Monday, August 25, 2008

Shedding some light on "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia"

Living the life of the modestly trafficked pop culture blogger isn't all glamor and champagne. With such privileged influence over the numerous handfuls of people that stumble across my little patch of the web everyday to read my irregularly posted entries, I have a duty to go beyond mere amusement. Along with the usual entertainment, I still have an obligation to educate; to use these fantastic modern instruments of communication to continue the noble tradition of informing one's fellow man that dates as far back as the invention of the printing press. With the internet revolution bringing with it the astounding ability to communicate with the world beyond the historical boundaries of space and time, I would be remiss to not utilize this Promethean gift of fire to occasionally provide some form of informative enlightenment.

That is why, as a public service to you the reader and the internet a whole I am going to finally sit down and attempt to clarify, to the best of my abilities, the storyline to "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia".

Given its difficulty I can kind of understand how, after allowing it to reign the top of the billboard charts for a week, the American record buying public quickly ran to replace it with the mellow, uncomplicated narrative of Tony Orlando and Dawn's "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" for four long, confusion free, weeks. Since its release in 1972, this incredibly complex tale of Southern fried murder has baffled an entire generation of pop music fans (including the late Chris Penn). With its slew of twists and crosses and unreliable narrators all amazingly packed into a brief three and a half minutes, it makes fellow number one hit tales like "Ode to Billie Joe" and "Harper Valley PTA" as simple and vanilla as the ABCs.

Having seen for yourself the challenging nature of the song, imagine how disheartened I was to learn that there has yet to be any definitive academic literature on the subject. The 1981 synonymously titled film, despite being star studded (Kristy McNichol? Dennis Quaid? Mark Hamill?!) shares little to no plot elements with the song and thus fairly useless. Vicki Lawrence, meanwhile, has moved on with her career and has remained apparently silent on the whole issue (certainly not returning my calls).

Despite the lack of sources for primary and secondary information, I will still attempt to methodically separate the deeply tangled threads of this tune, using only my skills of deduction and the personal familiarity one gets from having listened to it about ten times more than the average person over the years.

Let the mystery begin:

He was on his way home from Candletop
Been two weeks gone and he thought he'd stop
At William's and have him a drink 'fore he went home to her

A crucial step in getting the song is realizing off the bat who the narrator is and who the protagonist is. For now we don't know who's telling the story (it'll be a lot more important later on in the story) and our protagonist remains nameless. He won't remain nameless for the rest of the song so we'll just call him Mr X for now. So at the start, Mr. X has returned home from a two week trip to Candletop and decided to go to a bar (William's) for a drink before returning home to his wife.

Andy Wolloe said "Hello"
And he said "Hi, what's doin', Wo?"
"Seth, 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 seein' that Amos boy, Seth "

Our protagonist (now named Seth) has met a new character Andy who is his best friend. Andy will now start the main crux of the story by revealing to his friend Seth that Seth's Wife (note it's another new character) had not been faithful while he was away. He reveals that she has been seeing Amos. At this point it's standard soap opera fare: Seth's best friend Andy tells Seth that his Wife has been cheating on him with Amos. Now this explosive but simple scenario is further complicated by another bombshell revelation by Andy.

Well, he got mad 'n' he saw red and Andy said "Boy, don'tcha lose your head"
" 'cause to tell ya the truth, I been with her myself"

Right before the chorus bursts out Andy reveals that HE HAS BEEN SLEEPING WITH SETH'S WIFE! A lot of people also get fairly confused at this point since Andy's actions seem to make no logical sense at all. Andy's just told his best friend that his wife has been cheating on him, notices that he's becomes incredibly angry, and then proceeds to further tell him that he has cheated with his wife was well. Whatever feelings you may have for Andy have to admire his brutal level of honesty and candor with his best friend Seth.

Well, Andy got scared and left the bar
Walkin' on home 'cause he didn't live far
See, Andy didn't have many friends and he'd just lost him one

The focus of the song has now shifted from the original protagonist Seth to Andy. The camera now follows Andy after his outrageous confessional to Seth. He now heads home, friendless and scared. Note that we are never told what Seth's reaction to Andy's confession is. We can only assume that there was so much tension they just parted ways without any notable fisticuffs.

Brother thought his wife musta left town
So he went home and finally found
The only thing Papa had left him, that was a gun

The camera now shifts back to Seth in a series of critically important verses. While the focus may be on the startling action of Seth getting a gun from his home, take note of that clue laden first line. The narrator calls Seth “brother” giving a hint as to their relationship with the protagonist. Also note that the wife is currently missing when Seth returns home to retrieve his gun.

And he went off to Andy's house
A'skippin' through the backwoods quiet as a mouse
Came upon some tracks too small for Andy to make

The plot begins to thicken even more into a delicious Hitchcockian mold of gelatin. Seth now armed with a gun arrives at Andy’s house for what mysterious purposes? And who could have made those tracks indicating someone had arrived prior to Seth’s arrival? The smaller size of the tracks could indicate a possible female character perhaps?

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

Bombshell number two! Andy is now DEAD! But who killed him? Could it have been whoever left the tracks previously? Could it be the suddenly missing wife? Or Amos? Or perhaps another figure altogether? The song has now completely flipped the audience’s expectations by turning the possible murderer Seth into possibly another helpless victim.

Well, the Georgia Patrol was a'makin' their rounds
So he fired a shot just to flag 'em down
And a big-bellied sheriff got his gun and said "why'dya do it?"

So at this point Seth is wrongfully arrested for the murder of his best friend, who be may have been intending to kill in the first place. Meanwhile the real killer still remains free to terrorize the rest of Georgia.

And the judge said "Guilty" in a make-believe trial
And slapped the sheriff on the back with a smile
Said' supper's waitin' at home and I gotta get to it"

As it turns out Seth does not get an opportunity to pull a Richard Kimble and locate the small footed individual that framed him for murder and is railroaded by the crooked Georgian judicial system. Was this a possible reference to the then recent Supreme Court decision of Furman v. Georgia where it was found that Georgia’s inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violated the 8th and 14 amendments and constituted cruel and unusual punishment? I wouldn’t put it past the song.

Well, 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

Bombshell number three! The narrator who has been telling the whole story was indeed the sister of Seth! It was her tracks that were found by Seth at Andy’s house and it was she who killed Andy. However her twisted revenge plot inadvertently framed her own brother for murder and led to his innocent execution (I’m going to have to declare that mission a bit of a failure). But what about Seth’s missing wife?

And his cheatin' wife had never left town
And that's one body that'll never be found
See, little sister don't miss when she aims her gun

Yes that’s right, don’t fuck with the narrator! Not only did she kill Andy, she also murdered her brother Seth’s Wife who cheated with Andy. However, unlike with Andy she was a lot more careful in disposing of the body and evidence. While the question of the murders have been answered, many other questions still abound. What sort of sick, possibly incestuous relationship did Seth have with his sister that caused her to use such deadly force? And how lucky is Amos for getting out of all this apparently alive?


  1. Love it, Victor. Your arcane pop culture minutiae blogging knows no bounds. If I had come across just the title of the post without seeing it came from you, I probably could have identified you as the author just from the WTF factor.

    But it's a very insightful analysis. I hesitate to even admit it, but I found a terrible/great karaoke video to go with the song.

  2. Sweet video.

    I think the cardinal question every professional karaoke video director asks themselves before starting production is: "How can I interpret the song as literally as possible on a budget of $50?"