Friday, May 13, 2011

Randy Newman on The River: From The Kingfish to "Treme"

News and video about the  flooding of the Mighty Mississip sent me to the vault for my favorite Randy Newman songs and I came away with several thoughts:  How prescient he was back in the early 1970s; how many of his themes still resonate today.

It begins with "Louisiana 1927" (the year of the record flood that prompted fifty years of levee building).

What has happened down here is the winds have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it starts to rain
Rained real hard and for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline. 

No one blamed Global Warming then but that was about the time, Henry Ford was putting a car in every garage.
How about this from "Kingfish:"

Who took on the Standard Oil men
And whipped their ass
Just like he promised to do?

Does that remind you of any recent Congressional hearings?

Randy's  biting classic, "Rednecks" begins with seeing Lester Maddox (ax handles for sale at the front door and former Georgia governor) and ends with the rousing chorus:
We' re Rednecks, We're Rednecks
And we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
We're Rednecks, We're Rednecks
And we're keeping the niggers down.

I'll leave it to your imagination as to which part of the political spectrum would fit that label today. In between this anti-hymn to southerners is Newman's scathing indictment of the plight of the Northern "Negro" who is free to be put in a cage in Harlem, south Chicago, east St. Louis, Hough, Fillmore and Roxbury.

The writers on HBO's Treme gave a nod to this song by referring to the local boys:
(We got) college men from LSU. Went in dumb. Come out dumb too! Well at least they can play football.

The tunes of the seventies about the times of the thirties bear a scary resemblance to the prospects of the twenty-teens.
I know it may sound funny
But people here are running out of money
We just can't make it by ourself
It is cold and the wind is blowing
We need something to keep us going
Mr. President have pity on the working man.

Some liner notes on this album:  Ry Cooder plays electric guitar, Russ Titelman electric bass and Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Bernie Leadon provide background vocals.

Randy Newman was born with a musical silver spoon in his mouth (his uncles included Hollywood film-score composers, Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman) but few in tinsel town have done as much with their musical genes as Randy has.  Not only has he won five Grammys, three Emmys and two Oscars (while being nominated 20 times!) he is an official Disney Legend.  While you probably won't find his albums on sale in The Magic Kingdom gift shops, they should be required listening for every poly sci 101 course.  As the election season heats up and the rivers keep rising, take a listen to some Randy Newman. The lyrics may make you gnash your teeth or make you laugh or make you wonder why but the music will soothe your soul.

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The President say, "Little fat man isn't it a shame
what the river has done to this poor cracker's land.
Louisiana, Louisiana
They're trying to wash us away
They're trying to wash us away

Lyrics copyright Warner Brothers Records 1974


  1. LOVE IT! Randy has always been one of my heroes. I just wish I could understand him without reading the lyrics!

  2. Great post. I heard some Randy recently and it brought back memories.
    Glad you are watching Treme.

  3. Still don't like 'Short People' but can forgive Randy that for all of his other music, including Toy Story. xo