The Carroll County Accident on the Tallahatchie Bridge

the Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia

By Wes Clark


To understand this article you first have to be familiar with three songs, for which lyrics are posted below.



(Bob Ferguson)
(c) '68 Warden Music

From "Carroll County Accident," by Porter Wagoner (c) 1969, RCA

Carroll County's pointed out as kinda square.
The biggest thing that happens is the county fair.
I guess that's why it seems like such a big event,
What we all call the Carroll County accident.
The wreck was on the highway just inside the line.
Walter Browning lost his life and for a time,
It seemed that Mary Ellen Jones would surely die.
But she lived long enough for her to testify.
Walter Browning was a happy married man,
And he wore a golden wedding ring upon his hand.
But it was gone nobody knew just where it went;
He lost it in the Carroll County accident.
Mary Ellen testified he flagged her down,
Said he was sick and could she drive him into town.
No one even doubted what she said was true,
'Cause she was well respected in the county, too.
I went down to see the wreck like all the rest,
The bloody seats, the broken glass, the tangled mess.
But I found something no one else had even seen,
Behind the dash in Mary's crumpled up machine,
A little matchbox circled by a rubber band.
And inside the ring from Walter Browning's hand.
It took a while to figure out just what it meant,
The truth about the Carroll County accident.
By dark of night I dropped the ring into a well,
And took a sacred oath that I would never tell,
The truth about the Carroll County accident.
'Cause the county ordered dad a marble monument,
I lost him in the Carroll County accident.


(Bobbie Gentry)
(c) Northridge Music Company / Universal MCA Publishing.
From "Ode To Billy Joe," Bobby Gentry, (c) 1967, Capitol.

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out chopping cotton and my brother was baling hay.
And at dinnertime we stopped and walked back to the house to eat.
And Mama hollered out the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet,"
And then she said "I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge,"
"Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas:
"Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please."
"There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow."
And Mama said it was a shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.
Seems like nothing ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe,
Had put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn't I talking to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie; you know it don't seem right.
"I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
"And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

And Mama said to me: "Child, what's happened to your appetite?
"I've been cooking all morning and you haven't touched a single bite.
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way.
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge.
"And she and Billy Joe was throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

A year has come and gone since we heard the news 'bout Billy Joe,
And brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going 'round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring.
And now Mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge.
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.


(Bobby Russell)
(c) Pixruss Music
From " The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," Vicki Lawrence, (c) 1973, Bell Records.

He was on his way home from Candletop,
He was 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."
He said "How. What's doin'?"
Wo said: "Sit down, I got some bad news and 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."
Now he got mad, and he saw red.
Andy said: "Boy, don't you lose your head,
"'Cos to tell you the truth, I been with her myself."

That's the night that 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.
'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 musta left town,
So he went home and finally found,
The only thing Daddy had left him, and that was a gun.

He went off to Andy's house,
Slippin' through the back woods quiet as a mouse.
Came upon some tracks too small for Andy to make.
He looked through the screen at the back porch door,
Saw old Andy there lyin' on the floor,
In a puddle of blood, and he started to shake.

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 at 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."

That's the night that 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.
'Cos the judge in the town's got bloodstains on his hands.

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.
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.

That's the night that 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.
'Cos the judge in the town's got bloodstains on his hands.

That's the night that 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.
'Cos the judge in the town's got bloodstains on his hands.


I don't consider myself especially stupid. Sure, it sometimes takes me a while to catch on to certain kinds of things (like calculus, which troubled me in college), but when it comes to the arts, I think I'm pretty sharp.


I listen to classical music a lot and have become adept at picking up subtleties and nuances. In Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, for instance, there's a scene where the heroine, Marie, seems distracted. For a brief moment the orchestra plays a distorted version of a march theme associated with a Drum Major whom Marie admired from a window. Clearly, Berg means to impart that Marie is becoming obsessed with the Drum Major. (She later has a disastrous affair with him.)


And in Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner, I quickly understood and appreciated all the little cinematic hints that Deckard, himself, may be a replicant - one of the biologically engineered beings he hunts down and kills.


Don McLean's song American Pie is replete with interesting commentary about popular music - all of which I can pick up and figure out for myself. (That is, once I actually stopped to listen to the lyrics and figured out that it wasn't about the American Civil War, which was my original understanding of the song! I got hung up on that "This'll be the day that I die" part.)


The odd thing about me is that when it comes to the Country-Western ballad I'm totally lost. And that's where Carroll County Accident, Ode to Billy Joe and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia come in.


The first song of this trilogy I had heard was the Ode to Billy Joe, which was a hit for Bobby Gentry in 1967, when I was eleven. The lyrics completely mystified me. What was thrown off the bridge? And why? I didn't find out until after I had married my dear wife Cari, in 1980. A sharp person herself, a constant reader and a former disk jockey at a radio station, Cari understood popular music. Being female, she also understands human interrelations far better than I do.


Cari's sister had seen a movie adaptation of the song that explained the mystery: Billy Joe MacAllister was a self-repressed homosexual, and leapt to his death out of shame and frustration.


