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  2. Lester Maddox, Randy Newman, and the American Culture Wars
  4. Introduction
  6. If you black, you were born in jail,
  8. in the North as well as the South.
  10. Stop talking about the South
  12. As long as you south of the Canadian border,
  14. you’re South.
  16. – Malcolm X,
  18. The Ballot or the Bullet, speech delivered April 12, 1964
  20. You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright
  22. You wonder how I sleep at night
  24. Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
  26. Duality of the Southern thing.
  28. – Drive-By Truckers,
  30. “The Southern Thing,” Southern Rock Opera
  32. In the fall of 1974, school buses carrying students between the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury and South Boston frequently had to make their rounds under police escort. The Boston school district, under orders from a federal judge, was using an elaborate busing plan to break up the de facto racial segregation in the city’s schools. The plan triggered loud and frequently violent opposition from the city’s white working class residents, and school buses were often greeted with showers of eggs, rocks, and bricks.
  34. As the confrontations got uglier and the tensions wound tighter in the city that had been the cradle of American liberty, Boston’s radio stations decided to do their part. They quietly dropped a song from their playlists – “Rednecks,” the first single from Randy Newman’s just-released album Good Old Boys. Sung in Newman’s inimitable, mumbling drawl – two parts Ray Charles to one part Fats Domino – the song took the viewpoint of an unapologetically bigoted Southerner delivering an ironic salute to the Northern states.
  36. “The song is obviously meant satirically, but you can’t make any assumptions about who listens to the radio,” said Norm Weiner, the program director for WBCN. “The people who are fighting integration – we don’t want to reinforce their feelings.” Weiner told a Rolling Stone reporter he had spoken with Newman, and Newman agreed.
  38. A generation or two after the fact, there is plenty of room for argument over whether “Rednecks” should have been blacklisted. Airing it might have ramped up the rage; it might also have defused it. But one thing is certain: listeners who know Randy Newman only as the composer of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and other cuddly tunes for animated films like Toy Story and Monsters Inc. are in for a shock when they read the lyrics:
  40. Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
  42. With some smart-ass New York Jew
  44. And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
  46. And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
  48. Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool
  50. If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong
  52. So I went to the park and took some paper along
  54. And that’s where I made this song.
  56. Those with a deep knowledge of pop culture and the civil rights era will remember Lester Maddox as the Atlanta restaurateur who race-baited his way to the governorship of Georgia, and who did in fact appear on a December 1970 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show. (The description of Nebraska-born Cavett, a museum-quality specimen of the mid-twentieth-century WASP, as “a smart-ass New York Jew” immediately announces the unreliability of this particular narrator.) Though Maddox got the bulk of that night’s airtime, the show opened with a brief appearance by an entomologist from the Museum of Natural History, who displayed samples from the museum’s insect collection – most memorably, a hissing cockroach. For anyone who had seen the photo of Maddox and his son chasing an African-American man out of their Atlanta restaurant, threatening him with a pick handle and a pistol every step of the way, it was an appropriate lead-in. It would have been all of a piece with the parade of anti-Southern cliches that follow the song’s subdued opening:
  58. We talk real funny down here
  60. We drink too much and we laugh too loud
  62. We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town
  64. And we’re keepin’ the niggers down.
  66. We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
  68. And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
  70. And college men from LSU
  72. Went in dumb – come out dumb, too
  74. Hustlin’ round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
  76. Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues
  78. And they’re keepin’ the niggers down.
  80. We’re rednecks, rednecks
  82. And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
  84. We’re rednecks, rednecks
  86. And we’re keepin’ the niggers down
  88. So far, so stereotypical. The civil-rights struggles of the previous decade had bequeathed images of Bull Connor turning police dogs on African-American marchers; George Wallace standing in a school doorway to prevent black students from attending classes alongside whites; Martin Luther King Jr. gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. Wallace – a longtime friend and ally of Lester Maddox – was firmly entrenched as governor of Alabama, and had even made a run in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary. The song’s ambling tempo and Stephen Fosterish arrangement, with its whining pedal steel guitar on the “We’re rednecks, rednecks” chorus, reinforced the listener’s sense of being in comfortable satiric territory. And then, after an unlikely ragtime break, Newman delivered the sucker punch:
  90. Now your Northern nigger’s a Negro
  92. You see he’s got his dignity
  94. Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
  96. That the North has set the nigger free
  98. Yes, he’s free to be put in a cage
  100. In Harlem in New York City
  102. And he’s free to be put in a cage
  104. in the South-Side of Chicago
  106. And the West Side
  108. And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
  110. And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
  112. And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore
  114. in San Francisco
  116. And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
  118. They’re gatherin’ them up for miles around
  120. Keepin’ the niggers down
  122. Suddenly the comic redneck’s self-lacerating humor was turned outward. “We’re rednecks” no longer meant an insular cultural group, but this entire nation. Two years later, when a white anti-busing protestor in Boston used an American flag as a weapon against a black man, anyone who saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of that moment – titled “The Soiling of Old Glory” – might well have heard Newman’s final chorus, with the key line repeated one last time for emphasis:
  124. We’re rednecks, rednecks
  126. And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
  128. We’re rednecks, rednecks
  130. And we’re keepin’ the niggers down
  132. We are keepin’ the niggers down.
  134. Four decades after its release, “Rednecks” has lost none of its relevance and unsettling power. It so disturbed Newman himself that he felt compelled to fill in the speaker’s background, and the result was Good Old Boys, a song cycle about the South that remains the finest album in Newman’s singular catalogue.
  136. Anyone familiar with that catalogue has probably heard the story of how “Rednecks” came to be written after Randy Newman watched Maddox being humiliated on the Cavett show. In an interview, Newman complained that Maddox “was never given a chance to speak” while Cavett and the audience indulged their cultural arrogance:
  138. He wasn’t even given a chance to prove what an idiot he was. It was like, they sat Jim Brown next to him, and the crowd was razzin’ him . . . He didn’t get a chance to do anything, and they had just elected him governor in a state of six million or whatever, and if I were a Georgian, I would have been offended, irrespective of the fact that he was a bigot and a fool.
  140. Newman’s friend, producer and mentor, Lenny Waronker, amplified the theme in the booklet accompanying the 2002 compact disc reissue of Good Old Boys:
  142. Cavett had an ultraliberal show on PBS that reeked of snob appeal. And Randy, who’s a true liberal, was always able to see through that and had a certain amount of resentment toward the program . . . Randy had very little sympathy for Lester Maddox. But he always responded to the underdog.
  144. What’s interesting about this account is that the facts don’t support it. Oh, there’s no reason to doubt that Newman watched Cavett’s show, which at the time was still on the mass-market ABC network – the switch to public television would come a few years later – or that Newman’s irritation was genuine. Liberals are accused of snobbery and elitism with such monotonous regularity that the charge must be borne out at least once in a while, if only to satisfy the law of averages. But the videotape of the broadcast shows it was hardly a bear-baiting session. If anything, Cavett was too diffident in allowing Maddox to rope-a-dope him with word games about pick handles versus ax handles and the meaning of the term “segregationist.” The show heated up a bit with the arrival of Jim Brown, the African American football star who had just moved into big-ticket Hollywood features like The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra, and continued to simmer with the late-breaking appearance of author Truman Capote. But barring a few catcalls from the audience, Maddox was given due respect onstage until the very end of the ninety-minute show, when he took theatrical umbrage at one of Cavett’s stray remarks and stormed off the set.
  146. Good Old Boys was a product of a transitional period in which the generation gap of the Sixties was still widening and hardening into the culture wars of the Reagan era, helped along by the Nixon administration’s “Southern strategy” of using talk of states’ rights and coded appeals to bigotry to bring the South into the GOP fold. The album appeared in stores only a few months after the metastasizing Watergate scandal had forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency, and only weeks after the pre-emptive pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford, made the prevailing national mood of anger and cynicism even more acrid. Nixon’s opportunistic appeals to the “silent majority” and manipulation of cultural resentments for political ends would provide a template for even more poisonous rhetoric in the Eighties and Nineties and beyond. By making the target of those appeals the subject of an entire album, and trying to understand the emotions that made those appeals effective, Randy Newman was sketching in the contours of the landscape where the political battles of the next three decades would take place.
  148. The politics of cultural resentment had already been played so skillfully in the early Seventies that even a demonstrably intelligent man like Randy Newman saw Maddox as the injured party. What better illustration of the success of the Nixon/Agnew tactic of branding liberals as a bunch of effete snobs? If the archetypal liberal is someone so fair-minded he won’t even take his own side in an argument, then Newman wouldn’t argue his own case against a lynch mob. He just might write a few songs about it, though.
  150. *****
  152. From the beginning of his solo career in 1968, Randy Newman showed a short-story writer’s ability to evoke character and voice through the most economical means, as well as a penchant for writing from within ridiculous, unattractive, even frightening characters: a naïf at an orgy (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”); a rapist sizing up a potential victim (“Suzanne”); a truth-telling son who refuses to comfort his dying father (“Old Man”); a slaver enticing an African child aboard his ship (“Sail Away”); a man who promises to look after a couple’s hugely obese son, then fulfills the pledge by exhibiting him as a carnival attraction (“Davy the Fat Boy”). That these challenging songs came wrapped in irresistibly seductive melodies was part of their skewed charm, a charm offset by Newman’s readiness to play them without offering the listener a wink or a nudge to signal that he was still among right-thinking people.
  154. Thus the line from “Rednecks” that initially reads like a cheap insult – “He may be a fool but he’s our fool” – becomes a statement of artistic purpose, and the key line not only for Good Old Boys but Newman’s entire body of work. The subject of a given Randy Newman song may be a fool/ racist/ rapist/ arsonist/ exploiter/ slaver/ slumming hipster/ smug greedhead/ wallflower/ wuss/ murderer/ vain musician/ or self-pitying drunkard, but he’s one of us, like it or not, and ought to have his say.
  156. Yet even with this gallery of rejects, racists, and reprobates filling his songbook, Newman was particularly disturbed by the nameless viewpoint character of “Rednecks.” (Scaring oneself is an occupational hazard, and unexpected pleasure, of the artist’s life.) And so, Newman dug deeper and wrote more. As the songs from Good Old Boys unfold, the mockingly self-aware redneck acquires an identity, if not a name; other sides of his character emerge from crosscurrents of race, guilt, disappointment, and inchoate rage. Newman’s songwriting takes in everything from the small-scale domestic grief of alcoholism to the immense disaster of the Mississippi River flood of 1927. His cast of characters includes Louisiana senator Huey Long, President Calvin Coolidge, and Lester Maddox, but the center remains a nameless Alabama steelworker with an insane brother and a wife he idolizes without really understanding. The music derives from Americana: blues, country, Stephen Foster songs, even the Huey Long campaign jingle “Every Man a King.” Its lyrics create a personal and political landscape in which a man’s deeply flawed, fully human character is set within the unique region of America that nurtures, supports, and exploits those qualities. These elements coalesce into portraits that make their subjects understandable, and possibly even forgivable. Born in Los Angeles, the western outpost of the American Dream, Newman spent a part of his childhood in New Orleans, the commercial center of the slavery that helped finance that dream. One could argue that having grown up with a foot in each world, Newman was uniquely suited for his task.
  158. Good Old Boys occupies a curious place in Newman’s curriculum vitae, and rock music in general. Thematically, it attempts to bridge the gap between Merle Haggard and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, between “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Ohio,” and all the other divisions that had appeared during the long bloody wallow of the Vietnam War. The controversy that followed its release lifted Good Old Boys into the lower reaches of the Top Forty album chart, making it Newman’s first commercial success. Along with the scalding “Rednecks,” it features one of his most enduringly popular songs, “Louisiana 1927.” It is regularly cited by rock critics in lists of the all-time best albums, and it’s safe to say many of Newman’s fans consider it his greatest work. To stand so tall in a decade that produced the last great albums from the Rolling Stones and the Who, the heyday of P-Funk and Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan’s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, the first ripples of the New Wave, the rise of reggae superstar Bob Marley, and Motown wunderkind Stevie Wonder’s five-album run of genius R&B – in short, the bulk of the classic rock canon – is no small accomplishment.
  160. And yet, even with so much superb music on hand, Good Old Boys goes wobbly just as it should be building to its triumph. The concept blurs, and the album ends with the sense that something has been skipped over – that something more needed to be said. Just how much was left unsaid only became clear with the 2002 compact-disc reissue, which included Johnny Cutler’s Birthday, the original working draft of what would become Good Old Boys. Even in skeletal form, performed by Newman in the studio with frequent asides to his producer, at least four of the songs are substantially better than their substitutes on Good Old Boys – good enough to show that Newman already had everything he needed to make a powerful, fully realized concept album. Instead, he settled for making an album that was merely excellent – and, in a way no one could have realized at the time, prophetic. Substitute “Teabaggers” for “Rednecks,” and you’ll realize the protagonist of Good Old Boys is still very much with us.
