By Colin Woodward
Last month, I saw Randy Newman perform with the Conway Symphony Orchestra at the University of Central Arkansas. I’ve always liked Randy Newman. If you know anything about music, chances are you can name at least one of his songs. I recall hearing “I Love L.A.,” which came out around the time I first remember listening to music, back in the early 1980s.
In Conway, Newman didn’t mess around. He played his “best of,” which covered floods, bad love, the slave trade, genocide, communism, child murder, and kinky sex. The usual. What does it say about me that one of my heroes is a cranky, mumbly piano-player in his 70s that I’ve never met? Not sure. I like Americans who go against the grain. And besides, loving old men is the way entertainment goes these days. Our senior musicians endure, while our young athletes and others fade away.
Newman is known for his caustic, acerbic wit and a tendency to offend. The singer got flak for his 1977 hit “Short People,” which was written purely as a goof. Newman had no idea how vocal and bitter the short people lobby was. In Conway, Newman was in classic form. He made a joke about American Sniper and how dumb his sons were in comparison with his daughter. He also called Little Rock a “dump.” Was he kidding about Little Rock? You’re never sure with Newman.
Years ago, one moment endeared me to Newman. When he finally won an Oscar in 2002 for “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. (after losing on many other occasions), he told the crowd, “I don’t need your pity.” He then chastised the Academy Awards’ orchestra for trying to cut him off during his speech. He told them they were being “rude.” It was one of Newman’s best moments.
One reason I’ve liked Newman is not just because his songs are funny, but because history plays such a prominent role in his work. Newman was born in Los Angeles and has been there most of his life, but he lived in New Orleans for a while as a kid, and he has family with southern roots. His penchant for southern history is most pronounced on 1974’s Good Old Boys, a concept album about the South, with several songs about Louisiana and the bizarre governorship of Huey “Kingfish” Long in the 1920s and 1930s.
Newman hasn’t been afraid to tackle a subject as tricky or as touchy as race in America. Good Old Boys opens with “Rednecks,” a song inspired by the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox. “Rednecks” is the only song I have ever heard by a mainstream singer than uses the word “nigger” (the only other one I can think of is John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World”).
We got no-neck oil men from Texas
Good ol’ boys from Tennessee
College men from LSU
Went in dumb, come out dumb, too
Hustling ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Getting drunk every weekend at a barbecue
They’re keeping the niggers down
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
We’re keeping the niggers down
Newman, of course, is not promoting racism, but satirizing it. And in “Rednecks,” he skewers northern and southern racism, saying that northern blacks were “free to be put in a cage” in places like West and South Chicago, Harlem, Filmore in San Francisco, and Roxbury in Boston. Racism, Newman, makes clear, is an American problem, not just a southern one.
Needless to say, “Rednecks” did not make the Top 40. And Newman did not play it in Conway. Newman did, however, play several tunes from Good Old Boys, including the moving “Louisiana, 1927,” about the horrible Mississippi River flood of that year.
What is happening down here is that winds have changed
Clouds moved in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard and for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
The song might have seemed a novelty in 1974, but it became eerily current after Katrina hit in August 2005. Newman’s Good Old Boys made numerous references to depression era figures, but its better songs, such as “Back on My Feet Again” could’ve been about making it in the recession-plagued 1970s, or the early 2010s for that matter. In plumbing the depths of American history, Newman has unearthed the everyday.
Newman has sung about historical topics outside the South, too. His terrific 1999 album Bad Love is something of a history lesson. It opens with the line “let’s go back to yesterday/when a phone call cost a dime.” “The Great Nations of Europe” examines the explorers who conquered North America and decimated the native populations. Heavy stuff, and not the type of material most songwriters would want to tackle. But, it’s the kind of song Randy Newman has liked to write throughout his entire career. He is the closest thing to an endowed professor of history that American pop music has produced.
In Conway, Newman joked about how “In Germany before the War” should have been a hit, though the song’s subject–a child killer living in Nazi Germany–was unfit for mass airplay. Hearing it last month made me a little uncomfortable. And yet, the song is not at all explicit. It is disturbing because of what it suggests.
On a lighter note, “Life Just Isn’t Fair,” about Karl Marx and the failures of communism to combat human nature, also graced Newman’s album Bad Love. “Life” was inspired by a trip to Newman’s school, where “froggish men, unpleasant to see” were alongside “all the young mommies.” The point: ugly, rich men can get the girl. And really, what better motivator is there for men to succeed?
Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, even though his music rarely can be considered “rock.” More appropriately, I think he should be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the American Historical Association or the Southern Historical Association.
As Americans, we are products of our history. And few songwriters understand that better than Randy Newman.
Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.