she was in the ground more than 50 years before Duane and Gregg Allman were born in Nashville, Tenn.
The brothers moved around, then came here with the blues, Duane first to stay in 1969. Phil Walden was starting Capricorn Records in a music town and wanted to bring Duane in with a band.
Duane went to Jacksonville, Fla., with Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johnson, who signed on to play the drums.
They picked up Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley. Oakley played the bass, and if Duane was the blues, Dickey was country and western. Their two guitar jams would be the bedrock of the band.
They added Butch Trucks and a second set of drums. Gregg came back from Los Angeles and the band cut a record, self-titled ‘The Allman Brothers Band.’ Suddenly they were inventing Southern rock ‘n’ roll. Like Elvis, if he’d been a hippie.
And then the blues came true.
Duane died Oct. 29, 1971. He laid down a motorcycle near the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Bartlett Street in Macon. The band hadn’t yet finished “Eat a Peach,” which was released a year later, “dedicated to a Brother.”
“Little Martha” makes up the last two minutes and seven seconds of that record.
A year and 13 days after Duane’s death, Berry wrecked his motorcycle a few blocks from Duane’s accident. They put them in the ground together, side by side in a secluded Rose Hill valley, not far from Martha.
Berry’s tombstone bears an Allman Brothers lyric: “… And the road goes on forever…”
Duane’s has been quoted many times.
“I love being alive and I will be the best man I possibly can. I will take love wherever I find it and offer it to everyone who will take it … seek knowledge from those wiser and teach those who wish to learn from me.”
They put the notes to “Little Martha” on Duane’s headstone, too.
470 College Street Martha’s father was a Civil War veteran and a druggist like his father. He was important enough that his death in 1923 was front page news for The Macon Telegraph.
Her brother Curran designed the county courthouse and Luther Williams Field while brother Roland became a state senator and president of the Georgia Bar Association.
Again, both men’s deaths would be front-page news, Roland in part because he put a bullet in his head at the age of 61.
Martha had another brother, Theodore Jr., and three sisters who never married and lived in Macon all their lives, mostly at the family’s home at 470 College St. Theodore and Roland had children, but one line is buried in Rose Hill. A search for the other goes cold after two generations.
Today, not even the family home is left.
That place where so many generations lived, where a little girl died, where so much of her family lay in state, it did not rest easy.
Larry Herring lives on the south side of Macon now, but lived in Martha’s old house in the early 1960s. Pictures of people Herring never knew lined the walls, and ghosts crept through the wooden beams.
“You couldn’t sleep,” said Herring, 62. “You’d lay down at night and shut the door, and it’d be open in the morning.”
The house itself died in 1963, when embers from a Wesleyan College fire took it and most of its neighbors up in flames. There’s a parking lot there now, and Washington Park next door, much like it was when Martha was alive.
Mulberry Street still slopes steeply from the old frontage of Martha’s house. It would have made good sledding when a big snow hit Macon in January 1893.
Martha would have been 10.
Loose ends There’s still a living trace of the Ellis clan in Macon. Joe League lives in Shirley Hills and always understood himself to be related to the Ellis family through his mother – Ellamae Ellis League, a prominent local architect much like Martha’s brother Curran.
The family trees available don’t list the same names, but it seems likely League’s side branched off before Martha was born.
League believes his great-grandfather was a brother of Martha’s grandfather, William Ellis. League’s great-uncle, John Ellis, is the Ellis in Porter-Ellis Community Center in southern Bibb County.
Macon has a Mayor Jack Ellis, but the mayor said through a spokesman that he’s not related to this particular Ellis family.
League, 82, has visited Martha’s grave site twice since being contacted by The Telegraph.
He’d never seen it before. He took a picture of her statue with a deep blue sky.
“Beautiful,” he said.
To contact Travis Fain, call 744-4213 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.