  164. * * *
  168. 1. The Songwriter’s Progress
  170. One of Randy Newman’s distinguishing qualities as a songwriter has been his willingness to cut across the rhetorical no-man’s-land of racism without making concessions to anyone else’s sensibilities. In “New Orleans Wins the War” (second in the trio of autobiographical songs on his 1988 album Land of Dreams), casual instruction in the deranged classifications of a race-obsessed society is simply one of the things of childhood, right alongside cookies, balloons, and trips to the ice-cream wagon (“One side for white and one side for colored”). Newman, ever the craftsman, underlines the point with a singsong moon-June-spoon rhyme scheme.
  172. Momma used to take me to Audubon Park
  174. Show me the ways of the world
  176. She said, “Here comes a white boy,
  178. There goes a black one.
  180. That one’s an octoroon.
  182. This little cookie here’s a macaroon,
  184. That big round thing’s a red balloon,
  186. And the paper down here’s called the Picayune
  188. And here’s a New Orleans tune.”
  190. Race disappears from the song as Newman moves on to tell a funny story about his father’s return from military service, but that too is one of the points the composer is making here. Racial subjugation and the workings of Jim Crow are simply background details. They are learned early, and their reinforcement hardly requires any thought. When the caste-marks of bigotry can be imposed so easily, almost in the form of a lullaby, then the work of evil is already nearly finished. Moreover, Newman presents it without comment – at least, without obvious comment. So doing, he runs one of the biggest risks any artist can take: the risk of being misunderstood.
  192. The same boldness runs through Newman’s cover version of “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” a 1932 song by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel that evokes Harlem as a symbol of the Jazz Age. Coming midway through his gallery of grotesques in the 1970 album 12 Songs, it can be heard as a condescending take on African Americans – “It ain’t no sin to laugh and grin;/ That’s why darkies were born” – or a jab at slumming whites heading uptown to find “the kind of love that satisfies.”
  194. The song packs a world of contradictions and challenges into its few lines. The black performers at the Cotton Club lived in a segregated society that afflicted them with daily humiliations, but they were also getting an entrée into mainstream culture. The greatest of them, Duke Ellington, learned from his exploiters and became an astute businessman as well as a phenomenal composer. For every white fool who headed into Harlem to hear “jungle music,” there were others who thrilled to the sound of new art forms being invented and perfected. 12 Songs was released at a time when songs about racism typically settled for nothing more complicated than earnest denunciations. But Newman, knowing full well he was going to confuse many listeners, offered them nothing to certify his good intentions.
  196. It’s an approach that puts a big demand on a performer and his audience, because it cuts against the player’s natural instinct to ingratiate himself just as it complicates the audience’s expectations. You can hear that commitment wobble on Randy Newman Live, the concert recording released after the commercial belly flop of 12 Songs, when the performer introduces “Yellow Man” (already a pretty cartoonish song) as “a pinhead’s view of China” and everyone has a nice cozy chuckle. But on his first four studio recordings, at any rate, Newman held himself to a remarkably high standard.
  198. *****
  200. It would be tempting to ascribe Newman’s career choice to his youth in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz, but while it probably didn’t hurt, the fact of the matter is that music was and is the Newman family business. Three of his uncles were notable Hollywood soundtrack composers, and two cousins and a nephew are also successful film composers. Looming over them is Alfred Newman (1901-1970), a prodigy who conducted orchestras for George Gershwin and Irving Berlin before signing on as music director of the 20th Century Fox film studio in 1940. During his two decades with the studio, Alfred Newman garnered nine Academy Awards, composed the “Fox Fanfare” that opened most of the studio’s releases, and sponsored the careers of renowned soundtrack composers Bernard Herrmann and John Williams. He also developed the “Newman system” for matching the performance of a film score with the action on screen.
  202. Scarcely less accomplished was Lionel Newman (1916-1989), who had already conducted orchestras as a teenager and served as Mae West’s piano accompanist before signing on at Fox under Alfred’s supervision. He bagged his own Oscar in 1969 for his work on Hello Dolly! His song “Again,” first sung by Ida Lupino in the 1949 film Road House, has a secure place in the American pop songbook.
  204. Between Alfred and Lionel was Emil Newman (1911-1984), composer of over 200 film and television scores, and music director on the landmark all-black 1943 musical Stormy Weather. And though Newman’s father, Irving, broke the mold by becoming a physician, he did a bit of songwriting on the side. One of his tunes, “Who Gave You the Roses,” was recorded by Bing Crosby and released as a b-side in 1959.
  206. Early on, Randy Newman formed a deep and lasting friendship with Lenny Waronker, whose father, Sy, was the founder of Liberty Records. The Liberty roster included rockabilly pioneer Eddie Cochran, Brill Building pop crooner Bobby Vee, and surf music duo Jan & Dean. While struggling with their own piano lessons, Lenny and Randy would sit in on recording sessions and watch the inner workings of a successful record company. As they grew older, Waronker encouraged Newman’s early attempts at songwriting, accepting what would become his lifelong role as cheerleader and midwife during bouts of Newman’s excruciatingly slow creative process.
  208. Newman worked up the nerve to submit a demo for a song called “Don’t Tell on Me,” to Bobby Vee, who passed. But another song, “Somebody’s Waiting,” was taken up by Gene McDaniels as released as a b-side to the single “Spanish Lace” in 1962. On the strength of that accomplishment, and with Waronker’s support, Newman was hired by Metric Music, the songwriting arm of Liberty Records. Waronker, moving his way up through the record industry hierarchy, sat behind the studio console while Newman recorded song demos, adding “producer” to his list of Randy Newman-related job titles. Another milestone came later in 1962 when Newman released his first single under his own name: a teenaged plaint called “Golden Gridiron Boy.”
  210. Listening to the song with the benefit of fifty years’ hindsight, it’s tempting to read fledgling stabs at parody into the single’s earnest lyrics and squeaky singing. Though the song showcases Newman’s burgeoning talent for swiftly sketching in a character, only one of the lines offers a hint of ironies to come: “I’m too small to make the team . . . [b]ut I’m big enough to have a dream.” Newman doesn’t put enough of a spin on the cliché to do any damage with it. That kind of thing would come later.
  212. After “Golden Gridiron Boy” sank without a trace, Newman returned to composing and arranging songs for other performers. His songs were covered by a remarkably diverse range of artists. Soul and R&B performers – Jerry Butler, Irma Thomas, and the O’Jays – were notably drawn to his work. Newman was also much sought-after in the U.K., where Cilla Black and Alan Price released versions of Newman compositions. Price would be a particularly strong Newman booster, recording no fewer than seven Newman songs for his 1967 album A Price on His Head. Newman was also briefly a member of The Tikis, a Santa Cruz-based group with a taste for Beatlesque pop. Though he left the group before it morphed into Harpers Bizarre (under which name they scored a hit with Paul Simon’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song”) the band recorded several of his songs on its first two albums. On the strength of this behind-the-scenes success, Lenny Waronker – now a producer and talent scout with Warner Bros. Records – wrangled a solo recording deal, and 1968 saw the release of Newman’s self-titled debut album.
  214. It was not an auspicious debut. The songwriting on Randy Newman is beyond reproach, but his singing is thin and strained beneath the fussy, overcooked orchestrations, which have none of the grace and subtlety Newman would bring to later works. The record didn’t even dent the bottom of the Billboard Top 100 sales chart, and Newman’s solo career appeared stillborn. His big success that year was his faux-Kurt Weill arrangement for Peggy Lee’s cocktail lounge existentialist song “Is That All There Is?” Lee’s performance, with Newman himself conducting the orchestra, was a Top 40 hit and won her a Grammy award. Newman was once again relegated to the background.
  216. But while Randy Newman had no discernible impact on the sales charts, the record made a tremendous impression on other musicians. The pensive “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” ranks as a new standard, covered by everyone from pop-folk singer Judy Collins to soul singer Nina Simone. Singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson drew heavily on the album for Nilsson Sings Newman, a 1970 collection with Newman himself playing keyboards in the backup band. It was quickly followed by Newman’s second album, 12 Songs.
  218. 12 Songs is where Newman found himself as a solo performer. The walls of strings are replaced with basic blues-rock instrumentation, including agile slide guitar parts from Ry Cooder, and hard-charging brass on the opening song, “Have You Seen My Baby?” Newman’s piano playing, all but absent from Randy Newman, gets a prominent place in the mix, but the clincher is Newman’s singing. On the first record he sounds like a boy standing on tiptoes, trying to keep shoulder-to-shoulder with his elders. On 12 Songs, Newman slouches into the unlikely mumble that led Waronker to dub him “king of the suburban blues singers.”
  220. The rootsy sound makes for a rewarding contrast with the frequently outré subject matter of the songs. The most surrealistic is “Lucinda,” in which a wailing slide guitar sets the backdrop as the singer watches a high school queen, still wearing her graduation gown, offer herself as a sacrifice to a beach-cleaning machine. “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield,” played so quietly that it almost drops off the album after the brassy opener, offers arson as an aphrodisiac. The bass and percussion play low while a man urges his lover to hide behind an oak tree while he torches a nearby field, “And I’ll make love to you while it’s burning.”
  222. One of the high points is “Suzanne,” a mid-tempo piano blues that cuts through the album’s weirdness and humor with a strain of real menace. Coming right after the light comedy of “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the tale of a mama’s boy taking his first scary walk on the wild side, “Suzanne” puts us inside the head of a rapist following a woman whose name he found scrawled in a telephone booth. The rather cheesy spookhouse organ touches suggest the song may be a put-on – Newman later joked that he didn’t think the stalker was much of a threat – but there’s no denying the chill in the air as the character studies his target. The song’s unhurried tempo suggests an ease born of long practice. This rapist is following an established pattern. He is methodical. Once he is certain of his target’s routine, he will move in. Until then – “You won’t know it, but I’ll be around.” The long, contemplative fade at the end of the song leaves the listener to wonder just how many other women have received these attentions. With “Suzanne” overshadowing the rest of the record, even the relatively straightforward “Rosemary” takes on sinister overtones. One is left to wonder how many pop love songs could, with a few changes in emphasis, play as sexual threats.
  224. Robert Christgau of the Village Voice likened 12 Songs to “Winesburg, Ohio (or Dubliners) transported to 1970 Los Angeles.” Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce are pretty good company for any songwriter, but the bare-bones performance recording Randy Newman Live showed the man retreating into Beloved Entertainer mode before an audience that, as noted earlier, never had to wonder when to laugh or clap. Fortunately, Newman was at work on a much less comfortable suite of songs, one of which would serve as a prologue to Good Old Boys.
  226. After 12 Songs and Randy Newman Live, the lush orchestral arrangements of Sail Away come as a surprise and a tonic. Released in May 1972, Sail Away is a luxuriously packaged collection of poisoned bonbons. One of the creamiest is “He Gives Us All His Love,” which shows the deity looking on unperturbed as people die and babies cry, but it’s okay because He gives us all his love, and if the burden of living in His world becomes unbearable . . . hey, He’ll always listen while you tell Him your troubles. “Lonely at the Top,” with its self-pitying celebrity protagonist, was offered to Frank Sinatra, who turned it down in what was either one of the best or one of the worst decisions of his career. “Burn On” is a snarky celebration of the Cuyahoga River, the Ohio waterway so polluted that portions of its surface literally caught fire in 1969. “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” is the flip side of “He Gives Us All His Love” in that the Almighty, silent in the first tune, speaks to humanity in the second, directly and with infinite malice.
  228. As fine as these songs are, they are overshadowed by the opening track, “Sail Away,” a subtly written masterpiece about slavery and the creation of America that stands apart from the rest of the album and looks ahead to Good Old Boys, and with it the full realization of Newman’s gifts as a storyteller. Not just any kind, either, but a storyteller working in one of the oldest and most troubling traditions we know.
  232. * * *
  236. 2. The Devil Has Something to Say
  238. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1937 short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” Mr. Scratch (aka, the Devil) lays claim to the soul of farmer Jabez Stone with a legally binding contract, the very basis of an orderly society, and faces off against famed orator and statesman Daniel Webster before a jury of damned souls. Since the first task of any devil, any villain, is to undermine the hero’s moral standing, Scratch reminds Webster of the two original sins attendant upon America’s founding: the conquest of the continent’s original inhabitants, and the enslavement of another continent’s inhabitants to profit from that conquest.
  240. Dan’l Webster’s brow looked dark as a thundercloud. “Pressed or not, you shall not have this man,” he thundered. “Mr. Stone is an American citizen, and no American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince. We fought England for that in ’12 and we’ll fight all hell for it again!”
  242. “Foreign?” said the stranger. “And who calls me a foreigner?”
  244. “Well, I never yet heard of the dev – of your claiming American citizenship,” said Dan’l Webster with surprise.
  246. “And who with better right?” said the stranger, with one of his terrible smiles. “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? ’Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American like yourself – and of the best descent – for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.”
