You know, not every post here at the Runes has to shine the mini-flashlight of truth on the self-righteous, the self-important, the self-deluded, and the self-goofy. We don’t always have to pick on the warmongers, the Pharisees, the pretend-ignorants, or the Poor Dope and his poor dopey sycophants.
Sometimes it’s enough to look at a moment in America’s cultural past and say “What in the hell was that all about?”
I’m referring, as of course you know, to the song “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” a number-one hit written by Bobby Russell and recorded by Vicki Lawrence back in 1973.
Nothing against Vicki Lawrence, mind you. In fact it’s fair to say that I had quite a crush on her back in the heyday of “The Carol Burnett Show,” and so when she hit the top of the record charts I was happy for her.
But I heard the song on the radio this week, and I thought: “Man. That’s one dumb song.”
If you don’t remember “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” it’s kind of a Southern Gothic murder ballad about a guy who’s executed for a murder committed by his sister. A person could write a pretty good song about a guy who’s executed for a murder committed by his sister, and by good I don’t mean sell-a-million-records good but sensible-lyrics-with-internal-logic good. The Vicki Lawrence version is the former.
The song starts out with a fellow named Seth, who’s back in his Georgia hometown after two weeks away. Instead of heading straight home to see his “young bride,” he stops at a bar and meets up with his best friend Andy, who regretfully informs him that his wife has been cheating with a boy named Amos. (I love the fact that Amos and Andy can make it into a song that takes place in Georgia in 1973.)
Seth gets upset at this news, but Andy isn’t smart enough to know when to quit. For some bizarre reason he goes on to say “To tell you the truth, I’ve been with her myself.” Short of actually describing the sex acts he performed with Seth’s wife, I’m not sure Andy could have said anything stupider to a man who has just learned his wife is cheating on him. How did he expect Seth to respond? “Thanks, Andy—I feel a lot better knowing my wife slept with more than one person while I was away. Here’s your medal for honesty.”
In the next verse, “Andy got scared and left the bar,” possibly because he realized no medal for honesty was forthcoming. Seth heads home to an empty house and finds the only thing his Papa had left him: a gun. Next thing you know he’s on his way to Andy’s house, located in the backwoods. There’s a-gonna be a shootin’—except that when Seth arrives and looks in the back door, he finds Andy already “lyin’ there in a puddle of blood.” Someone has already knocked off Andy.
Now here’s where it gets even farther off track. Here’s where Seth shows that Andy didn’t have the corner on stupidity in that neck of the woods: “Now the Georgia Patrol was makin’ the rounds, so he fired a shot just to flag ‘em down.”
He fired a shot? To attract state troopers to a crime scene?! Nice move there, Einstein.
But even after firing his misguided shot, Seth still should have had time to get the hell out of there. First off, imagine the Georgia Patrolmen, making the rounds in their state trooper car, undoubtedly with a pretty large region to cover. A shot is fired and they miraculously hear it over their George Jones 8-track and official state police radio. The only explanation for what happens next is that one of the troopers must be some sort of robotic cop with a prototype global positioning system implanted in his head: “That shot could only have come from Stupid Andy’s place in the backwoods!”
The police arrive at the scene and find Andy dead and Seth holding a gun. The next line is “A big-bellied sheriff grabbed his gun and said ‘Why’d you do it?’” (I think it would have been funny is the line had been “A big-bellied sheriff grabbed his gun and said ‘Damn, that’s still hot.’”) There’s a trial, but it’s a sham: The judge is in a hurry to get home to supper, so he finds Seth guilty and sets the execution date for the next day or the very near future. Only then do we find out that the narrator of the song is Seth’s little sister, and that she has killed not only Andy but her cheating sister-in-law. As she puts it, “Little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun.”
Now, I suppose it’s possible that the sister used the very gun Seth had inherited from their father, which would explain why Seth’s lawyer didn’t introduce any ballistics evidence in the trial. But there’s hardly any way to read or hear these lyrics without coming to the conclusion that the little sister is a freakin’ psychopath. First off, she had to know that when a man who’s been cheating with another man’s wife is found dead, there’s one obvious suspect the police would look for first, if, of course, he hadn’t been dumb enough to be standing around the murder scene holding a smoking gun. She set her brother up like a bottle of grape Nehi.
Second, she claims in the last verse that “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.” Oh, really? They hung him that quickly, did they? What were you doing, sleeping in? Were you going over sketch ideas with Harvey Korman? Did you get lost on the way to the courthouse? I’d say there was plenty of time for the little sister to confess if she wanted to.
But she didn’t want to. She had the taste for blood after she killed Seth’s wife and noted “That’s one body that’ll never be found.” It’s possible she hid the body in the backwoods, but I think she ate it.
By the way, while the title of the song is “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and while the first line of the chorus is “That’s the night that the lights went out in Georgia,” at no time in any of the verses do any lights actually go out in Georgia.