The best 1974 album I’ve written about so far, Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys was his fourth studio album and the follow-up to 1972’s brilliant Sail Away.
Good Old Boys started as a concept album about the Deep South, following a character named Johnny Cutler. Newman eventually broadened the focus to the South in general, though bits of Johnny’s story show up throughout the tracklist.
The album’s most famous song is opener ‘Rednecks,’ written from Johnny Cutler’s perspective after watching segregationist Georgia governor Lester Maddox’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.
Speaking in the voice of his deeply flawed protagonist, Newman leans into the ugly bigoted language. It’s powerful but uncomfortable — and certainly more uncomfortable today than it was when it was written. Newman had this to day when asked if it’s difficult to play the song live these days:
Yes. You have to have a really, really good reason – and it may not be a good enough reason – to use that word. I’ve played it, but it has a whole boring preamble that I am required, and want, to give. You have to justify somehow the fact that that word is in there.
The rest of Good Old Boys is less controversial. Newman spends several tracks earnestly depicting the lives and loves of these people. A couple of songs are about Louisiana governor Huey P. Long. ‘Louisiana 1927’ chronicles one of the state’s tragic floods. All of it has Newman’s unmistakable wry delivery and sense of musical showmanship.
Newman has released only 11 studio albums over his 53-year career, and this is definitely one of the best.
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
We’re keepin’ the n—-s down
We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
Good ol’ boys from Tennessee
College men from LSU
Went in dumb, come out dumb too
Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues
They’re keepin’ the n—-s down
We’re rednecks, rednecks
We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
We’re keeping the n—-s down
Now, your northern n—-s a Negro
You see, he’s got his dignity
Down here, we 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
Agreed this is a great album. Curious if the “n” word was used in the lyrics you found or if you censored it.
I was wondering the same thing Dana
I added the dashes.
Interesting and understandable I suppose, though I somehow feel that, in the context of an examination/analysis/review on the blog, not spelling out the word is incongruous with Newman’s objective of calling out racism.
Indeed, two years ago, you typed the full word for Ice Cube’s ” I Wanna Kill Sam.” Why then and not here?
Also curious why you have no issue posting a clip to the song with the full word sung rather than an edited/censored version (though I have no idea if such a thing exists or you could edit it yourself).
My feeling is that, whether it is discussion of a book like Huckleberry Finn or a song like Rednecks, context matters when deciding whether to speak or write the “N” word. To quote George Carlin (without the word spelled out lest you censor my comment :)): “There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word n_____ in and of itself. It’s the racist asshole who’s using it that you ought to be concerned about.”
Since neither you nor Randy Newman are racist, and the context here is to shine a bright light on the racist assholes who use the word, I think it is appropriate to spell it out. Doing so does not perpetuate racism, and not doing so dims that bright light on calling racism out.
I didn’t put too much thought into it, other than that I don’t want a page on my blog to feature that word a half-dozen times, regardless of context.
I listened to a podcast interview with Newman where he said that he got deeply uncomfortable performing ‘Rednecks’ once when he saw a young Black man in the crowd surrounded by a lot of White people who were singing along a little too enthusiastically.
I guess I’m picturing somebody like that young man, who finds himself on my blog for whatever reason, and not wanting him to encounter that word without warning.
Reading this entry, you know what you’re gonna get when you listen to the song, so I see no need to keep Randy from voicing it.
Most rap songs refrain from using the “hard R,” but I guess Ice Cube (or whoever transcribed those lyrics) made an exception. I didn’t make a decision to leave that one in… I just didn’t notice.
It strikes me as a good time to make my first comment, as I am a big Randy Newman fan. I think he would be a great subject for a deep dive. His popular music albums themselves would justify this alone, yet his other musical contributions (I’m thinking mostly of soundtracks) are equally impressive. He is a unique figure in American music. On another note, I’d like to say that I have enjoyed reading your takes on popular music for many years now, and for some reason waited until recently to follow, but am glad I have. Thanks and keep it up!
Thanks for reading! I’ve definitely thought about doing a Randy Newman deep dive. Speaking of soundtracks, I could do three weeks on just the songs he’s had nominated for Academy Awards. A legend indeed!