  248. The cut is all the more wounding because Webster has been rather cavalierly declaring that if his case cannot be won, America might as well be given back to the Indians. In the 1941 film version (which Benet co-scripted) Walter Huston delivers a scaled-down version of Mr. Scratch’s rejoinder in a wonderfully dry, matter-of-fact tone, ending with a touch of becoming modesty. Webster saves the day (and retains his soul) with a grandly idealistic speech, but he never really faces Scratch’s challenge head on. The devil doesn’t get the last word, but he does get the best one.
  250. Benet understood a storytelling tradition at least as old as the Book of Job, in which Satan scoffs at God’s praise of Job’s piety and predicts the man will curse God as soon as his fortunes fail, and Book IX of Paradise Lost, when the Serpent calls to Eve and challenges the idea of a God who willfully keeps his subjects ignorant. The principle is simple: If your story has a devil (and most stories do) then you have to let him talk. You have to give your villain – your devil – a speech, and you have to make it a good one.
  252. And in the stories that rise to that challenge, the best devils try to convince us that they aren’t really such bad guys. They tell us the world is full of devils, everyone is a devil of some kind, and that their honesty about this fact is preferable to the false piety of others. The devil’s storytelling role is to test complacency, challenge received wisdom, and speak truth. It’s a self-serving and frequently distorted kind of truth, usually told in the service of a greater lie, but still not something that can be laughed off or ignored. Great devils and villains, knowing that they stand convicted of evil before they even open their mouths, nevertheless stand before unsympathetic and hostile listeners to deliver their messages: Everything you know is wrong, but I am here to give you the unpleasant truth, if only you will listen.
  254. Great devil speeches crop up in the most unexpected places, and can dominate the stories in which they appear. Mention the film The Third Man and likely the first thing you’ll think of is black market profiteer Harry Lime’s discourse on how the bloody reign of the Borgias produced the innovations of the Renaissance, while the peace and prosperity of Switzerland produced nothing grander than the cuckoo clock. (It was actually invented in Germany, but nobody wants to interrupt Harry Lime when he’s on a roll.) In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Serpent invites Eve to bite into the forbidden fruit by asking her why a just and loving god would want to deny his creations full knowledge of the world he has created for them: “Why but to keep ye low and ignorant.” Bite into the forbidden fruit, Satan promises, and “ye shall be as Gods/ Knowing both Good and Evil as they know.” Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” soliloquy in The Merchant of Venice may well be the ultimate devil speech. Shakespeare’s audience would have heard it as the self-justifying rant of a villain, but its sentiments have upended that role so completely that for a modern audience it is Antonio, not Shylock, who comes off as the villain.
  256. One of the great underappreciated devil speeches is delivered by Larry the Liquidator, the corporate raider in the 1991 film version of Jerry Sterner’s play Other People’s Money. Larry, who wants to close down an unprofitable wire and cable company and sell the assets, has to make his pitch to the shareholders after the president, Andrew Jorgenson (played by Gregory Peck as the soul of rock-ribbed New England rectitude), has denounced his plan with all the Atticus Finch firepower at his command. Closing the factory will turn loyal employees out into the street and destroy the local economy, all to make a few bucks. Take this offer, Jorgenson thunders, and America will be one step closer to becoming “a nation that makes nothing but hamburgers, creates nothing but lawyers, and sells nothing but tax shelters.” Larry (Danny DeVito) turns Jorgenson’s words inside out. “I’m not your best friend, I’m your only friend,” Larry tells the shareholders. “I don’t make anything? I’m makin’ you money!” Or, as Mr. Scratch tells Jabez Stone, what good is a soul? “You’ll have money, and all that money can buy.”
  258. One of the hallmarks of a good devil speech is the focus on short-term gains over long-term well being. Harry Lime simply wants to keep his boyhood friend dazzled and confused until he can get clear, just as Lucifer wants to befuddle Eve, Mr. Scratch wants Jabez Stone to sign away his soul, Larry wants to get the shareholders on his side, and the slave ship captain in “Sail Away” wants to get an African child aboard his ship. Not just one child, either – by extension, all children of Africa. For this captain is a man of vision. Buoyed by the lovely strains of Newman’s orchestral arrangement, it is a vision both beguiling and repulsive. He is offering this child the chance to become the raw material in a great enterprise – the transformation of kidnapped Africans into stereotyped American blacks:
  260. In America you’ll get food to eat
  262. Won’t have to run through the jungle
  264. And scuff up your feet
  266. You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
  268. It’s great to be an American.
  270. Ain’t no lions or tigers
  272. Ain’t no mamba snake
  274. Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake.
  276. Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be
  278. Climb aboard, little wog
  280. Sail away with me.
  282. Of course there will be a few bumps on this road to redemption. There will be the degrading horrors of the Middle Passage, generations of servitude, a promise of freedom followed by political betrayal and generations of renewed bondage under another name, enforced by domestic terrorism and political manipulation. Even the universal human impulse to marry and form a family will be twisted into a means of generating profits for the slaveholders. But think of the cultural glories that will emerge from this charnel house! Bug-eyed simpletons will amuse white audiences with their antics, minstrel shows will criss-cross the landscape, kerchief-wrapped mammies will keep white viewers rocking with laughter, irresistible new forms of music – blues, R&B, jazz, rock and roll – will work transformations of their own, and we will make movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind to keep lying to ourselves about what happened and what was done. How can you resist? Climb aboard!
  284. That ship is still sailing, and the intellectual descendants of Randy Newman’s captain are standing on its decks even now. Say “ahoy” to conservative commentator and former Nixon apparatchik Patrick J. Buchanan, who in a March 2008 column headlined “A Brief for Whitey” put the Atlantic slave trade at the head of a list of reasons why the United States has been “the best country on earth for black folks”:
  286. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known . . . We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?
  288. Swabbing the decks are a rabble of Neo-Confederate nostalgists and revisionists arguing that American slavery was practiced much more humanely than the picture given by Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Roots. Revisionist tracts like The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War take pains to note that Stonewall Jackson taught a boy slave to read, and argue that the peculiar institution was already on its way out and would have dwindled away on its own. It’s enough to make you wonder why plantation overseers needed whips and chains to keep their captives in line, or why fugitive slave laws were necessary. A few months before this book went to press, a “minority outreach” panel at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Caucus fell into chaos when white attendees disputed the need to feel guilt over slavery, because the victims were given food and shelter by the men using them as chattel.
  290. It’s necessary to touch on these topics because “Sail Away,” while hinting at the horrors inflicted on slavery’s victims, is also about the damage slaveholders inflict on themselves. The slave captain is giving the African child a white-conceived stereotype of the slave as a naturally subservient, irrepressibly happy buffoon content to “sing about Jesus and drink wine all day.” It is part of the lie that made American slavery and Jim Crow possible, and only an artist with Randy Newman’s level of boldness would turn it into a sales pitch – a sales pitch, moreover, aimed at the victim, who is invited to enter into degradation and bondage to end up as a stereotype. It is a lie, but the captain believes every word of it. He has to believe it, or his life would be unbearable.
  292. That is why letting the devil speak is necessary, but dangerous. Sometimes the devil can make seductive arguments based on law and truth. But even when the devil speaks the truth, it is always in the service of a greater lie. In “Sail Away,” Randy Newman showed one of America’s greatest lies being crafted. In his next album, Newman would show how the lie soaked into America’s bones. But first he needed a little push. He got it while watching television.
  296. * * *
  300. 3. Pickrick on the Air
  302. It’s safe to say that Georgia governor Lester Maddox’s appearance on the December 18, 1970 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show would be forgotten by now were it not for “Rednecks” and Randy Newman’s oft-repeated anecdote about the song’s inspiration. The show appears on none of the Cavett video anthologies that have been released over the decades because it doesn’t really lend itself to sound-bite treatment. The broadcast’s highs and lows unfolded over too long a stretch of time, until the final moments when Maddox engaged in some culture-war theatrics. The show is so little seen, and so widely misremembered, that most accounts are closer to folklore than fact.
  304. When the 55-year-old Georgia governor appeared on the set of The Dick Cavett Show, he could have been the walking embodiment of the generation gap. With his bulbous, gleaming head and pale features, Maddox was a man who had probably looked middle-aged from the moment of his birth. In his dark suit and trademark spectacles, he could not have offered a more striking contrast with Cavett, 34, who looked well tailored and youthful, with a modish close-cropped beard.
  306. “I think you’re either one of the most understood or misunderstood politicians today, I don’t know which I should call you,” Cavett said.
  308. “Call me most anything you want,” Maddox replied. “Everybody does.”
  312. Born in 1915 and raised in poverty, Maddox had failed at a number of business ventures before putting himself on the path to success in 1947, when he opened the Pickrick Restaurant near the Georgia Tech campus. Maddox worked alongside his wife and children, drawing customers from the campus as well as the nearby steel mills and railroad yards with a menu of cheap, substantial food served in generous quantities. (“You pick what you want and we rick it up for you,” Maddox often said.) A big part of the restaurant’s appeal was Maddox himself as he strolled from table to table, pouring coffee while he traded jokes and gossip with the diners. The Pickrick’s popularity snowballed in 1950 when Maddox started running advertisements in the Atlanta Constitution’s Saturday editions. Headlined PICKRICK SAYS, the ads were chatty and cheeky: one installment offered readers a design for a house that could be built inexpensively, without a kitchen or a dining room, because who needed such amenities when the Pickrick was open? Through the ads, Maddox developed a persona, Mr. Pickrick, as commercially potent in its smaller way as Colonel Harlan Sanders’ string tie and white goatee.
  314. Business success gave heat to Maddox’s long simmering political ambitions. Throughout the Fifties and early Sixties, as he pursued various municipal and state positions, the “Pickrick Says” advertisements became acridly opinionated and combative – so much so, in fact, that the newspaper felt obliged to have a libel lawyer vet the ad copy. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 roused him to special fury, and ugly remarks about race-mixing in the Pickrick ads made Maddox a hero to segregationists across the South. The Dixiecrat discontent that began when President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military in 1948 was intensifying, and the Atlanta restaurateur was more than happy to cater to it.
  316. In later years, Maddox would claim he ran strictly as a law and order candidate, but while it is true that crime was a frequent topic in his speeches, it was consistently overshadowed by racist grandstanding. Such “nigger speeches” had long been standard fare in state-level campaigns, but there was a tacit agreement among local candidates not to engage in such talk. Maddox broke that unwritten rule with enough gusto to make himself the favored candidate of the Ku Klux Klan, and while he was sometimes discomfited by the statements of his more extreme supporters, he never kept his distance for long.
  318. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the watershed moment for Maddox. The Pickrick was a whites-only restaurant, though it did have some black employees, and Maddox swore he would close the business before serving African Americans. The Pickrick’s status as a Jim Crow bastion inevitably brought tests from African-American demonstrators, and there were ugly confrontations. One of the enduring images of the civil-rights era is the 1964 photograph of Maddox, gun drawn and held at waist level, pursuing one of the protestors across the Pickrick parking lot while his son stays on the man’s heels, brandishing a pick handle as a club. Subsequent “Pickrick Says” ads offered souvenir pick handles, or “Pickrick drumsticks,” in “Mama, Junior and Daddy sizes.”
  320. Notoriety brought political opportunity. By then Maddox, the veteran of three feisty but unsuccessful campaigns, had perfected what one Georgia journalist called “a highly polished style of evasion” in which any information unflattering to Maddox was attributed to the distortions of the partisan press. Exhibit A for Maddox’s argument was the fact that many newspapers and television reports initially mistook the pick-handle clubs for ax handles or baseball bats. Like Maddox’s attempts to distinguish his segregationist stance from out-and-out racism, the pick handles vs. ax handles argument was a distinction without much difference.
  322. Maddox, faced with mounting legal bills and the threat of severe court penalties, made good on his pledge to close the Pickrick rather than serve black customers, but his status as a national poster child for segregation finally put him within reach of public office. Even so, his 1966 victory in the Georgia gubernatorial race came about through an unlikely combination of circumstances, including a chaotic open primary in which mischief-making Republican voters skewed the result, and a runoff that threw the election into the Democratic-controlled legislature, which made the final choice based on party loyalty rather than any enthusiasm for Maddox himself. The outcome was praised by George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, and deplored by Barry Goldwater, one of Maddox’s political heroes. Goldwater, who had racist associations of his own to downplay (the Ku Klux Klan’s enthusiasm for his candidacy was an ongoing embarrassment), told CBS-TV newsman Walter Cronkite that “if the legislature of Georgia were really true to their state’s reputation, they’d see that Maddox went back to serving hot dogs.”
  324. “It was fried chicken,” Cronkite said.
  326. “Fried chicken, is that right?” Goldwater replied. “And baseball bats.”