Or something like that. I don't know if that's what Bobby Gentry intended - the lyrics are pretty abstruse. I assume that, because she's the songwriter and presumably owns the rights to the song, that she was consulted by the filmmakers and approved of the plot.


Vicki Lawrence had a hit with The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia in 1973, not long after American Pie arrived to befuddle me. At the time I was seventeen, and trying to wrap my brain about who did what to whom and why the lights went out, puzzled me. I figured the reason why the lights went out (which I assumed was the most important part of the song), was because somebody was electrocuted for murder in a place in the American South served by a rickety power grid. It was only until Cari, exasperated, pointed out the key lyric "Little sister don't miss when she aims her gun" that the figurative lights came on for me. Duh.


Carroll County Accident I have never heard; I came across it when I did an article about the amazing LP cover art of Porter Wagoner not long ago. What caused my interest was visual: Who is this man with the sculpted hair and the outlandish wagon wheels on his jacket, why is the camera angle so odd, and why is sweat streaming down his face? Is he watching the Carroll County Accident? Or does he know it's about to happen? Or, worst of all, did he cause it? Intrigued, I did some searching on the Internet and came across yet another puzzling, subtle set of lyrics - which I printed out and took home for Cari's analysis and explanation.


Ohhh... I see. Walter Browning and Mary Ellen Jones were having an affair! And Porter Wagoner, after expending some sweat thinking about it, saw no reason to tarnish the posthumous reputations of anyone and disposed of the ring. (Where it was retrieved by Smeagol, who became Gollum, and...)


I don't recall exactly when we first started having our discussions about the meaning of Country-Western ballads, but Cari was (and is) mystified at how dense I could be. "Oh, for crying out loud, Wes!" was (and is) a constant cry. Being somewhat perverse by nature, I find the whole thing amusing. So, naturally, to tease my wife I sometimes inject the topic into completely unrelated conversations about people:


Cari: "Wes, we've had this conversation before; she's the friend of my cousin, who had the kid with the eye problem. Remember? She was in a car wreck?"

Me: "On the Tallahatchie Bridge?"


Cari, you see, has a stunning capacity for remembering the details associated with other people's lives. As for me, I'm an engineer. When it comes to most people-details, it goes in one ear and out the other. Perhaps that's why I have problems with song lyrics in the first place.


My wife might disagree, but this whole matter has had the odd effect of enriching our married life somewhat. After all, when people stop communicating, they grow apart. And even an argument is still conversation. (Not the preferred means of communication, I know.) I was amazed to discover that, when Dad died, after 25+ years of married life where they constantly bickered and argued, Mom had all the usual signs of grief and heartbreak. She had actually loved him.


So every time the subject of song lyrics in songs comes up between Cari and me, I smile. As we are rapidly becoming empty-nesters and the topics of conversation are less centered around the logistics of raising kids, this can be expected to happen more often. I suppose it would be a good thing for our marriage if I became less of a tease.


Or perhaps not.



NOTE: Cari didn't pick up on the fact that, according to Bobby Gentry, the Tallahatchie Bridge is in Carroll County. (Where Porter Wagoner's accident took place?) Ah... but which Carroll County? Doing a quick search on the Internet, I see Carroll Counties in Iowa, Maryland, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia (where the lights went out). Possibly other states, as well. However, since the Tallahatchie Bridge is in Mississippi, Bobby Gentry must be talking about that state - her state of birth, as it turns out.


By the way, there is no Candletop, Georgia, which is mentioned in Vicki Lawrence's song. If there were, I feel certain it would be in Carroll County, Georgia.


Trivia from Avocado Memories reader Ken Denney! From "The country song Carroll County Accident, a hit for and now one of the signature songs of Porter Wagoner, was written by noted country songwriter Bob Ferguson when he passed through Carroll County when driving from Nashville to Memphis on U.S. Highway 70." So Porter's Carroll County is in the Volunteer State.


Lastly, I'd like to see a show where Bobby Gentry, Vicki Lawrence and Porter Wagoner get together to panel a discussion about obscure Southern car accidents and homicide cases...


Additional info from Internet correspondant William Scott Lincoln: "I happened to brush past your site when I was looking for information about the song "Ode to Billy Joe." Just thought I'd point out that I found out that the event probably didn't take place in Carroll County, Mississippi. The Tallahatchie River doesn't run through there. It runs down into the delta region of Mississippi south of Sardis, MS. I also found a site that has a scan of an old map of that county, where the separation between the delta lowlands and the highlands to the east was once known as Choctaw Ridge. So where the river comes down from the highlands would be where the song is describing."

Postscript by Wes, 7/26/06: I just listened to Herman's Hermit's "Henry the Eighth." I just realized that the reason why he's the eighth is because the widow's been married seven times before (I always misheard it as "several.") So he's the eighth husband - therefore, Henry the Eighth. Since 1965 I thought the song was about the historical character Henry VIII - I obviously didn't bother listening to the lyrics.

Isn't pop music swell?


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