Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It Was the Sister!

I’d like to present a song that, perhaps more than just about any other, warrants a closer look: “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” Yes, it’s country. Yes, as a rule, country sucks. However, this song was first performed in an era where a lot of country was good, enjoyed mainstream success and shared a lot of style with the soul and rock music of the day. Often, a song could easily be placed in any of the three categories.

People most likely peg “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” as out-and-out country probably because the cover version by Reba Macentire seems to be more familiar than the original by Vicki Lawrence. I vastly prefer Lawrence’s take. Since this is one of those sings that tells a story — again, like a lot of great country of the era did — Lawrence’s restrained voice works a lot better than Macentire’s big, brash vocals. True, both singers have red hair, but the fact that Lawrence considered this hit song a career high despite starring on “The Carol Burnett Show” and, later, “Mama’s Family” makes it all the more worthwhile to note.
He was on his way home from Candletop,
Okay, so he’s returning from “Candletop,” which I’d imagine is an area in Georgia between Moonshine Valley and Curly, Curly Piggy Tail. I’d always heard the lyric as “Canada,” but I guess that seems off, in retrospect.

Been two weeks gone, and he’d thought he’d stop,
At Web’s and have him a drink ’fore he went home to her.
Andy Wo-lo said: “Hello.”
Andy who? I honestly can’t make out what is spoken here, by either Vicki or Reba. Various results for lyric searches on Google give me “Andy Warlow,” “Andy Wadlow,” “Andy Woelow,” “Andy Wallow,” and, perhaps with the least chance of being correct, “Andy Warlord.” Also, Andy works at a bar called “Web’s,” but I’m certain his last name isn’t “Web.” And most confusingly, the narrator refers to him with the unlikely nickname of “Wo” two lines after the character is introduced.
He said “Hi. What’s doin’?”
Wo said: “Sit down, I got some bad news — it’s gonna hurt.”
He said: “I’m your best friend, and you know that’s right,
“But your young bride ain’t home tonight.
Since you been gone, she’s been seeing that Amos boy, Seth.”
I’m totally unclear whether Andy’s explaining that the wife is fooling around with a man named Seth Amos or he’s telling the protagonist — whose name is Seth — that she’s been fooling around with “that Amos boy.”
Now he got mad, and he saw red.
Andy said: “Boy, don’t you lose your head,
’Cos to tell you the truth, I’ve been with her myself.”
Awkward, Andy. Also awkward: the abbreviation of “because” to one syllable. I just stuck with “cos” with the apostrophe in front of it since that at least looked better than “cuz.” Technically, the apostrophe doesn’t even need to be there, since “cos” isn’t technically a contraction for anything.
That’s the night that the lights went out in Georgia.
That’s the night that they hung an innocent man.
Well, don’t trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer.
’Cos the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hands.

Well Andy got scared, and left the bar,
Walkin’ on home, ’cos he didn’t live far.
You see, Andy didn’t have many friends,
And he just lost him one.
Brother thought his wife must have left town,
So he went home and finally found,
The only thing Papa had left him — and that was a gun.
I’m honestly confused as to why the main character would just assume his wife would have left town, for whatever reason, but whatever — it advances the plot by giving him to go home and play with this heirloom revolver he apparently has.
He went off to Andy’s house,
Slippin’ through the backwoods quiet as a mouse.
Came upon some tracks too small for Andy to make.
A clue!
He looked through the screen at the back porch door,
And he saw Andy lyin’ on the floor
In a puddle of blood and he started to shake.
I'm assuming it's the main character who's shaking and not the newly dead Andy, though from the context you really can't tell. Damn pronouns.
Georgia patrol was making their rounds,
So he fired a shot just to flag them down.
A big-bellied sheriff grabbed his gun and said “Why’d you do it?”

Judge said guilty on a make-believe trial,
Slapped the sheriff on the back with a smile,
And said: “Supper’s waitin’ at home, and I gotta get to it.”
Well, they hung my brother before I could say
Okay, so the narrator isn’t just some random person. She has a personal relation to the main character. Interesting that we don’t get that until the end of the song. And wait — they hung the brother? For whatever reason, I just assumed that the brother got the electric chair and his electrocution was the reason the nights went out in the entire state. You know, because the whole of Georgia only has enough power to operate one electrical appliance at a time.
The tracks he saw while on his way
To Andy’s house and back that night were mine.
And his cheatin’ wife had never left town,
That’s one body that’ll never be found.
You see, little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun.
I love this. The narrator, whom we have just assumed is some nameless storyteller is actually an active participant in the story. The murderer, no less. But seriously? He was tried, convicted and hanged — not "hung," as the lyrics erroneously state — before she could do anything about it? Seems odd. She was probably busy killing every other person in town.
So that’s it.

This is a great song, and I’ve been thinking about it more closely than probably anybody else I know ever would ever since I saw that scene in “Resevoir Dogs” where Nice Guy Eddie mentions having listened to the song and then finally realizing that Vicki Lawrence is the killer. I’m just honestly impressed that such a story could be compacted so neatly into a three-minute song. Seriously, this song has more characters than books I’ve read:
  • the main character
  • his sister, the narrator and murderer.
  • Andy Whatever-His-Last-Name-Is, the ill-fated bartender
  • the whore of a wife
  • that Amos boy, Seth
  • the backwoods southern lawyer the protagonist apparently entrusted himself to
  • “Papa,” the father of the protagonist and the narrator
  • the big-bellied sheriff
And so few pop songs have twist endings nowadays. The idea that she’d murder Andy on the same night as her brother would come home, only moments after Andy confronted him is odd, I’ll admit. Beyond that, I’m not entirely clear as to why she’s killing people. If most people were going to confront a adulterous sister-in-law, they’d probably just talk about it over coffee or, at the very least, yell “Whore!” as they passed her on the street or something. Maybe the sister is just psychotic. That would explain a lot.

Anyway, I like this song. I enjoy that it’s more complex than an episode of “Law & Order.” I like that it’s ambiguous, even if part of that ambiguity means not explaining exactly why the lights went off. And most of all, I like Vicki Lawrence. This whole mess would have made an excellent series finale to “Mama’s Family.” Kristy McNichol actually starred in a 1981 film called “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” but, as the Wikipedia explains it, the plot bears little resemblance to the song. That’s probably a good thing, since I’d imagine most people would have realized that the sister is the killer during the period the song was a number-one hit — April of 1973, right between Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and Tony Orlando’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” I might as well note that adapting songs into movies was also a trend during that has long-since vanished. Two other popular country songs from the same time as “Georgie” — Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” — fared considerably better.

And you know what? I just figured it out — the lights went out in Georgia because the batshit-crazy sister killed them too.


  1. I fell for this song some days ago and been listening to it in the car. However I have had a problem understanding it. If that is due to my bad English knowledge or something else I don't know but your analyse of it sure cleared things out, thanks!

    However Andy can be the bartender, but I don't think he is, just a visitor to the bar the "he" or "the brother" knew. Also, in contrast to you I like Reba's version more than Vicki's.

    Regards from Sweden

  2. Reba's video provides an explanation for why the narrator killed Andy and the whore of a wife: Andy was her fiance, and she caught them together. Killed the wife, disposed of the body, killed Andy and got caught by her brother before she could dispose of his body. Her brother went along with the sham of a trial to protect his sister, and the judge went along with it because he was sleeping with the whore too and didn't want that to come out during the trial.

  3. Good commentary, funny.
    And yeah, Amos gets away with sleeping with the wife while everyone else dies?