Hidden between darkly comic ditties and romantic ballads, Newman delivers an excoriating critique of racism in America
Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show/ With some smart-ass New York Jew And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox/ And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
These are the opening lines to Randy Newman’s cuttingly satirical song, Rednecks, the first song on his magnificent 1974 album Good Old Boys. I knew Newman had a reputation for satirical song writing before he became 'the Pixar guy', but I still was unsure what to expect from the album. When I first heard it, I wasn’t fully concentrating on the lyrics, and I didn’t understand it. Why was Newman, a Jew, taking an antisemitic perspective? And who was Lester Maddox? A closer listen (and a quick Google search) answered both of those questions. Lester Maddox was a racist segregationist Governor of Georgia, and further listening reveals that the song is from the perspective of a Southerner. This character narrating the song takes umbrage at the disrespect shown to Maddox (“he may be a fool but he’s our fool,” sings Newman, the echoes of which can be heard by fervent Trump supporters), and decides to write a rebuttal. What follows is a clever subversion of expectations. The Southern narrator initially goes on to list the following stereotypes of Southerners.
We talk real funny down here/ We drink too much and we laugh too loud We're too dumb to make it in no Northern town/ And we're keepin' the n*****s down
It should be noted that the first use of the racial slur is so shocking and jarring especially when contrasted with the jolly music. He continues:
We got no necked oilmen from Texas/And good ol' boys from Tennessee And college men from LSU/ Went in dumb, come out dumb too Hustlin' 'round Atlanta in their alligator shoes/ Gettin' drunk every weekend at the barbecues And they're keepin' the n*****s down
Up to this point, it seems like Newman’s narrator is inviting you to agree with those stereotypes of brash, uncouth, racist Southerners, and that the narrator will defy your expectations. The shocking use of a racial slur seems to indicate this interpretation, up to this point in the song. But then, the chorus follows, and we discover that he’s a redneck and proud; happy to be whatever stereotype you wish to assign him, and more than happy to be known to be “keeping the n*****s down”. Suddenly, the song takes a very different, deeply unsettling tone. I should add that this is combined with the catchiest, jingliest piano Newman has ever recorded, a sharp change in tone from the sombre opening verse. There is musical irony, as the happy backing track contrasts with the objectively reprehensible view being taken by the narrator, and it is startling. The catchiness and simplicity of the chorus makes the point that racism is literally catchy, or at least easily transmitted when hidden in plain sight, like it is here.
"American racism is Newman’s target here, and he’s using a racist Southerner’s perspective to skewer it."
Just from this, we’re to assume that Newman is writing a song about how Southerners are ignorant, racist and proud. This is hardly an interesting or novel observation. However, the final verse puts things into stark perspective. The narrator then turns his knife to the hypocrisy of the Northern United States. This is first indicated by the line “Now your Northern n*****’s a negro/You see he's got his dignity”. By switching from the hugely offensive n****r to the marginally less offensive negro, he’s indicating that black people in the Northern United States might have it better, but only slightly, and the Northerners hate and subjugate black people just as much, they’re just more subtle about it. He goes on:
Down here we're too ignorant to realize/That the North has set the n***** free
Yes he's free to be put in a cage/In Harlem in New York City And he's free to be put in a cage/On the South Side of Chicago, and the West Side…
..And he's free to be put in a cage/In Roxbury in Boston They're gatherin' 'em up from miles around/Keepin' the n*****s down
Here is Newman at his most brilliant. His narrator has turned the song from a simple condemnation of the rednecks, a condemnation brought upon himself simply by elaborating his perspective, to condemning the entire United States for ensuring that black people are located in places with poor conditions, in what have become to be known as ghettoes. I didn’t list all the ones he mentions in the song, for the sake of brevity, but the musical repetition here of the ironic refrain “and he’s free to be put in a cage in…” highlights the devastating nature of institutional racism as well. It makes it abundantly clear that this isn’t confined to just one city or state – it’s all of them, everywhere. American racism is Newman’s target here, and he’s using a racist Southerner’s perspective to skewer it. By allowing us to condemn his narrator in the first few verses, his sudden heel face turn to attack Northern hypocrisy and complicity in racism makes it all the more effective, as we can’t argue with his point that the North is just as racist, but in a different way. It’s a song that makes us think about the United States in less concrete terms. It might be easy to think of the South as racist and the North as much less racist, I know I’ve been guilty of that, but the song makes it clear that this is not the case. Racism in all its forms, whether it’s the more easily noticeable racism found in the South, where they might use racial slurs and be more open in their hatred, or the more subtle, deniable racism that is nonetheless hugely damaging and cruel here identified with the North is what Newman is attacking. The last chorus Newman sings after this verse suddenly takes on a different tone. Now, the redneck label is applied to both Southerners and Northerners alike.
