Deep Cuts: Randy Newman "Rednecks" (1974)

Share this:

by Pico

This isn’t a song about amazing muscianship, surprising chord changes or nifty little hooks. Rather, it’s a tribute to the power of lyrics.

Of all the Great American Songwriters of our time, Randy Newman is perhaps the only one who could be considered a continuation of the line of classic songwriters from before our time. His deft combination of Broadway show tunes with contemporary pop follows a similar prescription for success enjoyed by Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein and George Gershwin.

And while I’m generally not the biggest fan of the albums under his own name, the dude was on a certifiable roll in the early seventies. Sail Away and Good Old Boys together make an unbeatable one-two punch in the history of popular music.

Even when Newman wasn’t writing for movies or plays, as when he focused more on being a successful professional songwriter in his early years, the character sketches he always thrived on combined with traditional pop structures made it each song seem as if it was meant for one. The words conjures up vivid imagery and bashed up against the lush orchestration that often accompanies his tunes gets an imaginary movie playing in your head.

What really gets the songs to demand attention, though, are the way he paints those characters. He can write a real pretty love song but he’s more inclined not to elicit any sympathy from listeners; Newman is more interested in creating flawed, unseemly personalities doing unsavory things in order to make a statement on the duplicity and greed of modern society. And often, he does so by drawing historical references, as he was trying to do (I think) with “Louisiana 1927.”

As a result, Newman’s heavily sarcastic wit was often sharper than a brand new ice pick. Sometimes, though, he missed the mark to those only casually paying attention, as what happened back in left field hit of 1978 “Short People,” a dig at bigotry that got confused for bigotry itself. But that wasn’t the first time he took on the cause of pointing out the folly of racism.

In fact, “Short People” was pretty tame compared to “Rednecks,” the song that first appeared at the beginning of the Southern-themed Good Old Boys.

The song was inspired by an episode on the Dick Cavett show Newman watched that had the just-elected governor of Georgia Lester Maddox on as a guest. Without making this too much of a history lesson in Southern politics, Maddox had a reputation as a segregationist that he was trying to shake off. Cavett didn’t seem to let him. Maddox got mad and walked off the show.

That got Newman inspired to write a song about racism against African-Americans, narrating from the point of view of a “redneck,” and even opens the song stating why he wrote it:

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.
Well, he may be a fool but he’s our fool
If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that’s where I made this song

Randy Newman has always loved to use ridicule to make a point and judging from much of the song he seems to be ridiculing Southerners. But what he’s really doing here is ridiculing Northerners who ridicule Southerners through use of double sarcasm when he sings that “Negros” are…

to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago, the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
They’re gatherin’ ’em up from miles around
Keepin’ the niggers down

It’s not all that hard to understand where Newman was coming from when you consider that Newman himself is a native Southerner, born and raised in New Orleans. He doesn’t like what he’s seen from his fellow Southerners, but he doesn’t like what he sees as hypocrisy, either.

The venom Newman spews is not sugar-coated, but it is softened by being wrapped in clever satire. The colorful language warbled by Newman is contrasted by the vaudevillian arrangement and the pedal steel in the chorus used to underscore the narrator’s hillbilly sensibilities. His thinking man’s rants aren’t some gimmick, it’s just his trademark, and when it works as it does here, it’s genius.

And what did Lester Maddox himself think of Newman’s opening lines to the song? He was said to be offended most of all to Newman’s rude reference to a Jewish man. Newman himself, incidentally, is of Jewish ancestry.

Listen: Randy Newman “Rednecks”

Purchase: Randy Newman – Good Old Boys

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

Latest posts by S. Victor Aaron (see all)

Share this:
Close