  328. Maddox, upon taking office, pledged to be a governor “for all Georgians” and made good on the pledge with a welter of progressive reforms, particularly an overhaul of the state’s legendarily brutal prison system and an experimental early-release program. Even as he denounced Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist and rabble-rouser, Maddox appointed more African Americans to state positions than any previous governor. The dissonance between Maddox’s extremist campaign style and moderate governing philosophy led journalist Bruce Galphin to title his 1968 study of the governor’s rise to power The Riddle of Lester Maddox, but this gives the man a bit too much credit. Maddox was a careerist bigot who wanted to be liked. There is no shortage of bigots who are courtly and generous in person. Scorned by Republicans and Democrats alike, Maddox entered the governor’s office as a man without a country. Where previous governors had enjoyed nearly dictatorial powers, the legislature had been steadily whittling away at those powers, and the opera buffa of the 1966 election had only strengthened its position. Maddox needed all the friends he could get, but as one observer noted, he was uniquely unqualified to find them:
  330. In a state where one-party, non-ideological politics have made the use of political power a personal and complicated art, Maddox was a protest-vote symbol suddenly transformed into a chief executive – a man almost completely without contacts in any part of the Georgia political structure and completely without experience in manipulating the levers available to the governor. He remains, in many ways, as puzzling to rural legislators as he is to Atlanta businessmen. Apparently, he has difficulty remembering names – an almost unheard-of affliction in Georgia politics – and legislators speak of this phenomenon with awe, as if discussing a man who eats with his toes.
  332. Maddox compounded his problems with moralistic buffoonery: campaigns against mini-skirts, proposals to designate prayer rooms in all public schools, stricter enforcement of Sunday anti-alcohol laws (this in a state where “vote dry and drink wet” was the unwritten political philosophy). Shortly after taking office, the abstemious Maddox sent legislators letters appointing them to the newly formed Governor’s Youth Council on Alcohol, Tobacco and Health, and asking that they sign a pledge not to use tobacco or alcohol in any form. One legislator replied that while he could support the no-smoking part of the pledge, he would never be able to quit drinking while Lester Maddox was governor.
  334. It would be generous to give Maddox credit for heading into enemy territory by agreeing to sit down with Dick Cavett, but the governor really had nothing to lose. The Georgia constitution didn’t allow governors to serve consecutive terms; Maddox had just won a term as lieutenant governor, and obviously hoped to regain the top spot in the next election. It was a given that his segregationist views would not sit well with Cavett’s audience, but the host was not known for being confrontational. Maddox, a shrewd man, doubtless understood that if he flopped on camera he would have a few years to live it down, and not many of his constituents would give a damn about Dick Cavett anyway. On the other hand, if he went the distance, Maddox could go home bragging about how he’d bearded the liberal lion in his shag-carpeted den.
  336. There couldn’t have been a single person on the set, in the building or out among the spectators who didn’t know why Maddox had been invited to appear, but instead of stating the obvious Cavett proceeded cautiously and diffidently. For his part, the governor who had been so outspoken on civil rights and segregation decided to play the watchful Southern sphinx, venturing little and giving only direct answers to Cavett’s questions. Only when the conversation turned to some of Maddox’s undeniably impressive accomplishments in office did the sphinx become voluble.
  338. “All we had to do was beat all the city halls, the courthouses, the state and national Democrats and Republicans, the television stations, the railroads, the banks and the utility boards, but it wasn’t too hard,” Maddox said, his tone bone-dry.
  340. “Other than that, it was easy,” Cavett replied, matching him deadpan for deadpan.
  342. Another commercial break, and then the first sparks started to glow.
  344. “Governor,” Cavett said, “Southerners always complain that Northerners cannot understand them, Southern politicians always claim that Northerners get a distorted picture of them.”
  346. Maddox, taking to the subject, accused the press of ignoring “things that would be favorable” in order to make the South look backward and brutal. “The truth is not being told out there to the people about Lester Maddox or a lot of other things in this country,” he said.
  348. After a brief talk about the Pickrick, Cavett turned to the already famous image of Maddox and his son chasing a black man across the Pickrick parking lot. “What comes to mind when you see that?” he asked, and Maddox said it was “one of those ‘Snick’ [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC] people come out of New York and New Jersey to invade my restaurant.” He went on:
  350. “Every year you people call that an ax handle and it was a pick handle, you people don’t know the difference,” Maddox complained.
  352. “Oh,” Cavett said mildly, drawing laughter from the audience.
  354. Maddox forged ahead. “The news media never tells the truth to people and this is part of that.”
  356. “They really do distort things, don’t they?” Cavett said, straight-faced. The laughter from the audience continued as Maddox elucidated the pick handle’s symbolism – “hard work” – and color: “They’re painted dark red because they look like chicken legs.”
  358. “Well, I’ve certainly learned a lot,” Cavett remarked.
  360. Under the host’s prodding, Maddox accused “the people in the news media” of “dealing in sensationalism.” Asked to name his political heroes, Maddox went on to name Gen. Douglas MacArthur and J. Edgar Hoover, then still head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  362. The arrival of Jim Brown drew applause and anticipatory laughter from the crowd. Just as there were no doubts about the reason for Maddox’s presence, there could be no question of why the accomplished black athlete and film actor – one who had been, in his way, as politically outspoken as Maddox – was on the stage. His nine-year record as a running back with the Cleveland Browns was already the stuff of sports legend, and his starring role in 100 Rifles had sparked riots in theaters across the South because of his sex scene with Raquel Welch, the era’s reigning lust-object. Moreover, Brown was a Georgia native: he grew up in St. Simons, one of the Sea Islands along the state’s coast, and had directly experienced the kind of state-enforced bigotry Maddox was defending. In short, he was the personification of everything segregationists feared the most. At the very least, his presence promised to make the show a bit more interesting.
  364. *****
  366. Taking his seat onstage, Brown played up the moment, shaking hands with Cavett and Maddox, then grinning and giving Maddox an obvious once-over as he sat down.
  368. “Do you feel separate but equal?” Cavett said.
  370. “I think it’s a good match-up,” Brown replied. Still smiling, he said he’d never met the governor before, though “I have of course kept up with his activities.”
  372. Brown then asked Maddox to explain the difference between an ax handle and a pick handle. From the audience, laughter, scattered applause and a cry of “Right on!”
  374. “An ax handle is made for an ax,” Maddox said, “and is an entirely different shape from a pick handle, which is made for a pick.”
  376. “Yes,” Brown pressed, “but not for the top of a head or anything like that.”
  378. “Well, neither one are made for heads,” Maddox said, imperturbable.
  380. “You wouldn’t want to see one used on a person,” Cavett added.
  382. “Just like a ball bat,” Maddox said. “They’re not made for heads either, are they?”
  384. Brown was visibly amused.
  386. Cavett then asked Maddox to define “racism,” as he understood it. “Or segegation. Would you say you are a segregationist?”
  388. “Yes,” Maddox replied, “and I think my definition of a segregationist . . . I think a segregationist is someone who loves his race enough . . . that is, a person who loves his race enough and who loves all races enough to want to see them thrive. And I think a racist is someone who doesn’t care for his race or another race enough to care whether they are amalgamated or destroyed or not.”
  390. While some spectators groaned over Maddox’s attempt to redefine racism in racist-friendly terms, Brown asked the governor if he knew anything about “the Black Muslims,” i.e., Nation of Islam. Maddox said no.
  392. “Well, they practice black separatism . . .” Brown began.
  394. “Well, that’s the reason I’m not familiar with them,” Maddox cracked, deadpan, bringing Brown up short and triggering a wave of laughter.
  396. “That’s a very good answer,” Brown said, laughing along with the audience. “But to continue along that line . . . do you feel that what they’re doing is right? You know they believe that white people should be separate, they believe that they should have a state in this country – I think they feel that Mississippi or Georgia should be, you know, one of those states . . . ”
  398. “I would think they’d want to make it New York,” Maddox shot back.
  400. “All right,” Brown chuckled, “I’m going to get off that. You look too tough.”
  402. “Of course I think forced racial segregation is criminal and unconstitutional,” Maddox went on, “and I think forced racial integration is criminal and unconstitutional. I think either one of them is cruel.”
  404. Brown: “You mean on a social level?”
  406. Maddox: “Any level, when it’s forced.”
  408. Brown pointed out that desegregation was the law of the land, and that Maddox was giving himself the right to put aside rules he didn’t like because they involved integration.
  410. “The law would be just as wrong to force them to integrate as it would be to force them to segregate,” Maddox insisted. “If a country can finally get the power of saying, well, you’re going to hire this person, or you’re going to promote this person, you’re going to serve this person, then the same country can come around and say, you’re going to work for that person . . . ”
  412. Brown: “Well, the laws of the land tell us all what we’ve got to do, basically.”
  414. Maddox: “That doesn’t make it right.”
  416. When Brown reminded him that desegregation had been established by the rule of law, Maddox said: “We’ve got most of these laws because we don’t abide by the laws of God, though. We try to go against the laws of God and the laws of nature and we say ‘You’re inferior, you’re not going to be able to meet success in your life.’ This teaches inferiority to me, and it’s wrong, and it’s criminal and it’s cruel to teach any one person that he is inferior to another race, or that he is inferior.”
  418. Brown: “But as Governor of the State of Georgia, did you go by the laws of God or the laws of the state?”
  420. Maddox: “I go by the laws of God and the state.”
  422. Brown: “As you see fit.”
  424. Once the audience’s laughter and uproar subsided, Cavett asked Maddox if he agreed with the Rev. Billy Graham that racism was morally wrong. When a fresh round of groans issued from the audience, Maddox reminded everyone of the advancements his administration had made in hiring African Americans.
  426. Brown challenged Maddox to explain why, in October, he’d called it a dark day for Georgia when boxer Muhammad Ali was granted a license to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta. It was Ali’s first professional bout after he’d been stripped of his license three years earlier. The background of that dispute, which grew out of Ali’s refusal to serve in the U.S. military – in particular, his remark that he had nothing against the Viet Cong – would have been well known to all viewers at the time. Maddox rose to the bait and suddenly the parries and thrusts gave way to an all-out duel.
  428. Brown: “I felt very glad that this fight was held in Atlanta.”
  430. Maddox: “I felt very sad.”
  432. Brown: “And why was that?”
  434. Maddox: “Here’s a man that . . . who said, ‘I want to fight in a ring for money but I won’t even wear the uniform of my country.’ He says that ‘I can’t do this,’ in other words, ‘I’m going to act different from the other people in this country who stood up for their country and put on the uniform.’” Had other Americans followed Ali’s example, Maddox sputtered, “he couldn’t even get in a ring to fight and be a free man to fight . . . we wouldn’t have a United States of America and I couldn’t be on your show and you probably wouldn’t even have a show if everybody had that attitude.”
  436. For the first time, Brown’s voice held an edge of anger as he said “I did my time” in the military and suggested he considered Ali the more intelligent man for taking a stand against military service. He reminded Maddox that when Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War his stance had not been a popular one, though opinion had subsequently turned his way. He also noted that Ali had fought to regain his boxing license through the courts – in other words, by working through the system. The level of heat was such that the arrival of a commercial break, and a live plug for Alpo dog food delivered by Cavett himself, was something of a relief.
  438. Returning to the discussion, Cavett made a light remark about combativeness. “We’re not in the boxing ring yet,” Maddox quipped.
  440. “Governor, you don’t understand,” Brown said. “I think you are misunderstood because I know a lot of Southerners who really like black people, and you know they portray themselves as really segregationists. And that they hate black people and so forth . . .”
  442. “I know some black people who feel the same way,” Maddox said, “but I don’t know of any white Southerners who don’t like blacks, can you name one?”
  444. Ignoring the laughter, Brown said: “They like black people, but they like them in a role, you know? They like them when they’re very humble and when they’re very loyal.”
  446. “I like humble people whether they’re white or black, don’t you?” Maddox shot back.
  448. “I know, I know,” Brown continued, “but you see, the white people have a choice. You don’t like black people to have a choice, you see.”
  450. “I want black people and white people to have a choice,” Maddox snapped. “You got it all mixed up, you’re trying to twist it . . .”
  452. After some loud back-and-forth, Brown said, “I’m only trying to agree with you. Will you let me finish?”
  454. “If you’ll tell the truth,” Maddox said. This brought a schoolyard background chorus – “Whoooaaa!” – as Brown shook his head.
  456. “Well, I’m only making an analysis, really, it’s not a matter of truth or false,” Brown said. “What I’m really saying is that history has proven that during the days of slavery, when a slave was more or less humble, and he did what he was told, then he was in good favor with the master. But whenever a slave was too educated, if he became aware of his own self, and he wanted to become more than the master wanted him to become, then he was a bad slave, he was then put down, because he represented a threat to the already established kind of white society.”
  458. Maddox replied that racism was a fact all over the world. “You’re not going to wipe it out, Tricky Dick’s not going to wipe it out, and the Supreme Court’s not going to wipe it out.” He then basked in the novelty of approving applause from the Cavett audience.
  460. Cavett, picking up on the widely used nickname for then-President Richard Nixon, said, “Are you referring to me as Tricky Dick?”
