Good Old Boys. Randy Newman.
1974, Reprise. Producer: Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman
Purchased: circa 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL – Piano tunes with Broadway-esque orchestrations about characters from the American South. The lyrics are funny and sad and always pack a punch, and if you’ve got mixed feelings about your own hometown, this record will likely connect with you.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It had more guitar, more rock. It’s sort of like listening to a Broadway cast recording or soundtrack – which isn’t surprising, since Newman has written songs for almost every movie ever made since 1992.
We all have to come from somewhere. Whether we are born in a location and stay there forever, or we move with our family every year, or if we have no family and nowhere to go, there is a feeling inside us that we have come from somewhere – even if we don’t know where that is.
For those of us who know where we came from, and who stayed there a while, our hometown helps define us. For some it states exactly who we are. Others work hard to prove it never can. Your hometown sets boundaries. It is the meter and rhyme scheme of rest of your life. You can say whatever you want to with your life, but you’ll always say it Iambic pentameter and AABBCC when you do. If you come from nowhere in particular, you’ll live your life in free verse.
A hometown can be the source of anxiety and stress in adults. At times you’ll find yourself reflecting on the good things about where you grew up, and proudly state “That place made me what I am today!” But then you’ll see the negatives and sheepishly murmur, “but I’m not like those people …” while wondering, “Or am I?”
I have written about my hometown extensively over the course of this blog. The history of its industry, the hard-working people who lived there (and the types of graffiti they created), and even what they did for entertainment. And like many grownups, in some ways I love the place I come from, and in some ways I can’t stand it.
Lebanon, PA,1 my hometown, is in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. This fact often evokes the question from others, “Are you Amish?”
I’m not Amish, but I grew up in “Amish Country.” This means it was not unusual to see a horse and buggy driving on the roads near my house, although it would have been unusual to see one out my front window.2 Amish people were just other people in the community. My doctor, Dr. Eiceman (who was not, as his name suggests, an amalgam of 70s NBA greats Julius Erving and George Gervin) had a hitching post at his office for his Amish patients. Learning to drive as a teenager included instructions on sharing the road with horse and buggies.
However, far more common than the Amish were people from other Anabaptist sects. These other sects were mainly Mennonites and Brethren with a sprinkling of Moravians3, too. Some of these people dressed a little differently than most other folks – wearing bonnets and hats very similar to those worn by Amish women and men – some drove cars that had no chrome, a good deal of them worked in local Farmers’ Markets.
When I was a kid, in the 70s and 80s, the area was mostly farmland. Corn was the biggest crop, and it seemed to grow everywhere – plentiful and common enough that while driving to the pool or baseball games, my sisters and I could easily distinguish the “baby corn” at the beginning of summer from the “teenage corn” mid-summer (“knee high by the fourth of July!”) The Anabaptist religions of the region were evident in the cornfields by the multitude of Bible verse signs displayed in them, mostly warning others to shape up now or be judged later by an angry god.
My family is “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which is a culture, not a religion. One didn’t have to be Amish or Mennonite to understand what “Schmeis de gaul nibbe der fens fennig hoy!“4 meant. This is a sentence from the Pennsylvania Dutch language, my dad’s parents’ mother tongue. His mother – who I only remember as a thick, round, gray-haired woman wearing cat’s eye spectacles and long, plain dresses, sitting in her stuffed chair, watching Lawrence Welk on a Saturday night – was clearly more comfortable speaking “Dutch,”5 than English. The happiest I remember seeing her was when her brother “Bench” – short for “Bench-a-min,” which is how one pronounces “Benjamin” with a thick Pennsylvania Dutch (German) accent – would visit and the two would sit in the living room or front porch and carry on zestful conversations in a dying language that sounded like the bad guys in a World War II movie.
The Pennsylvania Dutch culture, by the 1970s, was mostly residual, evidenced only in the hex signs on barns, the rich, egg-anchored foods and “Dutchified” phrases6 spoken in a sing-song accent that sounds like a combination of German, Yiddish and Irish accents – but nothing like that at all. But there remained a fierce pride in the heritage, and a desire to retain as much of it as possible.
The Pennsylvania Dutch people are, generally speaking, disinclined to get to know strangers. We are brought up to be skeptical of differences and resistant to change. (You might ask my wife – who grew up near Boston – about how difficult it can be to find a place among the insular PA Dutch.) But we are also taught loyalty, and the value of hard work. A self-deprecating sense of humor is endemic among us, and we like to have fun. (And my wife can also tell you about how much we like to laugh, as well!)
