Randy Newman: Southern Historian?

Randy Newman in 1972, featured on the cover of his album Sail Away.

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.

The University of Central Arkansas, where Randy Newman took the stage last month.

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.

Movie Review: Fury

Brad Pitt;Logan Lerman

By Colin Woodward

Fury (2014)

Plot: A tank unit fights its way across Germany during World War II. Along the way, these grizzled, hard-bitten troops teach a wet-behind-the-ears recruit that war is bad.

That plot summary contains cliches. It was meant to. This movie is a cliche.

Someone needs to write a book about how Hollywood, despite all its supposed “limousine liberals” reinforces traditional and conservative values.

Take Fury. It benefits from employing all the tricks of the CGI era. It looks convincing. The film has plenty of mud, blood, and decapitations. The look and feel of the tank’s innards feels real. The acting, on the whole, is competent. Fury is, essentially, however, a remake of The Alamo, in which Americans fight against overwhelming odds.

The film reinforces this idea with some misleading opening titles about American tanks being outgunned by the better-armed Germans. Yes, the German tanks were far superior to their American counterpart, the Shermans. But the Americans had far more tanks with which to wage war, a fact that one scene in the film ably demonstrates. A Tiger is able to pick off several U.S. tanks before being outflanked by Pitt’s crew, which disables the German tank with a shot to its poorly armored rear.

Saving Private Ryan began a new era of (fittingly) violent World War II movies. But even for a war movie, Fury is grisly. Previous entertainments, from Ryan to Band of Brothers to The Thin Red Line, were gritty. But they had an element of humanity about them. The men of Fury, in contrast, only seem to take pride and pleasure in one thing: killing.

Despite the unusually high gore factor in the film, Fury’s plot elements are standard fare. The soldiers are in the mold of the typical World War II platoon. The tank has a Mexican; a nearly incomprehensible and crude redneck; a Bible-quoting southerner with a William Faulkner mustache; a wan, hapless desk jockey whose been thrown in with the veterans; and the tough-as-nails sergeant (played by Pitt). We’ve seen these characters before.

Lee Marvin would have been great in this kind of movie. But he’s been dead a long time, and so instead we get Brad Pitt as the central character. Pitt’s sergeant is something of a sadist. In one preposterous early scene, he forces the new recruit to murder a captured German soldier—shooting the man in the back, no less. And in the ludicrous final act, the film goes into full John Wayne mode. Pitt’s sergeant urges his men to undertake what is essentially a suicide mission, where a handful of men in a broken down tank try to hold off what appears to be a battalion of SS troops.

The film also contains a long, awkward, and gratuitous scene in which the men have a meal with two attractive German women (who are later blown up by stray German artillery). The women look less like people living in a war ravaged town than they do magazine models. And yet, after we have seen countless men torn apart in battle, the director cuts away from the lovemaking scene. No naked flesh in this movie, mind you. Because that would be too much for the viewer to handle. This movie takes pride in not showing any basic human pleasures.

Great war movies are like great westerns. They need strong and charismatic leading men who you will root for, even when those men do horrible things. Brad Pitt, unfortunately, does not have the quality of the great war movie actors. Here, he seems to lack both gravitas and vulnerability. He can be effective in movies like Oceans 11, when he can be suave and snarky. As far as WWII movies go, he was better in Inglorious Basterds, which had the reliable Quentin Tarantino at the helm and was a fairly tongue-in-cheek affair. This movie needs more of an everyman, perhaps Timothy Olyphant or Jeremy Renner leading the tank across Germany

A classic movie like The Dirty Dozen was amoral and often cartoonish. But it had characters you cared about. It knew the movie had to be about more than the killing scenes. Fury doesn’t understand that it’s not enough to have the Nazis be the villains. Countless movies have done that. At the end of the film, we won’t be pleased just because the Americans exacted a higher body count. We want soldiers who are more than just killing machines.

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.