  462. “Believe it or not, governor,” Brown said as the laughter subsided, “I don’t think integration should be the number one thrust of our civil-rights leaders anyway, because I think what we’re really talking about in this country is the economic development of black people. Because I find . . . ”
  464. “I want economic development for all people!” Maddox said. “How come you just want to do it for black people? How come you don’t want to do it for white people?”
  466. Maddox and Brown then tried to talk over each other. When Brown finally made his point that black Americans were at the bottom of the economic ladder, Maddox scoffed. “Phooey!” When Brown asked to be allowed to finish his statement, Maddox said: “I’m going to interrupt you every time you keep yelling about black people.”
  468. “If you interrupt me, governor,” Brown said, “then I can’t talk to you . . . see, I’m not really here to fight with you, I’m only trying to have a discussion with you.”
  470. “I’m not going to have a fight with you, either,” Maddox rasped, drawing laughs from the physical contrast between himself and the strapping athlete.
  472. Brown joked that Maddox “must know my reputation,” since he’d come to the ABC studios with a Georgia state trooper as a bodyguard. As everyone in the room well knew, Maddox had responded to the April 1968 assassination and subsequent funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King by surrounding himself with armed guards under orders to “shoot them and stack them in the streets” if any demonstrators broke loose from the funeral procession to attack his office. When the solemn, orderly ceremony failed to match Maddox’s apocalyptic expectations, the governor nevertheless sent state employees home early for “security reasons” evident only to him.
  474. Brown’s crack set off some defensive bluster from Maddox, who said governors typically traveled with a state trooper, though in this case he functioned more as an aide than a bodyguard. (“Are you afraid that I came up here with an aide?”) He denied even knowing that Brown was going to be present.
  476. Cavett bridled at that: “Governor, it’s been known for some days that Jim Brown was going to be here. I didn’t trap you into coming here.”
  478. Maddox continued to scoff at Brown’s talk of his reputation, drawing gasps and laughter from the audience. “I don’t know Jim Brown. Who is Jim Brown?”
  480. After a pause, Cavett chimed in: “Let me introduce you.” When he got his laugh, Cavett told the two men “You’re both doing very well.” After the commercial break, he joked about needing to “find something you two don’t agree on.” He then introduced “another Southerner” – author Truman Capote, who appeared wearing a tight, dark suit and tinted glasses.
  486. Lester Maddox, left, has a laugh with Jim Brown, Dick Cavett, and Truman Capote during the December 1970 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show that reportedly inspired Randy Newman's infamous song "Rednecks." Image (C) American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
  490. Capote, whose mewling voice and epicene manner made him a favorite with comedians and impressionists – this was the tail end of the era in which writers could claim a measure of television-level celebrity – said he’d been watching the arguments from the backstage green room and found the talk “very spirited.”
  492. “I’m glad it’s going to be on film,” Capote added. “You can show it every year at Christmastime for the spirit of brotherhood.”
  494. Maddox, trying to milk the alleged confusion over Jim Brown’s identity for more laughs, said he thought Brown was “that disc jockey, the one who does all those recordings,” apparently conflating R&B singers James Brown and Sly Stone.
  496. “He’s here Monday, can you come back?” Cavett said, referring to James Brown’s scheduled appearance.
  498. Cavett then tried a different approach. He asked his guests to talk about how, as Southerners, they had become aware of segregation and the color barrier.
  500. Capote spoke of his childhood in northern Alabama, and how he and his friend Harper Lee had been allowed to play with black children at an early age. The bare, brutal facts of segregation only came home to them when a circus arrived in the area and the black children were barred from riding a merry-go-round along with Capote and Lee. Brown similarly recalled being able to play with white children up to a certain age, at which point Jim Crow’s iron curtain cut them off from any further mingling.
  502. A ripple of anticipatory laughter stirred the audience as Cavett turned the question to Maddox. The governor started by describing the impoverished, mixed-race neighborhood of his childhood, then switched gears.
  504. “What I’m hearing here today is people trying to apologize for being black and apologize for being white and to find excuses and to be ashamed of something,” he stormed. “I think we are all citizens of America and we ought to be proud that we’ve made the accomplishments we have across the country.” Blacks in America, Maddox said, had it better than blacks in any other part of the world.
  506. “This crap all the time about trying to apologize because you’re white or because something’s gone wrong forty, fifty years ago,” he said, “this is sickening and disgusting to most Americans!”
  508. After a long pause marked by uncomfortable silence on the stage and in the audience, Cavett asked: “Is it?”
  510. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” Maddox barked. He told Cavett he should be talking up America’s best qualities. “I’ve been discriminated against most of my life,” he continued, ignoring the offstage laughter, “and I’m not going to take it out on you.”
  512. As he spoke, Maddox put a hand on Brown’s arm for emphasis. When Brown looked at him quizzically, Maddox pounced: “See, I touched him on the arm and that embarrassed him.”
  514. “Governor,” Brown chuckled, “you don’t know me too well, you can’t embarrass me . . .”
  516. “I don’t know,” Capote tried to interject, “wait a minute, governor . . .”
  518. “Please feel free to speak your mind,” Cavett urged, and the ensuing laughter carried then into the next commercial break. When the show resumed, Cavett asked Maddox to list the things his administration had done for Georgia’s black residents.
  520. Maddox responded with a considerable list of programs, including prison reform and the appointment of numerous African Americans to state positions that had previously been exclusively white. Cavett added that in preparing for the interview, he’d been surprised by the governor’s willingness to reach out to his black constituents. Maddox replied that no change of heart had been involved – he’d always been ready to be governor to all Georgians.
  522. This set the stage for the blowup that secured the episode’s place as a footnote to an appendix in broadcast history.
  524. “Did you have any problems from the white bigots in the state?” Brown asked him. “From the white bigots, because you did so much for the black man?”
  526. “What do you mean, which white bigots?” Maddox said. “There are the black ones and the white ones I’ve had trouble with from time to time.”
  528. “I said white bigots,” Brown told him.
  530. Maddox: “I have black racists and white racists that create some problems.”
  532. Brown: “Did you have any problems with the white racists because you did so much for black people?”
  534. Cavett then broke in to announce another commercial break. Unlike other hosts at the time, Cavett tended to let the initial phases of interviews run on without interruption by commercials. Since the network was contractually bound to run the commercials, the last half-hour of a Cavett broadcast was usually made choppy by the late-breaking parade of TV spots.
  536. Back on the air, Cavett tried to pick up where they’d left off.
  538. “Mr. Brown asked you, Governor Maddox, if you’d had any trouble from your white admirers from the fact that . . .”
  540. “He didn’t say ‘admirers,’” Maddox said.
  542. “No,” Cavett acknowledged, “he said ‘bigots.’”
  544. “Well,” Maddox pressed, “why didn’t you say it like he said it?”
  546. “You have me there,” Cavett said, trying to laugh it off.
  548. “You see what I’m talking about, Dick?” Maddox demanded. “You take words and you twist them around and you mislead the people in your audience. You ought to start by being honest, all of you, with what you’re saying to people. You said ‘admirers’ and he said ‘bigots’ – a lot of difference, isn’t it?”
  550. “Yes,” Cavett said, trying to hold back impatience and irritation, “I feel like a bigger person now.”
  552. “Why do you want to mislead the people like that?” Maddox asked.
  554. “I didn’t mean to mislead the people,” Cavett said. “It is a good question, though, isn’t it?”
  556. “It’s a good question but for you to come back and call bigots my ‘admirers’ is a farce,” Maddox retorted. “It’s an act of hypocrisy. It’s a terrible way to treat a guest on your show and you know it.”
  558. “You know,” Cavett said, looking to the other guests, “he’s right at that.”
  560. “Why don’t you apologize to the people for calling people who are my admirers ‘bigots’?” Maddox insisted.
  562. “Wait a minute,” Cavett said. “I’m sure you’re at least half serious on this but . . .”
  564. “Now you apologize,” Maddox demanded.
  566. “No, I won’t,” Cavett said.
  568. “All right then,” Maddox said, getting up to leave.
  570. “Oh no!” Cavett cried. “Now don’t!”
  572. “You better apologize!” Maddox shot back.
  574. “Please sit down, I’ll explain it,” Cavett urged.
  576. Maddox sat down. “I’ll answer his question when you apologize to the people for calling my admirers ‘bigots.’ I’ve got friends and admirers who are black and white and none of them are bigots.”
  578. Cavett drew a deep breath. “If I called any of your admirers bigots who are not bigots, I apologize.” Brown and the audience applauded, but Maddox remained testy.
  580. “If you can’t be fair, if you can’t be decent, then you don’t belong on television and I don’t belong here with you,” Maddox said.
  582. A spectator shouted, “Leave!” The ensuing laughter, combined with Maddox’s continued demands, blurred the back and forth between the four men.
  584. “The only bigots I have ever had to deal with,” Maddox declared, “are the ones who came from your city! Name one person in Georgia who is a bigot!”
  586. “How much time do we get?” Brown chuckled.
  588. “I honestly don’t know how seriously to take you at this moment . . .” Cavett began, then called out “Wait a minute!” as Maddox stood up and stalked off the set, just as another clutch of commercials appeared.
  590. When the show resumed, Cavett explained that he’d tried without success to bring Maddox back to the podium. “I can’t tell in all honesty if Governor Maddox is part showman.” Cavett, a native of Nebraska, went on to say he’d always envied native Southerners because their childhoods seemed so much more colorful, and their verbal tradition so much richer, than his own.
  592. Capote, a native Southerner, seemed less than impressed. “In Georgia, the joke is that Governor Maddox doesn’t care how high a black man rises in office, just how close he gets.” He added that he’d once eaten at the Pickrick: “It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t finger lickin’ good.”
  594. Cavett, who still seemed genuinely distressed at the walkout, said that in an odd way he found the governor likeable, and asked if the others shared his feeling. Brown and Capote, the only homegrown Southerners left on the set, kept their arms folded and said nothing.
  596. “Senator Goldwater will be here Monday,” Cavett sighed. “Perhaps he can clear this up.”
  598. *****
  600. In his 1989 memoir Out of Bounds, Jim Brown describes Maddox as “a country boy and a wildman.” His account of the show obviously draws on unassisted memory, but he stays true to the spirit of the occasion:
  602. I was watching them on the Green Room TV; Cavett got right to it. He said, “Mr. Maddox, you’ve blocked integration on national TV. You had an axe handle – ”
  604. Maddox interrupted. “See that? That’s what I’ve been telling you. The press distorts everything. I didn’t have an axe handle. I had a pick handle.”
  606. I thought, Well, well, look what we have here. A crazy Southerner.
  608. Preparing to go on, I knew Lester had a quick mind, quicker mouth. He also had a state trooper, waiting in the wings, watching. They announced me, I walked on, did the hi-how-are-you thing, sat down, asked if I could ask Mr. Maddox a question.
  610. Cavett said of course. I turned to Lester.
  612. “Mr. Maddox,” I said, “could you tell us something? Is there any discernible difference between an axe handle and a pick handle?”
  614. Lester was surprised, quickly recovered.
  616. He said, “Hey, you must be the guy James Brown. You’re a hell of a singer and dancer!”
  618. I laughed. Old Lester could deal. Right before the break, I thought, I got one. I know I can get him on this one.
  620. I said, “Governor Maddox, I’ve followed your career, your activities in the state of Georgia. In a quiet way, you’ve done a lot of things for black people in that state. How does this go over with the people who voted you into office?”
  622. I had stuck him with another sharp jab. Lester’s mouth opened, nothing came out. Luckily for Lester, they cut to a commercial. During the break I kept a straight face, inside I was grinning. I knew I had him in a no-win deal. He couldn’t quite say, “I did not help black people!” If he admitted he had, certain white folks were going to cause Lester some problems.
  624. I could practically see Lester’s brain working, was curious what it would produce.
  626. We came back from commercial – Cavett leaped in with a paraphrase. Cavett said, “Before we went to commercial, Governor Maddox, Jim Brown asked you how your bigoted friends feel about you helping black people.”
  628. Maddox detonated. “Bigoted friends! How dare you! Apologize! Or I will walk off this show!”
  630. Cavett backpedaled. “Well, it was a quote. I was . . . ”
  632. Maddox walked off the set. Cavett started rushing behind him. “Mr. Maddox, Mr. Maddox!”
  634. Suddenly I was alone. I saw the camera was on me. And I burst out laughing! Mr. Supposedly Serious, laughing his ass off on national TV.
  636. The least reliable account of all mars what is to date the only serious book-length study of Newman’s work, Randy Newman’s American Dreams:
  638. Maddox was an easy target for jokes, as he would be that night on The Dick Cavett Show. The guests, besides Maddox, included the highly opinionated novelist and polemicist Gore Vidal and the black football player and actor Jim Brown. Mere moments after Maddox sat down, both started to mock him. When Cavett did nothing to discourage them, the Georgia governor walked out.