This is also where the album format comes into its best use. The following song Birmingham is, on the face of it, a simple paean to a city in the South where the narrator is from. However, listening to it after we’ve just heard the racist perspective of the titular redneck, the song takes on a deeply sinister undertone that recalls Birmingham’s central role in the civil rights campaigns of the 50s and 60’s and the brutally violent reprisals that it incurred from the Ku Klux Klan. The narrator’s uncritical and deeply simplistic love of his home city can be taken at face value, but in the context of the album, I think that is to ignore its placing, and the slow, brooding, melancholic mood to the song.
One of the most frightening things about Newman’s album is how prescient it sadly remains. You not only have to look at the protests of the last month over the murder of George Floyd, in which the the aforementioned final chorus where it’s implied “we’re rednecks” applies to all of white America, but it’s also to be found in other songs, like Louisiana 1927, Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man), and Kingfish.
Louisiana 1927 ostensibly tells the tale of the Great Mississippi Flood of the same year, but it’s really a song about a government simply not caring about poor people suffering in a national disaster. This sense is conveyed through the chorus, a repeated refrain of “they’re trying to wash us away”, but then confirmed in the final verse where the narrator recounts that President Coolidge comes to visit those affected by the destruction, but all he can muster to say is “isn’t that a shame/what the river has done to this poor cracker’s land”. The use of the disparaging term cracker here highlights Coolidge’s, and by extension the political elite’s disdain for the poor rural working classes. The song ends with a final chorus and notably without any record of what Coolidge will do to help. The real-life response to the flood was notoriously slow and ill-prepared, and ultimately lacking, especially as the majority of those worst affected were black. It’s no surprise then that a cover version of this song by Aaron Neville has since begun to symbolise the American government’s similarly poor response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Government inaction in the face of natural disasters when the people affected aren’t the social group in power is still a problem, as similarities are also able to be drawn with the recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico, and Trump’s slow and completely inadequate response to the tragedy, and his comparatively quick response to the hurricane in Texas. Newman, in choosing to sing about a tragic event from 1927, has created a song that is still sadly relevant to this day, nearly 100 years later.
Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man) is a song specifically about Richard Nixon, but once again, it can be widened out to be reflective of any President or political leader. The opening lines “we’ve taken all you’ve given/it’s getting hard to make a living” kindly ask for this President to “have pity on the working man”, reflecting the optimism and cautious hope at the start of any recently elected politician’s term. Through the course of the song, the narrator’s reasons for the President to have pity on them get starker and starker, eventually stating “it is cold and the wind is blowing/we need something to keep us going”, a particularly bleak statement of how bad things are getting. It finally ends with the bitter disappointment and hatred many feel when a politician fails to fulfil their promises. The song ends on the following lyrics that I would like to quote in full:
Maybe you're cheatin'/Maybe you're lyin' Maybe you have lost your mind/Maybe you only think about yourself
Too late to run, too late to cry now/The time has come for us to say good-bye now Mr. President, have pity on the working man
By the end of the song, we’ve come full circle, and now the narrator is open in his contempt for the old, outgoing President as they welcome the new one with the same message. There are specific digs at Nixon and his vile debasement of the presidential office due to his mendacity and paranoia, but in those final lines the song becomes about being ignored, denigrated and outright disdained by politicians. Listening to it in 2020, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Rust Belt voters in America, many of whom voted for Obama, then voting for Trump in 2016 citing alleged economic anxieties. I imagined how they must have felt dismayed by the closure of coal mines and the signing of free trade deals that they perceived to have taken jobs away, and how that anger was harnessed by Trump’s racist and divisive campaign. This obviously was not in Newman’s mind when writing, but that’s where the cleverness of the writing allows us to bring our own interpretations to the song. The raw anger many people feel at being “left behind” by politicians is very strongly felt, and often politicians all over the world can tap into it in the basest of ways, but as the song implies, the cycle will always continue, electing new people into office who still won’t solve the problems, if they even bother to try to do so.
