I have a dilemma. It involves a song and a six-letter word. It’s a song I’ve always loved, not just because of its melody and rolling New Orleans piano style, but because of its bitingly brilliant irony.
The dilemma arises because I’m involved in a new musical venture. A friend and neighbour has a wonderful voice. Small in stature but mighty of heart and lung, Dave Amos has fronted soul, blues and covers bands all his life. Now, like me, he’s in his sixties and tired of the business of heaving gear around, of all the ringing ears and late nights and hanging about. But his love of the music is undimmed and now he’s keen to keep it simple, which means just him and me unplugged – voice, piano and the occasional harmony – plundering the Sixties and early Seventies songbooks together. We began rehearsing a few months ago and made our debut at the local pub at the end of May. Local friends turned out in force and it was the most fun I’ve had in an evening for ages.
Now we’re looking at more repertoire – you could drown in it, of course – and I’m starting to think what I might sing. I’ve never liked my voice very much, but singing harmonies with Dave has changed something. I’m growing more accepting of the sounds I make. And when I think of what to sing, the songwriter I’m magnetically drawn to is Randy Newman.
There’s a generation today for whom Randy Newman is the guy who writes the music for the Pixar movies, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc and so on. Then there’s the generation that knows him for the satirical genius of his 1970s albums, Sail Away and Good Old Boys and the others that followed over the next decade or so. Newman is a master storyteller and a master of sly humour, irony and pathos. His songs are populated by misfits, weirdos and sociopaths, frequently given voice in the first person, and characterised so skilfully that it’s almost impossible not to feel some kind of empathy with them, no matter how repugnant their views.
One such character appears in Rednecks, one of Newman’s favourite songs. He wrote it in 1974 after watching Lester Maddox, the newly elected, fiercely segregationist governor of Georgia, appear on a New York TV chat show where he was ridiculed by the host and eventually stormed out of the studio. Newman was incensed on behalf of the six million Georgians who, he said, had every right to feel offended, irrespective of the fact that Maddox was a bigot and a fool.
In the song, his southern narrator starts by sarcastically vaunting the characteristics perceived by northerners as being typical of ‘rednecks’. Then the song is turned on its head as he rounds on the north for their hypocrisy in claiming to have set the blacks free, when in fact they’re consigned to the ghettos. The chorus goes:
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
So there’s the six-letter word (I even feel a little queasy writing it) – and the dilemma. Barack Obama can use it and recently has. The likes of Kanye West can get away with it in a knowing (or not?) kind of showbiz/gangsta self-parody. But can anyone else? Is the word now so deeply, universally offensive that it has become a taboo?
The American commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, the son of a former Black Panther, defends its use in a New York Times column (here) as ‘the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.’ And as far as I can ascertain, Randy Newman himself still performs the song.
But can I? Context, of course, in the form of a good introduction, should be everything. In this case, though, I wonder if even that is enough? What about the person, perhaps the black person, who wasn’t listening to the introduction? The word defines the song and I can hardly change it, for example, to its saccharine nursery rhyme substitute. Could I simply drop it altogether and leave the audience to fill in the blank? Or do I just accept defeat and stick the song back in the folder? I’m reluctant to because it’s a brilliant song whose wry put-down of bigotry and racism still deserves to be heard – and I love singing it. Your thoughts please, Dear Readers; and you can see Randy Newman performing it here.