  640. The substitution of Gore Vidal for Truman Capote is amusing, given the bad blood between the two writers, but the solicitude for the governor’s feelings is high comedy. Not only was Maddox “an easy target for jokes,” he richly deserved to be the target of those jokes. It’s pretty clear that Cavett’s audience had been shown what Georgia journalist Bruce Galphin called the governor’s “ability to seize an opponent’s own words, redefine them, deliver a sermonette on the altered subject, and leave the still unanswered issue in an obscuring pile of rhetorical dust.”
  642. That rhetorical dust cloud has yet to settle. Maddox’s word games about segregation, like the slaver’s sales pitch in “Sail Away,” have plenty of equivalents among contemporary conservatives. In particular, the notion that anyone who even mentions race is the “real” racist has become the default setting for right-wingers generating dust clouds of their own. When Shirley Sherrod, a black government official in charge of approving agricultural loans, gave a heartfelt speech about overcoming her own bitterness against whites over years of Jim Crow humiliations, Internet smear merchant Andrew Breitbart posted a video clip doctored to make the speech sound like an anti-white diatribe. (Breitbart’s untimely death in 2012 cheated the civilized world of the chance to watch Sherrod clean his clock in a defamation suit.) To hear conservatives tell it, the only racists left are blacks who bad-mouth whites.
  644. Maddox was not a man to forget a slight, and if he felt himself badly used that night he made no mention of it in his 1975 memoir Speaking Out – a curious omission for a man with such an appetite for publicity stunts. Bob Short’s fawning 1999 biography of Maddox, Everything is Pickrick, skips over it as well. Two years after the initial broadcast, Maddox returned for a no-hard-feelings reprise, and Cavett repaid him by storming off his own show.
  646. It is a perverse injustice to depict Lester Maddox as an overmatched country boy, batting straw out of his hair (or, in this case, off his scalp) while the city slickers have their fun. Helpless naifs do not claw their way up to state government posts. The governor had already done his storming-off-the-set shtick at least once before, with conservative talk-show host Joe Pyne. In his own memoir, Cavett concluded that he had been “manipulated, set up, exploited, used by a master of showmanly instinct.” While the talk had seemed heated, Cavett said, “Ol’ Lester was always winking at me with his up-camera eye, and during the break he would ask if it was going all right. So I was totally unprepared for what happened.”
  648. Was he right to walk off? Yes. But not because I failed to apologize. He was right because it was theatrical and well timed, and got him more attention than he had had since the old pick-handle-brandishing-days of the Pickrick Restaurant. I heard that he papered the walls of his office with the congratulatory wires he got. Maddox is smart as a whip – or should I say knout? – and knows how to exploit the media as well as or better than Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman ever did. As I said on the next night’s show, he also knows the value of television time, walking off as he did a scant eighty-eight minutes into the show.
  650. For all the attention he garnered for his antics on The Dick Cavett Show, Maddox was on his way to political oblivion – the victim not of liberal condescension, but of his own misreading of the public mood. When his term as lieutenant governor ran out, so did his political career. Atlanta was rebranding itself as “The City Too Busy to Hate,” and the Maddox style of buffoonery was out of step with the times. As Cavett himself noted:
  652. In Greenwood, Mississippi, my wife’s home town, there was a country-club dance, and the guests had heard the news on their car radios on the way. When the show started, the dance floor slowly emptied as people filed into the lounge to watch. One of my wife’s childhood friends reported that in the middle of the show she looked out into the formerly crowded ballroom and it was bare except for the orchestra and my wife’s uncle Ralph, a lanky, no-nonsense, six-foot-five-inch plantation owner, and his dancing partner. I think Uncle Ralph had always feared that his northern nephew-in-law would do something disgraceful on nationwide TV and had probably decided that this was the night. The crowd in the lounge watched in stony silence, although in earlier times ninety-nine per cent of them would have cheered Lester.
  654. Elsewhere in the country, though, a young songwriter watched the broadcast and felt a great deal of sympathy for Maddox. Misplaced or not, this sympathy provided a much-needed creative spark for a chronic procrastinator. Randy Newman had finally jump-started his muse.
  658. * * *
  662. 4. Resentments of Things Past
  664. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.
  666. – Patrick Buchanan
  668. Buchanan’s speech, delivered from a prime perch at the 1992 Republican National Convention, was probably the high noon of the culture wars. He was playing a familiar tune, using sheet music he’d helped write during his years with the Nixon administration, but instead of hearkening to its call the voters turned away. If anything, Buchanan’s line-’em-up-for-the-firing-squad rhetoric probably played a significant role in destroying George H.W. Bush’s bid for a second term as president. The imperturbably sunny face of the Reagan presidency had been replaced by a frothing troglodyte with an anti-tax pledge in one paw and a picture of a bloody fetus in the other. When voters give in to their worst instincts, they prefer to do it in a more attractive way.
  670. The tune has varied little over the decades. Whether it’s Spiro Agnew snarling about effete intellectual snobs or Dan Quayle chirping about “the cultural elite,” the message is that the world is being run into the group by elitists who look down on hardworking Americans while opening the gates to barbaric gays/ blacks/ immigrants/ Islamists, or any other hobgoblin of the moment. Sometimes the speaker makes the mistake of being too frank in public, as happened when Rev. Jerry Falwell went on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club broadcast a mere two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and announced, with smoke from incinerated humans and buildings still thick in the air over southern Manhattan, that the attacks reflected God’s anger at “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays, and the lesbians.” But even when it fails to win elections, culture war rhetoric serves the purpose of shoring up the hardcore supporters – the base. In that case, failure is almost preferable to success. It keeps the base unified and, above all, angry. Resentment is the cheap fuel that keeps the culture wars running, and like most cheap fuels it generates an appalling amount of pollutants.
  672. The opening lines of “Rednecks” are steeped in resentment:
  674. Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
  676. With some smart-ass New York Jew
  678. And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
  680. And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
  682. “Rednecks” is the perfect flip-side to “Sail Away,” the effect to its cause, the “after” to its “before.” It is also one of the greatest devil speeches ever set to beguiling music. Where the slave ship captain invites the African child to become a cruel racial stereotype, the redneck informs the child’s Americanized descendants that they will never be anything but that stereotype – that the world is a realm of the crudest, most viciously cartoonish racial images, which no amount of self-awareness will change. And, like Mr. Scratch undercutting Daniel Webster in that spectral courtroom, the redneck gives us a tour of Northern ghettos where the niggers are being kept down quite well. As Malcolm X once observed, if you live south of the Canadian border, you’re in the South.
  686. * * *
  692. In its finished form, Good Old Boys divides into three acts. The long first act (which took up the first side of the original vinyl edition) focuses on the unnamed steelworker and his domestic concerns: his contempt for the North and its racial hypocrisy (“Rednecks”), his home (“Birmingham”), his love for his wife (“Marie”), and his drinking (“Guilty”), pausing for a call for help during recessionary times (“Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man”). The second act widens the scope to encompass the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 (“Louisiana 1927”), and the political hucksters who followed in its train – specifically Huey Long, whose campaign song “Every Man a King” is prologue to an ambitious musical portrait, “Kingfish.” The personal and the political are woven together so brilliantly that for much of its length Good Old Boys threatens to become a masterpiece.
  694. At this point, unfortunately, the concept unravels. The wobbly third act opens with “Naked Man,” a bright, bouncy pop tune at odds with the somber, sardonic mood built by the previous eight songs. The next two cuts (“A Wedding in Cherokee County” and “Back on My Feet Again”) revert to the kind of Erskine Caldwell grotesques the preceding songs worked to explode. Newman recovers somewhat with “Rollin’,” an ode to the pleasures of ending the day with a tumbler of whiskey and a chaser of complacency. It’s a lovely song with the same long-lined melody as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (the hymn favored by the homicidal preacher in The Night of the Hunter), but as noted earlier it leaves the listener with the sense that something important has been skimmed over.
  696. As we know from listening to the work tape that preceded Good Old Boys, Newman originally planned to make his anonymous redneck Johnny Cutler, a hard-drinking Birmingham steelworker with a wife, Marie, and a pair of young daughters. According to the outline Newman recorded in the studio with his regular producer, “Rednecks” was meant to open with the sounds of children playing in a park, and an orchestra playing in the distance. (From his remarks on the Johnny Cutler’s Birthday work tape, Newman pictured Birmingham’s Red Mountain Park, with its imposing statue of Vulcan.) Newman dropped that idea, but only because it was superfluous. Virtually every song on Good Old Boys sounds like it’s drifting across a summer field.
  698. Where does an artist go after opening with a flamethrower like “Rednecks”? In Randy Newman’s case, he goes back to that bandshell. With its old-timey arrangement and laundry list of Chamber of Commerce banalities, “Birmingham” could not sound more benign. Any sense of menace comes from the listener’s background knowledge. After all, this is the same “Magic City” where Jim Crow laws were underlined with sticks of dynamite – there were so many unsolved racially motivated bombings that it became known as “Bombingham.” This was, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” where Eugene “Bull” Connor, the inaptly titled commissioner of public safety, had nonviolent civil rights demonstrators tormented by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses set at pressure levels that shredded the bark from trees. This is the city where four young African American girls were torn apart by a bomb planted at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. These blood-drenched associations were barely a decade old when Good Old Boys hit the sales racks.
  700. The song’s viewpoint character doesn’t mention any of this history, which is precisely Newman’s point. All that horror went on somewhere beyond the lace curtains and nicely displayed china; all the character wants to do is celebrate his working-class heritage. If there is evil at work here, it is the banal workaday sort that has no fixed point of origin, and can crop up anywhere, north or south.
  702. The next track, “Marie,” is a drunken love song from the unnamed Johnny Cutler to his wife that stretches Newman’s vocal register to its limits. This gentle song has a sting in its tail: for all his whoozy protestations of devotion, the husband is singing only about his own feelings. Marie, the archetypal idealized wife, would like nothing better than to jump down from her pedestal, as we learn in one of the deleted songs from Johnny Cutler’s Birthday.
  704. “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” is a direct address, grounded in the economic doldrums of the mid-Seventies but every bit as applicable to the doldrums of succeeding decades. It reminds us of the travails of working life, and by extension the ease with which the anger stirred by those travails can be used for political purposes. “Guilty” ends the first act on a weak note: it’s the second drinking song on an album that has at least one too many.
  706. “Louisiana 1927,” which opened side two of the vinyl edition, is Randy Newman in his Aaron Copland mode, with an orchestral prelude that could have been dropped into Appalachian Spring without causing a ripple. This is where Good Old Boys broadens into a historical canvas, and while it’s unclear what the Mississippi River flood of 1927 has to do with our redneck steelworker – the flood, which inundated 26,000 square miles across seven states, did no harm in Alabama – but the chorus “they’re trying to wash us away” certainly speaks to the anger and sense of living under siege that afflicts him. The opening piano chords echo “Sail Away,” suggesting that, rainbow sign or no rainbow sign, God may have sent these floodwaters as punishment for the sin articulated in that earlier song, just as the soaring melody evokes the slaveship captain scanning the horizon with his little wog passenger. Only now the captain has become President Coolidge, standing with his assistant and marveling at “what the river has done to this poor cracker’s land.”
  708. The next track, “Every Man a King,” is the theme song from Huey Long’s 1928 gubernatorial campaign, with Newman on piano leading a sing-along male chorus. Though it seems to come out of the blue, especially following the grandeur of “Louisiana 1927,” the song actually makes sense as a transition. Long’s first bid to become governor of Louisiana in 1924 was turned aside by the state’s “Old Regulars,” the junta of planters, cronies, and Standard Oil figureheads who kept Louisiana backward even by Third World standards. His landslide victory in 1928 was partly due to the havoc wrought by the flood, and his call for a massive public works program financed through taxes levied against the corporate interests that kept the Old Regulars in their pockets.
  710. Long himself is a fascinating figure, and the song about him, “Kingfish,” is one of Newman’s most unjustly overlooked tunes. A baby-faced redhead with an antic down-home speaking style that lulled his opponents into mistaking him for a rustic lightweight, Long more or less single-handedly dragged Louisiana into the twentieth century. His public works programs created a network of roads and bridges that enabled vehicles to cross the state in hours rather than days. He launched literacy and nutrition drives for the state’s impoverished citizens, transformed the school system, and fought off impeachment in the legislature. By the time he became a senator in 1932, Long had earned the nickname “Kingfish,” after a relentlessly scheming character in the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio series.
  712. Though he initially supported the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Long quickly became impatient with the cautious pace of FDR’s reforms, which he felt didn’t go nearly far enough to help the public as the Depression worsened. Roosevelt had plenty of critics on the right, but Long’s pressure from the left was quite a novelty. FDR cherry-picked some of Long’s better ideas for his own New Deal, but the Kingfish decided the country wasn’t big enough for the two of them, and planned to make his own presidential bid in 1936 with the help of Father Charles Coughlin, the Michigan-based radio demagogue.