Newman also touches upon populism in the last explicitly political song on the album, Kingfish, a song specifically about the left-wing firebrand Louisiana governor and senator, Huey Long (Kingfish was his nickname). It is another that has political significance in the modern day. The short song before it named Every Man A King is an excerpt of one of his speeches outlining his political philosophy set to music. It’s the most throwaway and unnecessary part of the album, as Kingfish itself does a good enough job of getting across the sense of Long’s politics, but it’s short and kind of fun. Long is a politician who came to power by playing on poor people’s sense of being underappreciated and underrepresented by focusing his rhetoric against the rich French elite of Louisiana. This kind of populism has become a recurring feature of many democracies around the world, from America, where Bernie Sanders can be seen as a spiritual successor to Long or to right-wing populists, who implement the same kind of political attacks on elites, but from a different perspective. Newman here is broadly favourable to Long, and the song lists some of his achievements, but there’s a nuance here too.
Though this blog is focused mainly on the political side of Randy Newman’s song writing, I would be remiss not to mention the other songs on the album. There are also songs like Naked Man, Rollin, Back on My Feet Again, A Wedding in Cherokee County, Guilty and Marie, which aren’t political but can broadly be put into two categories: the darkly comic songs and the dark love songs. Naked Man is an enjoyable silly ditty that touches on disturbing topics such as incest, and Back on My Feet Again is told from the perspective of a man trying to convince his psychiatrist to let him out of the asylum. It’s another one of the darkly comic ones, as within it he tells a rather strange story about his sister running off with “a negro from the Eastern shore”, who then reveals himself to be a white millionaire attempting to find a woman who would love him for who he is and not his money. Again, through an adopted warped perspective, we see Newman’s critique here of white society, as he is clearly implying that for a rich white man, the worst thing to be in America is black. A Wedding in Cherokee County is a sardonic song about a man who is to be married to a woman who hates him, and on their wedding night, laughs at his penis. They don’t all have to be slickly satirical, I guess.
Both Marie and Guilty are love songs sung from the point of view of inadequate, drunken men to their spouses whom they mistreat. They’re very good songs, with an underlying menace to them that marks them out from the usual slew of love ballads. Rollin’ is the only other one that doesn’t fit into either category, as it’s more of a song about a man deciding he’s happy with his rather inadequate lot in life, and in that sense has more in common thematically with Birmingham, which also touches upon those themes.
Newman’s song writing on Good Old Boys, whether it’s political or it’s comedic or it’s romantic, is always extremely well-written enough for it to include many different perspectives on what they may mean. These are just my thoughts on the album and what the political statements being made are. Part of his excellence is that they are open to interpretation. He writes songs with such precision and clarity that the longest song lasts three minutes and 22 seconds. The album as a whole lasts for 33 minutes, minus the demo of Marie. In that short time, he says more than most musicians manage to say in several albums. Newman’s sharp satirical mind elevates the simplistic music of the album. This isn’t an album where the music is astonishing, or the singing is incredible, but rather it’s the lyrics where it shines, and how those lyrics juxtapose with musically unusual backing tracks. Compare other songs about racism with Rednecks, like Southern Man, by Neil Young. Southern Man is led by rocking guitars and has an appropriately apocalyptic tone that suits the heavy subject matter. It’s a great song, but it’s straightforward in its condemnation. Randy takes the road less travelled. Take the lyrics away from Rednecks and it sounds like a Pixar theme song, and yet it adds so much to the song by giving a musical irony. By taking the racist or otherwise unusual perspectives as he does and writing songs in that vein, he creates an ironic detachment to the song and gives it a complexity and nuance, which we can then analyse on several levels – what the narrator is trying to say, and what Newman is trying to say, and what the music itself is trying to tell us too, and above all, it remains sadly relevant to this day. For me, that’s the genius of Randy Newman.