Song of the Day #1,151: ‘Sail Away’ – Randy Newman

Best Songwriters – #5 – Randy Newman

A couple of months ago I dedicated three weeks to the music of Randy Newman, concentrating in turn on his sincere songs, his caustic songs and his songs for Disney films. The point was that this man can do wildly different things equally well.

But Newman’s versatility isn’t what lands him in the top half of my list of favorite songwriters (despite my owning only five of his albums). No, it is his scathing satirical wit and his uncompromising ability to bring the most unsympathetic characters to life. Newman has a novelist’s gift set to blues pop infused with the soul of New Orleans jazz.

It’s a testament to his talents that Newman is so often misunderstood. His one hit, ‘Short People,’ was confused for an angry attack on the vertically challenged rather than a dry exposé of the absurdity of bigotry. The track ‘Burn On,’ an ironically uplifting anthem to Cleveland in the 70s, was embraced by some as a love letter.

In that song, alluding to the infamous fire on the Cuyahoga River, Newman sings: “Now the Lord can make you tumble, and the Lord can make you turn, and the Lord can make you overflow… but the Lord can’t make you burn.” Only mankind can screw things up that badly.

Newman is bracingly witty but also unabashedly romantic. I can’t think of a more touching love song than ‘Feels Like Home,’ and it’s all the more effective when delivered by the man who memorably barked out these lines in the great song ‘Shame‘: “Goddamn you, you little bitch! I’d kill you if I didn’t love you so much!”

Today’s song, from Newman’s 1972 album Sail Away (his best record), is a majestic invitation to America, the land of the free — delivered by a slave owner to Africans making the middle passage. I can’t think of another artist who could pull this off.

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

6 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,151: ‘Sail Away’ – Randy Newman

  1. Amy says:

    I hoped (and knew) Randy Newman would make an appearance on this list, as it’s difficult to think of a more accomplished songwriter. What I love about his songs, misunderstood as they are, is that they work on those multiple levels. “Feels Like Home,” for instance, is a song Newman wrote for his musical Faust, in which he played the Devil to James Taylor’s Lord. Bonnie Raitt sings the song in the musical, and she is singing it to the devil, who has lured her to his “side.” I can’t think of a more touching love song than this “unabashedly romantic” ballad either, yet the song cearly takes on another mood when you think of the lyrics in the context of the musical for which they were written. As much as I adore the song and would hate to change the way I view it, I’d sure love to see the original performance of Faust (with Don Henley playing the slacker who the Lord and the Devil are battling over, and Linda Ronstadt completing the cast),

    Today’s SOTD I could easily hear playing over the calmer moments of some politician’s rally. That politician would on’y later be disturbed to learn of the intention behind the lyrics promising that “In American every man is free to take care of his home and family,” which, let’s face it, a slave trader is unlikely to suggest to the men and women he has chained below.

  2. Amy says:

    for those who would like to hear Bonnie’s take on “Feels Like Home”

  3. Clay says:

    Interesting… I didn’t know ‘Feels Like Home’ was from Faust. Certainly paints the song in a whole new light.

  4. Amy says:

    I investigated back when I was in full on obsession mode with the song 🙂

  5. Dana says:

    Coming late to the comments since I had to drive to Gainesville today. I was hooked on Newman from the first time I heard “Short People” on the radio. I was probably around ten years old at the time, and I probably didn’t get all of the irony, though I knew instinctively that the song was not to be taken literally or seriously. I then became reacquainted with Newman when my cousin played Trouble in Paradise and, more specifically, “I Love LA” while I sat in the backseat of his car. Again, I was hooked. Now a teenager by that time, I got the satire and irony dripping from the lyrics while at the same time just loving the hook of the song. I went on to buy Trouble in Paradise, and so that was my entry point (from an album perspective) into Newman’s music. It remains a sentimental favorite for that reason, but Sail Away is certainly wonderful and, as I have said before, I think Newman’s music is getting only better with age. Indeed, Bad Love may well be as good or better than anything else he has done.

    So, yes, I applaud Newman’s inclusion in your list, as he would most assuredly be in mine.

    Oh, and I too had NO IDEA about the original use for “Feels Like Home.” It may take me awhile to wrap my head around that one…

  6. […] lyrics are able to send out emotion on a grand scale while being very simple and elegant. Simply put, he’s a master of […]

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