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.
Perform the song for sure, but change the word or even the whole line.
From Nick Parker:
All I can say is that I don’t think I could sing it. It’s not about the word per se, it’s more that I think that using the word if you’re not African American comes with a responsibility to respect its power. And this song, although obviously it’s using the word knowingly and to make a point, is somehow not ‘my’ satirical point to make . It’s very American, very of its time (before mine), it works partly because Randy is New York Jewish, and works so brilliantly because Randy can assume certain things about his audience’s knowledge, politics, assumptions etc, and play with them.
There’s also the context, too: if I was doing an evening of more serious / political / satirical songs, maybe, just maybe – cos you could count on the audience listening to yr intro as part of the whole thing. But if everything else was just singalong, I’d feel like I was appropriating something powerful just for entertainment.
I think Nick Parker makes some pertinent observations – I’d never heard the song and it’s very funny – I don’t know how you could fail to miss the satire. That said, I think it’s one of those, “know your audience” situations – so I’d possibly keep it performance ready!
The first song I ever wrote, when I was 14, was titled ‘Old Henry Was A Nigger’. It was about the evils of slavery. I brought it to London and performed it in front of black and white. No-one was shocked, no-one was offended. They understood the context, and agreed with the theme. The most controversial question I was asked was, “How on earth did you develop feelings and thoughts like that growing up in Wolverhampton?” Patronising? Oh yes!.
The reason I tell you this is because today, when I mention that song, white people look at me wide-eyed and appalled. They are not even willing to discuss the context. As a white person I am not even allowed to THINK that word. Black people look at me askance, which is the bit I find most distressing. We have created a sense of entitlement to be thought of as racist, so that even our best efforts to express solidarity are just seen as patronising and facile.
So – I have no comfort for you Jamie. Rednecks is a great song. Of course, if memory serves, it also includes a lyric along the lines that Lester Maddox (“he may be a fool but he’s our fool”) is being interviewed and made a fool of by a ‘New York Jew’. That should be as offensive as the ‘nigger’ line. But it’s not.
Today’s audiences, though, don’t pay attention. So unless you get their attention, and tell them exactly what’s about to happen, I imagine you’re laying up trouble for yourself.
Still, me, I’d go for it, ‘cos I love a bit of confrontation!
I agree with Anna – sing the song but replace the word or line. It’s too loaded, too shocking, too fraught with conflict (especially now). It would distract people from the rest of the song and the lovely music. Just not worth going there.
Nowadays the word carries extra resonances that simply did not apply back then. So I would urge “no” unless that is you are prepared to be thought of as making a cynical bid for notoriety, or worse, for celebrity motormouth status in the Lesley Riddoch, David Starkey vein.
It’s all about context, isn’t it? Even if the song isn’t pure satire it’s not an endorsement of a particular attitude or point of view. And don’t try to protect or pander to your your imaginary audience. It’s your fastidiousness here, not necessarily theirs. Allow them to decide. So go out, sing it as it is, and dinnae fash!
I think Nick Parker has it about right. Interestingly, in this context, just read this piece on the Guardian website on the new Harper Lee book. Leaving aside other controversies surrounding the book, there seems to have been discussion about editing out the n- word:
[you] may want to have a look at this take from Bloomberg News, which updates us on the intrigue surrounding its publication. One interesting tidbit it reveals is that the editors and Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, debated editing the n-word out of the original manuscript:
Already, the decision to leave it as is has made some anxious. For example, “there was some concern from Tonja’s end about the word ‘n—–.’ It’s in there quite a lot,” says Nurnberg. “I said, ‘This book was written in the 1950s. You can’t call someone a n—– by any other anodyne title.’ ”
From David Bodanis:
I’d have you not sing it: in Scotland you’d be getting aesthetic enjoyment from a people’s past pain (even though your heart is in the right place)
I’d say no. There are a couple of aspects to this that are beyond your (and Newman’s) control. The first is the audience’s interpretation of your reasons for including it. There are plenty of examples of satirical performance actually being taken to champion the viewpoint they intended to mock (from Alf Garnett to Loadsamoney and more besides). Secondly, the song was of its time, and times are different now. A favourite band of mine, the Cure, faced a similar dilemma with their early hit ‘Killing An Arab’ (which is actually a condensed re-telling of Albert Camus’ ‘The Stranger’, rather than any statement on Robert Smith’s part). However, the potential for the song to be misinterpreted or wilfully co-opted has meant that, when they perform it now, they actually sing ‘Killing Another’. The potential for Newman and Smith’s 1970s songs to be overlaid with modern politics and meaning is too risky. Change the word or drop the song, but don’t go there.
The context sets the tone and meaning, but you would be using it in a very different setting and from a very different background than Newman. When Newman sings it, or another American, it is clearly a social commentary on the overt and implicit racism in the USA. If you sing it there is the potential to offend the over sensitive white folk in the audience (the kind who won’t ask for black coffee in case it is offensive) as well as any black people.
The problem with changing the N word is two-fold:
First, it is not just in the chorus but throughout the song;
Second, what do you change it to? (I know folk who are as offended by the term “negro” as they are by the “N word” and you have to have something that scans without being an obvious change.
Personally, I wouldn’t sing it. However, you could play the “its melody and rolling New Orleans piano style” as an instrumental piece between songs (and just hope that no one starts singing it!).
These are not kind words, so better left in the folder.
My vote is to not sing it. Although I say that with a lot of hesitation — I generally am a ‘print the cartoon’ sort of fellow. It’s true that Ta Nehisi Coates makes a convincing argument for context, but just because there is context doesn’t necessarily mean it applies to every person and every circumstance. It’s interesting isn’t it? Some people can say the word some of the time and some people can sing the word some of the time, but not everyone can say or sing it all of the time. Put another way, Randy Newman, with his long career and brilliant lyrics has kind of earned his way to that point of privilege. My two cents.