This song is about the murder of 12-year-old Georgia Lee Moses. She disappeared August 13, 1997, and was found dead August 22 near a Petaluma, California, onramp. Her killer wasn't found; it's assumed she ran away and fell into bad company.
While much of Mule Variations is composed of abstract lyrics and sounds, "Georgia Lee" tells Moses' story in a rather direct manner. The chorus asks the haunting questions:
Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?
Moses' story affected Waits deeply. An LA Weekly interview from 1999 described Waits stopping at a roadside shrine that had been set up for Moses.
"Not to make it a racial matter," Waits is quoted in that interview, "but it was one of those things where, you know, she's a black kid, and when it comes to missing children and unsolved crimes, a lot of it has to do with timing, or publicity... and there was this whole Polly Klaas Foundation up here, while Georgia Lee did not get any real attention. And I wanted to write a song about it. At one point I wasn't going to put it on the record, there were too many songs. But my daughter said, 'Gee, that would really be sad - she gets killed and not remembered and somebody writes a song about it and doesn't put it on the record.' I didn't want to be a part of that."
The opening line ("Cold was the night and hard was the ground") harks to Blind Willie Johnson's song of the same name. The Johnson song doesn't ever say those words, or anything else, as it's a succession of pained hums and moans sung over guitar.