  714. Along with his progressive instincts, Long brought a ruthlessness that was remarkable even in a state where politics was a full-contact sport. He would always go the extra mile to crush an opponent, sometimes employing bully boys to deliver the message. (The thuggish cornpone dictator Willie Stark in All the King’s Men is loosely based on Long.) Though his philosophy put him mostly on the left side of the political spectrum, Long was anathema to many progressives. Socialist candidate Norman Thomas, for one, considered him a dangerous clown.
  716. Though his reforms benefitted Louisiana’s black population, Long was hardly a crusader against racism: he did nothing about the state’s Jim Crow laws, and during his Senate term he opposed an anti-lynching bill. He was also happy to exploit racism by hinting his opponents had “coffee blood” – i.e., a touch of black ancestry, a mortal insult in the Deep South. He had done just that to Benjamin Pavy, a parish judge he wanted to oust. The calumny proved Long’s undoing: when he arrived at the Capitol on September 8, 1935, Dr. Carl Weiss, Pavy’s son in law, was waiting to avenge the insult with a pistol. Long, mortally wounded, died after two days. Long may not have been able to win the presidency, but he probably could have drawn off enough votes to throw the election to the Republican candidate, Alf Landon, and thereby endangering America’s recovery from the Depression.
  718. None of which figures in “Kingfish,” the song that follows “Every Man a King.” Instead, Newman’s orchestration creates an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty as the singer tells his cracker audience there are “ten thousand Frenchmen in New Orleans” who don’t give a damn about them. But Huey Long does give a damn, and as the Kingfish reels off his list of accomplishments the music becomes strong and purposeful. “Here come the Kingfish!” the singer exclaims; the swelling orchestration and swaying rhythm conjure up an image of an immense Huey Long, in a King Kong sized pongee suit, taking giant strides across the Louisiana countryside. Give credit where credit is due: the Kingfish delivered on most of his promises. Later generations of demagogues would match the folksy style but skimp on the follow-through.
  720. The mood of Good Old Boys takes an abrupt shift with “Naked Man,” a sprightly tune about a head case terrorizing respectable people while wearing nothing but his birthday suit. The song seems to come out of nowhere – coming as it did in the mid-Seventies, some listeners may have concluded the song was about streaking – as do “A Wedding in Cherokee County” and “Back on My Feet Again.” “Wedding” could be a scene from Tobacco Road or some other Erskine Caldwell backwoods epic, centered on a defeated man about to marry an insane woman, knowing all the while that on their wedding night she will only laugh at his “mighty sword.” The mood brightens with “Back on My Feet Again,” in which a man pleads with his doctor to be released from an asylum. It took the release of the Johnny Cutler’s Birthday worktape to reveal that the speaker is Cutler’s insane brother, who wins release only to go on his bareass rampage in the snow. It should be noted that whatever their thematic failings, these songs are irresistibly listenable and frequently very funny. But without the connective tissue provided by Johnny Cutler’s Birthday, they feel out of place.
  722. Four songs that didn’t make the jump to Good Old Boys would have substantially improved the finished album. The resentment, personal and political, that simmers beneath Good Old Boys boils over in Johnny Cutler’s Birthday. It’s expressed most hauntingly in “Shining,” written from the point of view of Marie Cutler, looking back on a youth full of social gatherings and minor accomplishments that became meaningless the moment they were acknowledged. (The line about never being sick a day in school is a quiet killer.) While the husband drunkenly idolizes her, the wife thinks of making the same breakfast every day for the same man for the rest of her life and wonders why there isn’t more. Newman’s circling minor-key piano figure enforces the sense of airless stillness in a closed-off life.
  724. Just as powerful is the song’s counterpart, “My Daddy Knew Dixie Howell.” Like “Old Man” on Sail Away, this is a song in which a son pays disrespectful last respects to a disappointing, enraging father. The title refers to collegiate football star Millard Fleming Howell, once the mainstay of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, and we get repeated hints that Cutler’s father harbored dreams of gridiron glory for his boy – putting a football in his cradle, later a football helmet in his bed. Since football makes no other appearance in the song cycle, we may surmise that this was an issue between Cutler pere and Cutler fils. It gives harsh emphasis to the way the son places a straight razor in his father’s burial clothes, making that short blade the measure of the old man’s life. If the football represents something young Johnny could never live up to, then the razor is something the father could never go beyond.
  726. These deeply focused character songs form a mini-suite within Johnny Cutler’s Birthday: “My Daddy Knew Dixie Howell,” “Shining,” and the lugubrious “Marie,” sung by the husband after he comes home sodden with alcoholic self-pity and guilt. This is amusingly deflated by “Good Morning,” in which Marie and the kids gleefully torture him on the morning of his birthday. Cutler, immobilized by a hangover and no longer inclined to romantic talk, can do little more than groan “Fuck off,” until Marie cheekily makes his cursing part of the song. It doesn’t exactly show her triumphing over her circumstances, but it does suggest how Marie could have shared Johnny’s bed all these years without murdering him in his sleep. If, as per Christgau, 12 Songs made Randy Newman the Sherwood Anderson of pop music, then Johnny Cutler’s Birthday would have made him its Evan S. Connell – Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge condensed onto two sides of vinyl.
  728. Race never re-enters Good Old Boys after “Rednecks,” but another culled song, “The Joke,” echoes its message with folksy tale-telling and understated menace, all framed as a joke about two dogs chasing a rabbit. The joke may be corny but there’s no missing the warning to any “crazy rabbits with dreams of glory” who want to rise above their station in life: “No one likes to see a rabbit smile.” What’s the point in being a dog if rabbits can smile when you’re around? What’s the point in being a white man if you’ve can’t keep the niggers down?
  730. It’s an attitude that’s hardly confined to the South. Coming of age in the Seventies I heard it expressed many times, in terms of varying ferocity, and in his recent book about the decline of Detroit, journalist Charlie LeDuff shows that in this, at least, Michigan is not much different from New Jersey – or Alabama:
  732. Frankie lived in Warren, just a quarter mile north of Eight Mile Road, the geographic dividing line between the black city and the blue-collar white suburbs.
  734. But Warren isn’t a suburb really; it’s just a continuation of the urban sprawl. It was set up as an antidote to Detroit’s increasing blackness during the war years, with Eight Mile serving as a moat. It was the home of the famed Reagan Democrats, those blue-collar whites who voted Republican because of the perceived racial slights of affirmative action. The saying in many white households then as now goes something like this: “If I’m gonna lose my job, at least it ain’t going to a nigger.”
  736. Few whites seemed to think much that the interests of the black working class were the same as theirs.
  738. This blue-collar suicide seemed to shock pundits and professors and they flocked to southeastern Michigan to study working-class whites like so many zoo animals. But they shouldn’t have been surprised. This was the same group of people who delivered the 1972 Michigan Republican primary to Gov. George Wallace, the snarling segregationist from Alabama.
  740. It wasn’t a surprise to Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips. In a 1970 profile by a New York Times writer, Phillips spoke with remarkable frankness about the political benefits of coded appeals to white racial terrors:
  742. From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that . . . but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
  744. Fast forward to the early Eighties and a new GOP strategist, Lee Atwater, who offered an update of the Southern strategy:
  746. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
  748. Though Newman couldn’t have known this at the time, the steel mills that had turned Birmingham into “the Pittsburgh of the South” were about to become victims of the same industrial decline that turned smokestack-fuming factory centers into rust-rotted ghost towns. Steelmaking in Alabama was about to become a shadow of its former self, and middle-aged Johnny “Earn My Living With My Hands” Cutler would have been among the first to get a layoff notice from his employer, who would probably have screwed him out of his pension in the bargain. And Cutler would no doubt have gone on dutifully voting for Reagan, Bush, Dole, and Dubya, complaining all the while about welfare queens and affirmative action. From such sour grapes do the likes of Lee Atwater make their wine. As Village Voice critic Robert Christgau noted in his review of Good Old Boys, “No matter how smart they are about how dumb they are, they still can’t think of anything better to do than keep the niggers down.”
  752. * * *
  756. 5. They’re Trying to Wash Us Away
  758. Despite Newman’s indifferent commercial performance up to that point, his record company underwrote a twenty-city tour to debut Good Old Boys. The first show, staged October 5 in Atlanta Symphony Hall, featured the 87-piece Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Emil Newman, the singer’s uncle. The concert sold out, but beyond Newman’s circle of fans the reception was somewhat cooler. The Atlanta Constitution, for example, sent reporter Art Harris to ask Randy Newman “to explain how he has come to write his fifth album about a region he barely remembers.”
  760. “Part of me, I guess, is Southern,” Newman replied. “But I don’t put much stock in honesty of roots and stuff. It’s more of a sophisticated thing, in any case. I don’t feel I’ve come home and I’m writing about people I know about more than people I wrote about on earlier albums. Good Old Boys may be a better album, but I don’t think that’s the reason.” Possibly giving him the benefit of the doubt, the paper ran Newman’s photo with the caption, “Part of him is Southern.”
  762. From all accounts, the concert went well. After an opening set of country blues by Ry Cooder, Newman shambled onto the stage. The first half of his set was a solo performance, during which he took requests and traded wisecracks with the audience. Newman, like most of the crowd, was informally dressed in jeans and a shirt with an open collar, while the orchestra performed in black tie and tails. “It’s a great honor for me to play with your wonderful orchestra,” he told the audience. “I appreciate them having me and I apologize for them having to get so dressed up.” For the second half, a performance of the Good Old Boys songs with full orchestral accompaniment, Newman promised that “Rednecks” was “guaranteed to be offensive to both black and white, Jew and gentile.” According to the UPI reporter who covered the show, the soaring rendition of “Louisiana 1927” brought the audience to its feet.
  764. “Warner Bros. is very tight about Randy,” a company publicist told Rolling Stone during the event. “They don’t mind spending money on him. They’ll spend as much as it takes.” In the case of the Atlanta show, that meant eating roughly half of the concert’s $20,000 cost, even with a full house.
  766. Robin Conant, the concert promoter, impishly sent invitations to Maynard Jackson (Atlanta’s first black mayor), Gov. Jimmy Carter, state Rep. Julian Bond, and Maddox himself, but they passed. “It was a gala premiere for Good Old Boys, but no good old boys showed up,” Harris wrote. When he contacted Maddox, though, the former master of Pickrick said he hadn’t heard about the concert – or the song “Rednecks,” for that matter. “Is it derogatory?” Maddox asked.
  768. “No sir. Newman was inspired to write it after he saw you were treated impolitely on a TV show. He got angry that you were treated impolitely by a bunch of Yankees.”
  770. “Oh yeah?” asked Maddox, his spirits picking up a bit. “What does the song say?”
  772. Hedging about the line “He may be a fool but he’s our fool/ If you think you’re better than him you’re wrong,” the gist of the song was explained.
  774. “Well, I’ll be . . .” said Maddox. “I didn’t know anything about the concert but with all these bills to pay, the invitation might have gotten lost in the papers. But if you see him you tell him I’m sorry I missed it.”
  776. Newman, long a favorite with critics, saw some of his best reviews for the new album. Village Voice writer Robert Christgau, a booster who had deplored the Tom Lehrer tendencies in Sail Away, saw Good Old Boys as righting “a career that had threatened to wind down into cheap sarcasm.” The Rolling Stone reviewer called Newman the Ambrose Bierce of rock, a comparison that would make sense for anyone familiar with the cynical aphorisms in The Devil’s Dictionary.
  778. One of the densest responses came from columnist Ralph J. Gleason, a San Francisco-based jazz and pop music critic whose reaction to “Rednecks” was a textbook example of how to miss a song’s point:
  780. If we think we’re better than Lester Maddox, we’re wrong, Newman says. The hell we are, I say. If I thought I were no better than Lester Maddox or Richard Nixon, there would be no point in living. Not perfect, God knows, but better than that even if that speck of evil in all our natures, mine as well, does link the best of us to the worst of us.
  782. Having affirmed his status as chief of the sincerity police, West Coast division, Gleason then nailed himself a doctorate in pop psychology by accusing Newman of a “profoundly disturbing” case of role confusion. “It does not become a young Jewish lad from Los Angeles to put on verbal blackface in an imitation of an ancient Delta black man,” Gleason scolded, “or a truck drivin’ planter steeped in white lightnin’ to sing the praises of Birmingham and Huey Long.” (No more than it behooved a young Jewish lad from Minnesota to sing about a destitute sharecropper murdering his entire family, or a young English lad from Dartford to pose as Satan, a man of wealth and taste – neither of whom incurred Gleason’s wrath for their impudence.) The columnist acknowledged the composer’s formidable musical gifts only to dispatch them by saying “‘The Horst Wessel Song’ was a pretty tune, too.” Then as now, the Hitler stick is the favorite weapon of the middlebrow buffoon.