But it is this insularity, rigidity, and extreme resistance to change that I find to be the source of most of my anxiety about my hometown. There was a thick coat of racial prejudice over the region when I lived there. I don’t think of it as extreme – I rarely heard the “N word,” for example. But then again, there weren’t many African-Americans around. However, the Puerto Rican population in the city of Lebanon was quite sizable, and I heard the term “Spick” thrown around all the time. So maybe it’s just easy for a white guy to call this “not extreme;” maybe the fact that there were no lynchings doesn’t mean the bigotry wasn’t extreme.
But the point is that anyone who was a little different – whether by skin color, dress, actions, or looks – was viewed with great skepticism. As I got older and started to understand who I was, and what I valued, it became increasingly difficult to stick around that place.
When I was 23, I joined a band, The April Skies, that performed in big cities on the East Coast, and I found myself regularly interacting with musicians, artists, and other creative types – exactly the types of people that my hometown might frown upon. I was hanging out with The Gays, The Lesbians, The Blacks, The Tattooed, The Drug Users, The Green-Haired. Some were funny, some were douchebags. Some were smart, some were idiots. But they were all just people, and after getting to know so many different ones, it became even harder to hear the comments, and feel the hostility, directed by so many people from my small town – small people with small minds who had never ventured more than a few feet away from their small houses – toward people they had never met from groups they had only conjured in their minds. (i.e. “The Gays.” “The Blacks.”)
When the band broke up a couple years later, the first thing I thought was “I’m getting the fuck outta Dodge.” I moved to San Francisco, and for years I was embarrassed about my hometown. It came out in my creative pursuits, evident in the play I wrote, and had produced, “Tofu Water,” about my town and my difficulties with it. But then again, I loved identifying with the Pennsylvania Dutch culture, and even spoke some Pennsylvania Dutch in my stand up comedy act, and proudly enjoyed the laughs.
In my personal life, my feelings were equally conflicted. I couldn’t wait to go back to visit my hometown, but I’d be there two days and couldn’t wait to go home. I looked forward to introducing my own kids to the region, and showing off places and people and memories from my childhood, but then always felt relieved that my own kids wouldn’t be raised in such a place. My hometown became a difficult conundrum. A source of equal parts pride and embarrassment. I found I both admired and disdained the people. I both extolled and mocked its values. I wanted to hold it in me forever, but forget it ever existed.
And I think it’s because of the opposing force of these feelings that I connect at such a deep level with Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys.
I had heard of Randy Newman since I was a kid. When his breakthrough song “Short People” hit the airwaves in 1977, I thought he was a comedy singer, like Jim Stafford or Ray Stevens. I thought the song was mean7 and so I decided I didn’t like him. I saw him at some point as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live (likely in December, 1979, although it could have been a rerun of the October 18, 1975, episode) and realized he wasn’t a comedian, and that I still didn’t like him. In the 80s he surfaced in my world again when he had a minor hit with “It’s Money That Matters,” featuring a signature Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) lead guitar. I liked the sound of the song, but its smug, clever lyrics annoyed me. I was a fan of irony for sure – David Letterman was my idol at the time, after all – but there was something about Newman that rubbed me the wrong way. I felt like David Letterman was with me, and we were mocking others. But Randy Newman seemed to be mocking me, and I didn’t like it.
I’ve written before about my old friend, A., who I’d like to call a former girlfriend, but who was really just … well, someone I chauffeured to the airport to meet her new boyfriend, I guess. But anyway, she introduced me to many artists, and – hippy chick that she was – even though it was 1992 at the time, most of those artists were from the 70s. At that time, being in a band and all, I was trying my hand at writing songs – even though I could just BARELY play guitar. I wrote a song called “All You Can Eat Night at the Local Woodchuck Lodge and Men’s Club” which I played for her. I don’t remember much more of it than the title, but it was a song making fun of the Small Town attitudes of many folks from my home town. It featured a first-person narrator who was aggressively bigoted, and used his bigoted language in the lyrics.
I played the song for A. who immediately said, “Do you know the song ‘Rednecks,’ by Randy Newman?” I didn’t, so the next time we got together, she brought Good Old Boys with her and we listened. The album immediately struck a nerve. I soon went out and bought it.
Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles, but spent a great deal of time in New Orleans as a kid – living there and returning for summers until he was almost a teen-ager. Good Old Boys is both a celebration and a condemnation of the US South, written and sung by someone who clearly understands the people there, who genuinely admires a good deal about them, but who is also deeply conflicted about it all.
The first track sets the tone for the entire album. “Rednecks” is a simple song with deceptively simple lyrics8 that seem to be directly condemning rampant Southern racism.
It tells the story of a Southern white man watching former segregationalist governor of Georgia Lester Maddox interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show9, and getting so angry at Maddox’s treatment by the host that he writes a song about the joys of being a redneck. At first, the joke seems to be that all the joys he mentions are not admirable – being dumb, drinking too much, being a racist. The casual listener (particularly a snooty Northern liberal who feels nothing but derision toward the South – which is a decent description of me as a 25 year old) finds himself laughing at the disgusting man. Then the narrator compares the South’s African-Americans to the North’s, pointing out that the Northern blacks are free … “Free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City, and he’s free to be put in a cage in the South Side of Chicago …” It’s a remarkable song. In a brief three minutes it attacks both prejudice and hypocrisy, and forces the listener (well, this listener, at least) to consider his relationship to both. Musically, it’s got a catchy, sing-along melody with instrumentation befitting a song by a man who would go on to write loads of music for films. The blatant, repeated use of the “N-word” is likely offensive to many people, and I certainly understand why. To my ears, he’s writing from the point of view of someone who would speak the word in this manner, so it makes sense he’d use it – and informs the listener about the character of the man. But that’s my perspective – everyone will have their own personal view.
The next song, “Birmingham,” is one of the songs on the album that truly captures the dual, opposing feelings I have toward my hometown.
This entire album will be challenging for me to write about. It’s one of the few records on my list whose lyrics are the main reason I love it. A perfect record, to me, will have music I love paired with lyrics I love. Good Old Boys has music that I can appreciate, but what really brings me back to it are the lyrics. And I’m not sure how to write about them without just saying, “Look, read the lyrics,” and leaving it at that!
In the case of “Birmingham,” the lyrics paint a simple picture of a simple man who loves his hometown, set to a catchy melody with another sing-along chorus. He works in the steel mill, like most of the men I knew as a kid, and doesn’t have much to complain about. There doesn’t seem to be much objectionable about him – except he reminds me of the many closed-minded jackasses I knew in my youth, as I was asking myself “Is this really all my hometown has to offer?” People who – when I mentioned I was moving to California – would scoff and say things like, “My cousin moved out there and moved back in 6 months. Said it’s expensive and full of assholes.” I hear the narrator, and I think, “Ha, another song about a dumb redneck!”
But really, this reaction is all about me. The guy seems like a good person, going to work and enjoying his life. He’s a simple man, content, and good for him! But I sure do feel superior to him. Does that make me a bad person?10 But part of my reaction is also because the music has a hint of sadness to it. The lyrics are “Rah! Rah! Birmingham!” but the slow pace of the song and the horns and orchestra behind it seem to say, “Is this really all Birmingham has to offer?” Newman does a terrific job throughout this record of having the music enhance and comment on the lyrics. It’s a characteristic that makes him a natural to write all those Disney songs.
In the case of “Louisiana, 1927,” the music – a simple melody played by strings – immediately conjures images of Dixieland, with a tune that sounds straight out of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.
It is a sad song about the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The narrator (every song has a narrator) tells of watching the rains come and water rise, “six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.” President Coolidge comes to visit, but doesn’t offer much more than words. It seems nature and the world outside are conspiring against the state, leading to the refrain, “Louisiana/Louisiana/They’re trying to wash us away/They’re trying to wash us away.”
All hometowns have an “us against the world” component to their collective consciousness. People want to belong to a group, and they want that group to thrive and be respected for it. “Louisiana, 1927” puts you on the “us” side whether you’re from the state or not. The song also became the unofficial anthem of the New Orleans flood of 2005.
Newman is not what one would call an excellent singer in the traditional sense. He sounds like he needs to blow his nose, for one thing, and he tends to speak his words as much as sing them. But because his songs are always sung from the point of view of a character, a commenter who has a story to tell, it often works perfectly. He uses it to great effect on the romantic ballad “Marie.”
