“I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things” Tom Waits.

For me there is no more powerful Tom Waits song than Georgia Lee, a song from his 1999 CD Mule Variations, which is arguably his finest CD. The song very nearly was dropped from the CD, but Wait’s teenage daughter apparently convinced him to include the song.

Written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan the song tells the true story of 12 year old Georgia Lee Moses, whose body was found off of Highway 101 just north of San Francisco in 1997. Her murderer was never caught.

I always find the song deeply affecting, like no other song. It is a combination of the tragic story, the stark instrumentation, Waits and Brennan’s haunting lyrics and Waits’s remarkable vocal delivery. And it is a song that asks profound political and spiritual questions.

The extract below is from a piece I wrote about the song in September 2009.

Tom Waits’s 1999 CD Mule Variations is one of those CD’s that I play over and over. It is an album of songs of such richness and depth about human experience, human frailty and human suffering, all sung and played with the unique style, voice, originality and musicality that is a feature of Waits body of work.
One song is perhaps the most startling, achingly sad and affecting songs I have heard. The slow ballad Georgie Lee tells the true story of a 12 year old girl who was found murdered by the side of the road near Waits home (the full story behind the events that inspired the song and its creation and subsequent events can be found here).

The song begins:

Cold was the night and hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
And lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She’s too young to be out on the street

In the chorus that follows and is repeated through the song Waits poses the unanswerable question

[Chorus]
Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?

Georgia Lee is a despairing song of desolation, but one of such compassion- for the young girl, for her mother, and for all of us who witness and feel suffering in the world and ask ourselves how can that be. Waits’s work is infused with compassion. In all his songs there is such compassion for his characters
But here is Waits’s genius. It is also a song of contemplation about some of the eternal mysteries- if god exists why does he allow such terrible things to happen? How are we all implicated in the death of a child? How could “we” allow this to happen?

Georgia Lee

Cold was the night and hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
And lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She’s too young to be out on the street
Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
for Georgia Lee?
Ida said she couldn’t keep Georgia from dropping out of school
I was doing the best that I could
Oh, but she just kept running away from this world
These children are so hard to raise good
Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
for Georgia Lee?
Close your eyes and count to ten
I will go and hide but then
Be sure to find me, I want you to find me
And we’ll play all over
We’ll play all over
We’ll play all over
again
There’s a toad in the witch grass, there’s a crow in the corn
Wild flowers on a cross by the road
And somewhere a baby is crying for her mom
As the hills turn from green back to gold
Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
for Georgia Lee?
Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
for Georgia Lee?

Written by: Tom Waits and Kathleen Waits-Brennan
Published by: Jalma Music (ASCAP), © 1999
Official release: Mule Variations, Anti Inc., 1999
Arrangements and lyrics published in “Tom Waits – Mule Variations” (Amsco Publications, 2000)