Nearly 50 Years Later, Randy Newman’s satirical takes on Race, Slavery, Religion and more

Dominique Duroseau’s thought recent provoking show at Gallery Aferro, titled Black Things in White Spaces, got me thinking about the songwriting of Randy Newman. For those who may not be that familiar with him, he is a white Jewish atheist whose first album was released nearly 50 years ago. His songs are often full of biting satire about past and current events including race, politics, and natural disasters. The melodies are beautiful as the lyrics are subtle, controversial, and thought provoking, not to mention easily prone to misunderstanding (and misuse). The list of artists who have covered his songs include Etta James, Harry Nilsson, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Aaron Neville, and others. He is not racist (a statement you hear a lot these days) though his songs, upon superficial listening, appear to be. In fact, they are so subtle that the right at times fail to see the satire and adapt certain songs for their own purposes.

“Climb aboard little wog, sail away with me…”  He is at his most subtle in the title song of his 1972 lp SAIL AWAY. The voice of Sail Away is a slave trader’s sales pitch to would be slaves in Africa to  Remember, this is satire. And it’s dark. Click here to hear the great version song by Etta James in 1973. Randy’s version can be heard singing it here. Sail Away has been mistakenly thought of as being a patriotic song; it ain’t.  The carefree, optimistic mood of the melody successfully masks the song’s content, adding to the irony.

In America you’ll get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American

Ain’t no lions or tigers, ain’t no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me

Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You’re all gonna be an American

Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

“We’re keeping the n*****s down…” REDNECKS, written in 1974, this is as heavy as it gets. Written from a POV of Southern redneck, angered by  how racist Georgia governor Lester Maddox was treated by a tv host (the “smart ass New York Jew”). Maddox was actually interviewed by Dick Cavett (not a Jew) before he walked off the set. This song is charged not only for the use of the n word in the chorus, but because the redneck does a credible job of turning the tables on the supposedly progressive North, who practice their own brand of racism and segregation by gathering blacks up and keeping them down in the various northern ghettos, some of which Newman goes on to name. Very powerful when it came out, and maybe even more so now. So strong, in fact, that Newman will not sing it today. Click here to listen to 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
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
We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
And colleges 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
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 n*****s down
Now your northern nigga’s a Negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the n****r 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 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 n*****s down
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 n*****s down
We are keeping the n*****s down
“How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me” God’s Song song is written from the POV of God himself. Newman, an atheist, portrays God as a being who loves mankind for the wrong reason, because it thinks God actually cares about it. For Etta’s version, click here; for Randy’s, click here.
Cain slew Abel Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:
Man means nothing he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
Cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
That’s why I love mankind
I recoil in horror fro the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind
The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, “Lord, a plague is on the world
Lord, no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”
And the Lord said
And the Lord said
I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind

 

 

 

 

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