In “Marie” the narrator is a drunken man who’s finally expressing his love to his long-suffering wife/girlfriend, Marie. Newman sounds a bit tipsy as he sings, and his voice almost cracks and nearly misses notes. He’s as much an actor in this song as a singer. The melody is slow and sad. The narrator tells Marie how beautiful she is, and how long he’s loved her, but between these statements of love he admits he doesn’t listen, he hurts her, he has to be drunk to tell her of his love … It’s a sad love song because he obviously knows he can’t give her what she deserves, and she has clearly stayed with him despite this, and as much as that can be portrayed in stories as a romantic situation (basically, every Rom-Com that’s ever been made …) to me it sounds like a life of daily misery. As with “Birmingham,” it’s the pace and instrumentation of the song that add to the sadness. Also – this couple reminds me of so many couples from my hometown, people who settled for a situation out of convenience or low self-esteem. This record keeps connecting with me.
This type of relationship is revisited on the album in “Guilty,” featuring another couple (the same couple?) who sound better off without each other. The couple finally marry in “Wedding in Cherokee County.” And they sound like they are doomed to a long marriage of mutual torment. After all, on their wedding night she laughs at his mighty sword!
But how much is too much? Can an artist really record 12 songs about the mixed feelings engendered by one’s hometown? Well, it’s really 10, as “Naked Man” is sort of a novelty song that might take place anywhere people typically wear clothes.
It’s catchy and fun, and its story of a little old lady who’s purse is snatched by a man in the buff was actually based on a true story Newman heard from a friend. It’s a favorite of mine because it’s so upbeat and bouncy. And it may actually be commenting on a stereotype of the deep south and it’s ways, as a close reading of the lyrics reveals there may be something going on between the naked man and his sister.
Another character with a story to tell about his sister appears on “Back on My Feet Again,” one of a few songs on Good Old Boys featuring The Eagles’ Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Bernie Leadon on background vocals.
The narrator sounds completely unreliable right off the bat, and the story he tells of his sister and “a negro from the Eastern Shore” of Maryland, and the lyric “open the door and set me free,” makes it pretty clear that the doctor he’s speaking with is a psychiatrist at a hospital. This song is my favorite on the record because it finally features11 a guitar. If you’ve read many of these posts, you’ll know that I like to discuss what the instruments are playing throughout a song, and that I love guitar and drums. But this record is all about the piano and the orchestration, the lyrics and the feelings a melody can carry. So when a guitar appears, a slide guitar soloing in the background throughout the verses and the chorus, my ears perk up and pay attention.
Politics are covered on the songs “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man),” a terrific song about the working poor, and “Kingfish,” about the populist 1930s governor and senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long12. Both songs are great, and I particularly like “Kingfish” because when the chorus, “Here come the Kingfish, the Kingfish,” comes around the music takes a sinister turn away from the upbeat tales of all the good things the governor has done. Once again, the music helps inform the listener about the lyrics.
The album closes with “Rollin’.”
It sounds like another look at the character from “Birmingham,” again proclaiming that life is good, and he ain’t gonna worry no more. But the source of his comfort is the whiskey he pours. The song connects with me, as does the whole album, because it offers a look at people you can’t help but feel sorry for. In this case, a guy who doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but who just seems lost, or maybe extremely limited, stating that life is good while his condition indicates otherwise.
But again – maybe that’s just my perception. Taken at face value, the character’s words make him sound content, if not downright happy. I associate these songs with my hometown and the people I knew there, and how sad it all seemed to me. But that perception is my own. The people where I grew up might not be sad, they might not be limited – in fact, they might even be happy to be there! It’s condescending of me to assume that because it’s not where I wanted to stay there’s no reason anyone would want to stay.
“You can’t go home again,” the saying goes. But that has nothing to do with home. It’s because of you. Good Old Boys always reminds me that I can’t go home again, and that makes me both happy and sad. I’ll let the Birmingham-born southern writer Walker Percy sum it up:
“It’s one thing to develop a nostalgia for home while you’re boozing with Yankee writers in Martha’s Vineyard or being chased by the bulls in Pamplona. It’s something else to go home and visit with the folks in Reed’s drugstore on the square and actually listen to them. The reason you can’t go home again is not because the down-home folks are mad at you–they’re not, don’t flatter yourself, they couldn’t care less–but because once you’re in orbit and you return to Reed’s drugstore on the square, you can stand no more than fifteen minutes of the conversation before you head for the woods, head for the liquor store, or head back to Martha’s Vineyard, where at least you can put a tolerable and saving distance between you and home. Home may be where the heart is but it’s no place to spend Wednesday afternoon.”
Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)
Every Man a King
Wedding in Cherokee County
Back on My Feet Again