After passing on Nebraska, Springsteen’s claustrophobic chronicle of rustbelt stasis and suffocation, along with a few warped Phil Ochs LPs, the name of 2011’s Oscar winner for “Best Original Song” peaks out from behind a cluster of misfiled Flying Burritos Brothers albums. The LP is Randy Newman’s 1974 concept album Good Old Boys, a glinting and resilient proclamation of Dixie’s bedrock communal backbone pelted by naturalistic calamity and Northern moral superiority. Covered with an out-of-focus snapshot of a stocky white man donning dark sunglasses in a bar, his right arm wrapped around a cute blonde who appears haloed by a tacky fluorescent light fixture. Nestled between the middle and ring fingers of his free hand, palm facing outward and fingers fully extended, is a lazily burning cigarette.
Featuring cameos by Ry Cooder and Don Henley, Good Old Boys begins with bluesy pianos and our protagonist watching a “smart-ass New York” intellectual diss segregationist Governor Lester Maddox on the boob tube. Flatly calling out the North’s hypocrisy, he looks to music as a means of expressing his Southern working class identity in “Rednecks”: “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.” Tender, nostalgic vocals on “Birmingham” find pride in community despite a harsh day to day grind: “And I work all day in the factory / That’s alright with me…Birm-ing-ham, Birm-ing-ham / The greatest city in Alabam’.”
“Louisiana 1927,” preoccupied with fatalism and the wrath of God, hones in on the lucky ones reemerging post-deluge. Heart-wrenching string arrangements remind us of irreplaceable loss, but a crawling piano and Newman’s drowsy, stubborn vocals light the forward path. All we’ve got is each other, and Silent Cal Coolidge ain’t likely to step up to the plate: “They’re tryin’ ta wash us away / Low-weezy-anna/ Low-weezy-anna.” Words slide into each other, and, as Greil Marcus perfectly captures in his seminal work Mystery Train “syllables are not bitten off, but just wear out and dissolve.”
Co-penned by radical populist Louisiana icon Huey “The Kingfish” Long to support a “Share Our Wealth” income distribution campaign that would have Sweden blushing, the 1935 sing-along “Every Man A King” is covered as a traditional folk sing-along. America, the land of plenty: “With castles and clothing an’ food for all / All belongs to you.” But hey now, let’s not get greedy: “There’s enough for all people to share… There’ll be peace without end / Ev’ry neighbor a friend.” Long’s socialist ditty bleeds into Newman’s listless drawl in “Kingfish,” a stump speech for Governor Long’s crusade against Mr. Rockefeller’s goons: “Who took the Standard Oil men / And whipped their ass / Just like he promised he’d do / Ain’t no Standard Oil men gonna run this state / Goanna be run by little folks like me an’ you.” With gospel laden vocals and the fresh promise of salvation, Newman proclaims alongside a heaping pile of irony: “Friend of the workin’ man / Kingggg-fish, Kingggg-fish / The Kingfish goanna save this land.”
But it’s on “Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man)” that the hallelujahs of solidarity really take shape. Back against the wall and facing grim economic prospects, Newman begs, not for equality or even respect, but for a single iota of compassion: “We’re not asking you ta love us / You may place yourself high above us / Mr. Prez-din have pity on the workin’ man.” Triumphant horns and smooth baseline clash with Newman’s frustrated lyrics, as he ponders whether neglect of the everyman is the product of corruption or madness: “Maybe you’ve cheated / Maybe you’ve lied / Maybe you have lost your mind / Maybe you’re only thinking ’bout yourself.” As blaring brass pushes the song to climax, Newman pleads once more in distinctly blue collar dialect: “Mr. Prez-din, have pity on the workin’ man!”
So, long before his improv work in post-Y2K Quahog, Rhode Island (“Red headed lady, Reaching for an apple /Gonna take a bite, nope, nope… She takes a bite /Chews it once, twice, three times, four times, stops!”), Randy Newman was reviving socialist ditties, denouncing Dixie for bigotry, and begging Mr. President to give a damn about the little guy. Halleluiah. Amen.