  784. “No, no matter how we see them,” Gleason declared, “Lester Maddox and Huey Long are not us.” Maybe so, but except for a few accidents of geography and biography, we might have been like them. One of great art’s many services is to invite us to think about such things. Gleason was hardly the first to decline such an invitation, and certainly not the last.
  786. Good Old Boys was the first Randy Newman album to crack the Top Forty chart. His next, Little Criminals (1977), gave him his first bona fide hit single with “Short People,” a lampoon of bigotry so broadly silly it’s hard to believe it managed to gin up even the bogus controversy that briefly stirred the pages of People magazine. Little Criminals and its successors Born Again and Trouble in Paradise were a conspicuous artistic retreat from the early albums. The jokes were more obvious, delivered with a nudge and a wink, and the glossy pop-rock arrangements were brighter but less interesting than the gritty 12 Songs or the orchestral Sail Away. The warning signs had been there as far back as Randy Newman Live, of course, and “Albanian Anthem,” one of the outtakes from Johnny Cutler’s Birthday, shows how close Newman came to letting that smirk stray into Good Old Boys.
  788. He didn’t have any more great albums in him, but he still had plenty of great songs – “Dixie Flyer” and “New Orleans Wins the War,” the autobiographical openers of Land of Dreams, remain his most beguiling works. To date there have been two revues devoted to his songs: Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong and The Education of Randy Newman. Like other veteran performers whose influence always outweighed their commercial appeal (Richard Thompson comes to mind), Newman’s following is too large to be called a cult but too small to work as an effective conspiracy.
  790. Though he had scored Norman Lear’s comedy Cold Turkey in 1971, Newman’s second career as a soundtrack composer really began when Robert Altman hired him for an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s historical novel Ragtime. (When Altman was replaced with Milos Forman as director, Newman’s music played like the ghost of the more interesting film that might have been.) Throughout the Eighties and Nineties and well into the next century, Newman was a steady and reliable practitioner in the family business, scoring mainstream films like The Natural, Avalon, and The Paper while releasing the occasional solo album.
  792. Where his uncle Alfred is remembered for his fanfares and his nephew Thomas is distinguished by modernistic percussion-accented pieces (The Player, American Beauty), Randy Newman makes Americana with touches of satire his signature film mode. In Toy Story and its sequels, Newman moves deftly from Coplandesque melodies for Sheriff Woody to Star Wars bombast for space ranger Buzz Lightyear, even throwing in a reference to Queen of Outer Space when Buzz encounters a store aisle full of himself in Toy Story 2. And while critics tend to favor his pop-rock albums to his film work, there’s no denying the charm of a song like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” I defy anyone to watch the “When She Loved Me” scene in Toy Story 2 without weeping for every plaything discarded on the road to adulthood. That such enormously popular children’s ditties should be written by a man whose songs once evoked comparisons with Ambrose Bierce, the amusingly black-hearted author of The Parenticide Club, is the icing on the cake.
  794. The closest he would ever come to the conceptual ambition of Good Old Boys was Randy Newman’s Faust (1995), a long fussed-over update of the original deal-with-the-devil tale, recast for Los Angeles in the Nineties. It might have played better if released a decade earlier, but the album probably would have sounded tired and snide in any decade. Its best joke, the casting of mild-mannered folk rocker James Taylor as the Deity, was one of those fits of inspiration that probably worked better in the imagination than the realization.
  796. Good Old Boys, by contrast, has proved exceptionally durable. “Rednecks” remains as thorny as ever, but “Louisiana 1927” bids fair to become a beloved classic. It served as the grand closing theme to Blaze, Ron Shelton’s 1989 film about stripper Blaze Starr and Huey’s brother Earl Long, and naturally became something of an anthem when New Orleans was swamped by floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina, sung first by Aaron Neville and then by Newman himself during a pair of charity broadcasts.
  798. So, even if it didn’t achieve the full glory suggested by Johnny Cutler’s Birthday, Good Old Boys offers two classics, several excellent songs, and some filler tracks that would be standouts on an album from a lesser artist. Not a bad tally at all. And to think it we owe it all to Lester Maddox.
  800. *****
  802. Maddox’s political career effectively ended in 1974, when he sought the Democratic nomination for governor and lost to George Busbee in the primary. Buried under a mountain of campaign debts, Maddox turned his hand to other business ventures, at one point teaming up with a former Pickrick employee, Bobby Lee Fears, for a short-lived music and comedy act called “The Governor and the Dishwasher.” He continued to sell autographed “Pickrick drumsticks” from a gift shop festooned with Confederate battle flags. When the Georgia legislature took up a resolution granting Maddox a pension in recognition of his government service, state representative Bill McKinney – one of Atlanta’s first black power brokers, and a civil rights fighter who’d stood eye-to-eye with Maddox during one of his restaurant clashes – came to the floor toting a pick handle to remind all present of Maddox’s inglorious past. The pension measure was shot down. Unlike so many other politicians who came to do good and stayed to do well, Lester Maddox left office in worse financial shape than when he entered. The reader can decide for himself if this is evidence of integrity, or incompetence.
  804. Unlike his role model George Wallace, who spent his last years trying to live down his racist past, Maddox was an unrepentant segregationist to the bitter end, defending himself with the same doubletalk he deployed on The Dick Cavett Show. “I want my race preserved and I hope most everybody else wants theirs preserved,” he told an interviewer a few years before succumbing to cancer in 2003 at the age of eighty-seven. “I think forced segregation is illegal and wrong. I think forced racial integration is illegal and wrong. I believe both of them to be unconstitutional.” Just how the first would be undone without the second was an issue he never bothered to address. To the end of his days, Maddox remained an enthusiastic member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group.
  806. From all available evidence, the only time Maddox acknowledged the existence of “Rednecks” was in 1999, when a writer for Creative Loafing read him the opening lines during an interview. Even then, he had little to say beyond a perfunctory tsk-tsk over the language:
  808. Maddox shakes his head. “That’s awful to write things like that just to sell something, isn’t it?” What offends him most is Newman’s crude reference to the Jewish man. Maddox says he occasionally attends synagogue with Jewish friends.
  810. Maddox wrote and said a lot worse than that, first to sell fried chicken, then to sell himself as a political candidate. He may have been a fool, but he was his own fool. Among Maddox’s crowd, that was what passed for integrity.
  814. * * *
  818. 6. The Duality of the Johnny Cutler Thing
  820. Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!
  822. – George Wallace, 1963
  824. I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over.
  826. – George Wallace, 1979
  828. As it happened, a far more benign version of “Rednecks” was already on the radio when Good Old Boys hit the stores. Had it been released a few months later instead of in the spring of 1974, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s single “Sweet Home Alabama” could have worked as an answer song to “Rednecks.” Bandleader and co-songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, a Florida native who sported a Rhett Butler hat and liked to perform barefoot, played his own version of the canny redneck, only this one had much better things to do with his time than keeping the niggers down. In fact, “Sweet Home Alabama” coupled a reference to George Wallace with a disapproving “Boo boo boo!” and sang the praises of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the cornerstone of classic R&B recordings by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. The Wallace reference – “In Birmingham they loved the Gum’nah” – was doubly interesting for its name-check of Birmingham, site of the bloodiest clashes of the civil rights era, instead of Montgomery, where Wallace presided as governor. Vant Zant’s line “We all did what we could do” – i.e., tried to vote him out of office – will strike a chord with anyone who watched with dismay as the entire country returned George W. Bush to office in 2004.
  830. “Sweet Home Alabama,” like “Rednecks,” began as a response to a perceived slight to the South, only here the offender was rock superstar Neil Young, who had scolded Dixie not once but twice with “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” The singer used the entire second verse to backhand Young, ending with “That Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow!” The irony was that Van Zant was a Neil Young fan, but one who thought the entire South didn’t deserve Young’s blanket condemnation; in later years, Young himself all but disowned the songs. He also praised “Sweet Home Alabama” and offered some of his new songs for Lynyrd Skynyrd to record. On the cover of Street Survivors, the 1977 album released just before the disastrous plane crash that ended the band’s rise as a vital creative force, Van Zant can be seen wearing a Neil Young t-shirt, a matter of no small importance to rock and roll semioticians.
  832. Even though “Sweet Home Alabama” has been a staple of classic-rock radio practically from the day of its release, listeners unfamiliar with the song’s background still tend to dismiss Lynyrd Skynyrd as a bunch of yahoos. So in 2001 the Drive-By Truckers released Southern Rock Opera, an album that used Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young as the jumping-off point for a loose storyline about a conflicted young man growing up in the modern South who eventually forms his own Skynyrd-style dream band. The album’s sound occupies a point exactly midway between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Young’s work with Crazy Horse: loud guitars and dark, grimy power chords. In opposing Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young, who turn out not to be opposites after all, the song “Ronnie and Neil” sets up the album’s theme: the “duality of the Southern thing.”
  834. And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs about the bad shit that went down.
  836. “Southern Man” and “Alabama” certainly told some truth.
  838. But there were a lot of good folks down here
  840. And Neil Young wasn’t around . . .
  842. The first disc is a suite of semi-autobiographical songs about growing up in Alabama and coming to terms with the fact that one’s home is considered a kingdom of evil throughout much of the world. Patterson Hood, the band’s co-founder, has cited Good Old Boys as a major influence on Southern Rock Opera, and at least one song, “Birmingham,” plays like an update. Where Johnny Cutler’s paen to the Magic City ignored its nightmare past, Hood’s song confronts it from the opening lines:
  844. Economics shut the furnace down
  846. Bull Connor hosing children down
  848. George Wallace stared them Yankees down
  850. In Birmingham
  852. If Lester Maddox is the looming presence in Good Old Boys, George Wallace fills the same role in Southern Rock Opera, which lists him behind Ronnie Van Zant and football coach Bear Bryant as the most baleful of “The Three Great Alabama Icons” – the album’s key track. Hood gives a creditable summary of Wallace’s career as an opportunistic race baiter, and describes his own shock at realizing the extent to which Wallace shaped the public’s ideas about the South. “Fortunately for him, the Devil is also a Southerner,” Hood drawls, and the next song leaves no doubt about where he thinks the gum’nah ended up.
  854. Throw another log on the fire, boys
  856. George Wallace is coming to stay
  858. When he met St. Peter at the pearly gates
  860. I’d like to think that a black man stood in the way.
  862. I know “all should be forgiven”
  864. But he did what he done so well
  866. So throw another log on the fire, boys
  868. George Wallace is coming . . .
  870. The songs on the second disc take the unnamed protagonist from his days as a teenaged rock fan to his dream job as leader of a Southern rock band in the Skynyrd mold. “He has stared down the mythical past,” the liner notes tell us. “His stage show conjures up the Southern rock glory days. They’re telling stories of a forgotten south . . . Stories that own up to the terrible while telling of the beautiful.” The hero’s band is called Betamax Guillotine, a reference to a grisly bit of folklore about the exact cause of Van Zant’s death in that plane crash, and his adulation comes full circle when the band meets an identical fate. The closer, “Angels and Fuselage,” is a stark, frightening song about sitting in a descending airplane, “adding up the cost of these dreams” as the trees get closer by the minute.
  872. Listened to side by side, Good Old Boys and Southern Rock Opera speak to each other across a generational divide. Johnny Cutler sits on his porch, sipping whiskey and studiously ignoring the past that boils behind him. His successor doesn’t want to ignore that history. He wants to acknowledge it, and transcend it.
  874. *****
  876. Good Old Boys heralded the opening shots of the American culture war; some forty years later, that war has entered its senescence. The Southern strategy has turned into a straitjacket for the Republican Party, which at times might better be described as the Jim Crow Nostalgia Party. The election of the first African-American president has thrown open the hatches on the national id, with Barack Obama’s most vituperative critics sorting themselves into those that are openly racist and those still willing to play dog-whistle politics. We have seen Obama accused of being an outsider unqualified to run the country; a hate-radio jock called him “the food-stamp president”; this coolest and most even-tempered of public men has been depicted as a wild-eyed revolutionary bent on destroying America. At times like this, the conservative mantras of states’ rights and “small government” sound like the threats of gangsters telling the neighbors to mind their own business if they know what’s good for them.
  878. “There’s good people in Alabama!” Vant Zant shouts while performing “Sweet Home Alabama” on One More from the Road, the band’s official concert album. As someone with friends and family above and below the Mason Dixon Line, I have no doubts on that score. But the Potemkin populists of the Tea Party have become a reliable source of political vaudeville, deploying racist imagery to attack Obama and then denying racist intent, all while state party leaders push voter-identification requirements that hearken back to the days of the poll tax and other stratagems for denying minorities the right to vote. Johnny Cutler’s voice rings loud and clear from statehouses and right-wing media outlets. It seems this is a good time for those good people of the South and the North to join forces and steer this country in a better direction.
  880. And if we don’t, we won’t even need a new national anthem. We’ll just use the one Randy Newman wrote for us in 1974. That’s why letting the devil speak can be such a risky business: you may learn that despite your piety and your good intentions, you’ve been helping to advance his cause all along.
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