Well, it’s me again, since Pete, the co-blogger with whom I ordinarily alternate, has apparently been eaten by wolves. So I thought I’d write about this little story song from 1972. People were suckers for story songs about then, and when Vicki Lawrence — at the time a member of the cast of the insanely popular Carol Burnett Show — for some reason decided to take a shot at pop stardom, she released this:
The lights go out link for the e-mail people.
And it was quite a hit, heard just everywhere for months on end, and Vicki performed it with her clipped little voice on all the variety and daytime shows there were. And there was debate, lots and lots of debate, on the exact details of the plot. Many people said it didn’t make sense, and indeed, superficially it doesn’t. But once you realize that one of the characters is the perhaps the most openly sociopathic figure in any song of the ’70s, it all comes together.
“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is about a sordid little incident in a small Southern town. A nameless young man has come home after a two-week trip, and stops at a local bar to have a drink. There he meets a friend, Andy Wolo, who gives him the bad news that his wife isn’t home and has, in fact, been “seein’ that Amos boy, Seth.” The young man “got mad, and he saw red,” but Andy advises him to calm down, and then reassures him that his young wife gets around a bit anyway and this is nothing new: “To tell you the truth, I been with her myself.”
Andy soon gets scared and decides to walk home, while Nameless, now designated “Brother,” also goes home, thinking his wife must have skipped town with Seth, and grabs “the only thing Daddy had left him, and that was a gun.” Then he heads off to Andy’s house, for reasons that are not given, but there doesn’t seem any really not-sinister reason for him to bring a gun on this particular errand. In any event, while on the way, he sees footprints too small to be Andy’s. “Aha!” we, and presumably Brother, think, though the lyrics don’t spell this out: “The wife!”
But when Bro reaches Andy’s house, somebody has already shot and killed him. And then, winding up a brief but consequential string of bad decisions, Brother sees the “Georgia Patrol,” which is to say state troopers, driving by and “fires a shot just to flag them down.” He is successful, alas, and a sheriff — what the sheriff is doing driving around with state troopers is not clear, but apparently the songwriter just couldn’t resist the “big-bellied sheriff” cliche, even at the expense of technical accuracy — takes the gun away and jumps to the conclusion that Brother is Andy’s killer. With very little further ado, Bro is convicted and executed. The narrator is outraged (though Vicki only sounds mildly irritated).
That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia
That’s the night that they hung an innocent man
Don’t trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer
Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hands
And then, at last, the key to all is revealed.
They hung my brother before I could say
The tracks he saw while on his way
To Andy’s house and back that night were mine (That’s a continuity error; Brother never started back from Andy’s house.)
And his cheatin’ wife never left town
And that’s one body that’ll never be found
You see, little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun
See, Little Sister was the narrator all along. She was evidently somewhere in the bar, listening in on Brother’s conversation with Andy, and she ran ahead to do away with the poor dope. And sometime during Bro’s trip out of town, she killed his wife and hid the body. (No word on Seth from the first verse, but his prospects aren’t looking too bright.) She was apparently present at her brother’s arrest as well. And yet she was helpless to stop his quick trial and execution, poor girl. Such a dreadful miscarriage of justice. It all happened so fast. Those terrible, backward Southerners.
By way of explaining how things happened so quickly, some have suggested the song is about a lynching, but that doesn’t hold up. Though Brother is said to have been hanged, the image of the lights going out or dimming is associated with state-ordered executions, and the song’s theme is clearly judicial murder, not mob violence. And in any case, rural Georgia in the 1970s is an extremely unlikely setting for the lynching of a man accused of killing his adulterous wife’s boyfriend, particularly given that the song specifies that Andy was not a well-liked man. Assuming everyone involved is white — and all indications, including a trial, no matter how perfunctory, suggest this is the case — this is no lynching.
Indeed, despite her protest that Brother was hanged before she could say she was the killer, Sister appears to have had several opportunities to speak up — including, of course, at the arrest. Even if she wasn’t present, she certainly heard about it from her brother afterward, which would have been another chance to tell the truth. The specifics she gives in her account of the arrest, including dialogue, admit no other possibilities.
And didn’t Sister tell us that her brother had a lawyer at his trial? So he did last however long it took to obtain counsel, albeit (seemingly) incompetent counsel. And Sister specifically quotes the heartless judge at the trial, in an aside to the sheriff, as he justifies his quick decision with “Supper’s waiting at home, and I’ve gotta get to it.” That is hardly the sort of thing that makes it into the official record, so Sister must have attended the trial as well. And still, she didn’t speak up.
Sister’s entire narrative is a condemnation of a terrible, corrupt justice system. But what did they actually do that was so wrong? They arrested a man who was literally holding a smoking gun, standing next to the newly killed corpse of one of his wife’s boyfriends. (I think we have to assume that the boyfriend angle was mentioned during the trial, either as motive or as mitigating circumstance, no matter how incapable the counsel.) And pretty much everything in Brother’s behavior before the crime seems to indicate his guilt. There’s his enraged response to Andy, his going home specifically to retrieve a gun, his heading off to seek out Andy at his house — it all looks exactly like planned, premeditated murder.
Sure, the authorities were mistaken, but it seems like a more than reasonable error, given that Little Sister, the only person who knew what really happened, declined to turn herself in and clear her brother despite the fact that she clearly had multiple opportunities to do so. Instead, she is outraged that the authorities did not conduct the complete investigation that would have resulted in justice, which is to say her own arrest and possible execution for two murders.
Instead, she allows her blunder in killing Andy while her brother was on his way to the house, and his ill-advised decision to fire that shot, to determine the fate of her hapless sibling. That is an interesting notion of family loyalty: to kill two people out of outrage on her brother’s behalf, then let him take the fall for one of the killings.
So Little Sister here is persuaded of the rightness of her own actions, dramatically vilifies the police, lawyer, and judge for not acting on information they did not have and that only she could have provided, and takes not the slightest responsibility for a disaster for which she is virtually 100 percent culpable. And even if we take her word for it that somehow the trial and execution were conducted so quickly that she had absolutely no chance to speak up earlier, she has not only failed to clear her brother’s name in death, she hasn’t turned herself in for the murder of the wife, and in fact seems pretty proud of how cleverly she pulled that off.
As I said above: sociopath.