Gaining An Audience’s Sympathy Poorly—The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia

“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is a song sung by Vicki Lawrence, released in 1972. It’s a story song, telling the tale of how a nameless man was wrongfully executed for a crime he did not commit. I first heard the song when I was a young child. My mother had a CD titled “Suddenly Seventies,” and we would often listen to it on my way to school. There were many songs on it, some that I’m still fond of, and others that I’m not. This particular song was one that I was always confused by. My mom liked it well enough, singing along to it whenever it would play. Now that I’m an adult and I hear it every once and a while, it always rubs me the wrong way, similarly to how it did in my youth. The song isn’t awful, I just feel like it misses the mark in a few key places, and I want to finally put it out there why I think that is.

To summarize the song for the uninitiated:  The singer’s brother (who is not named) was out of town. When he came back, his best friend Andy informed him that his wife cheated on him, and Andy himself slept with her. The brother takes his gun to go to Andy’s house and finds Andy dead. He is arrested and found guilty of murder. In the final verse, the singer reveals that she killed Andy and the wife.

It’s a pretty simple story, and the song’s intent is to portray it as a tragedy, which is the obvious choice to make here. However, I feel as if the way the song goes about trying to demonstrate this fact is all wrong. This is, I believe, what has always bugged me about the song. It goes out of its way to say that the court and all in it were faulty for believing him to be guilty. In fact, the chorus of the song highlights this concept: “Well don’t trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer / ‘Cause the judge in town’s got bloodstains on his hands.” It portrays the judge as flippant and uncaring: “The judge said ‘guilty’ in a make-believe trial / Slapped the sheriff on the back with a smile / Said, ‘Supper’s waiting at home and I got to get to it.’”

I’ve always felt like this was the wrong angle to go from. For a story where you want to garner the audience’s sympathy in which the trial itself is crooked, it needs to be proven that the defendant could not or would not have done the deed and was found guilty anyway. The best popular example I can think of to demonstrate this idea is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In it, Tom Robinson is accused of raping a woman and beating her, despite the fact that his arm is crippled, and thus he would have been unable to bruise her in the way she was bruised. He was still found guilty by the jury because he was Black. This is the type of story you need to impact the audience and demonstrate how terribly unjust the system is.

Instead, what we have as an audience is a great many facts that seem to point out that it, while still incorrect, could easily seem to lead to the idea that the brother killed Andy. First, he went to Andy’s house uninvited with a gun (the song is quiet about whether he was actually going to kill Andy, but it seems obvious that was the plan). Andy slept with his wife, which would give ample motive. Third, when the brother finds Andy’s body he shoots his gun in the air to “flag down” the police. This means that his gun was recently fired, and the sheriff heard him shooting the gun. There was no one else around at the time. All of the evidence leads to the brother being the killer. Despite how adamant the narrator is that the judge and lawyers were crooked, no evidence of this claim is ever presented. This makes all the insistence on this being why the story is tragic fall flat to me.

I still think the song as an air of tragedy to it. There’s a lot of dramatic irony in the fact that the sister kills the wife and Andy and ends up getting her brother hanged for it. The song doesn’t focus on this aspect though. It doesn’t call attention to how the brother felt when being wrongfully accused, or anything that would allow the character and situation to receive a sympathetic heart from the audience. I feel that it’s so painfully off the mark on what it’s focusing on that it really detracts from the overall impact of the story.

There’s a similar song, Tom Jones’ “Delilah,” which despite having a morally worse protagonist is able to present its story more sympathetically. “Delilah” is about a man who see’s his love (the titular Delilah) have sex with another man, and he kills her over it. Even though the guy here is guilty of the crime and the brother in “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is not, I’ve always felt worse for the singer of “Delilah.” The song is told from his perspective, for one thing. The specifics of the story are left purposefully vague (it doesn’t even specify the singer’s relationship to Delilah), which allows the audience to interpret it in a more positive light. The lyrics aren’t as literal, allowing for more flowery and emotionally resounding sentiments. Instead of the blunt “’Cause to tell you the truth, I’ve been with her myself’” from “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Delilah” has “I saw the flickering shadows of love on her blind.” It focuses solely on the turmoil the singer is going through, which means that the audience, while not approving of what he did, is more sympathetic and understanding of why he did it.

So, the bulk of the story’s presentation has always been flawed in my eyes. But I can’t discuss this song without the last verse. Narratively, it’s a very good ending to the song’s story. It’s a satisfying twist that reveals the sister as the one who left the footprints mentioned earlier in the story, and that explains what happened to Andy and the wife. I also think it’s very cool to have the narrator secretly be a character within the story; something that happens very rarely in story songs like this. That being said, I’ve never been quite sure what I’m supposed to be feeling because of this reveal. The last lines of the song before going back to the chorus are: “And his cheating 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.” It sounds as if it’s meant to come across as a moment of triumph, maybe? Almost like an action hero one-liner. The singer seems proud of what she’s done. If that is the intention of the line, I think it does a bad job of proving her case. Murder is hardly an equivalent-level punishment for cheating, and her actions have directly caused her brother to die, so I don’t think she should be particularly pleased with what she’s done.

You would think that after the revelation that the narrator is responsible for her brother’s death there would be some self-reflection or something, but the song instead goes straight back to the chorus blaming the legal system. It’s possible that this is, in fact, the intention of the song: to have an unreliable narrator attempt to cast guilt off of herself as she tries her hardest to tell herself she’s not to blame for what has transpired. And while this is an interesting interpretation, I really find it hard to believe that this is an intentional aspect of the piece. The song’s big hook and its rise to fame, as I understand it, was the admittedly interesting twist about who the killer is. I doubt that there’s a bigger twist in there about the killer also being wracked with guilt to the point of delusion.

So that about sums it up. That’s basically what I’ve always felt about “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” The song made it to number one and charted decently well again in the nineties when Reba McIntyre covered it, so I’m willing to bet that there’s a large number of people out there who disagree with my sentiments on the song. That’s fine, I’m not out here to claim my opinions are the only ones that matter; you’re still allowed to enjoy what you enjoy. I mean, it’s not like the song has any major grammatical errors that irk me to the point that even if I thought the rest of the song was perfect it would make the song less enjoyable for me. Oh, wait… the first two lines of the chorus are “That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia / That’s the night they hung an innocent man.” The proper grammatical way to speak about a hanging in the past tense is ‘hanged,’ not ‘hung!’ Solely because of this and no other reason, I decree the song an abomination and anybody who likes it to be equally as such. Lackluster story-telling I can forgive, but commonly used grammar mistakes are inexcusable.

Gaining An Audience’s Sympathy Poorly—The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.