Audacious and transgressive, Randy Newman’s satire of bigotry still has the power to shock and awe
Inspired in part by all the Jewish artists on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs, the Forward decided it was time to rank the best Jewish pop songs of all time. You can find the whole list and accompanying essays here.
Lester Maddox’s name doesn’t have a lot of currency today. Maddox is mostly a historical footnote, a high-school dropout from Atlanta who gained local notoriety when he refused to serve Blacks in his family-run restaurant, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.
Maddox believed that mandated integration was a Communist plot, that it was morally wrong and –– most importantly –– that no one was going to tell him how to run his show. He pugnaciously declared that he would rather close his restaurant than change its segregationist policy, and then did just that, providing him with a wave of publicity that he rode all the way to the Georgia governor’s mansion in 1966. (Maddox later served as rival Jimmy Carter’s lieutenant governor before fading into obscurity; he died in 2003, at the age of 87.)
What Maddox may end up being best remembered for was inspiring Randy Newman to write a song about a guy who writes a song about seeing Maddox interviewed on television. That song is “Rednecks,” from Newman’s 1974 album “Good Old Boys.” It’s the first track on the record, and immediately serves notice to the listener to sit up and pay attention:
Last night, I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart-ass New York Jew.
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox.
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too.
Though the music is quiet, the lyrics are not. As the beginnings of albums go, it’s a throw down, as audacious as anything served up by louder, more blatant provocateurs like N.W.A. or the Sex Pistols. Over a series of doleful, minor-key piano chords, Newman’s voice drips with odiousness and scorn. He sneers the word “Jew,” twice, as though he’s just had a whiff of some rotten eggs, spitting it out in a way that sounds casually dangerous, as all casual bigotry does. “Wait-a-minute,” we think. “Can he say that?” But of course, Newman is Jewish, so yes, it’s OK. For a moment.
But that’s only the intro. By the end of the song’s first verse, Newman’s narrator invokes the N-word, and then uses it again as part of the tagline of every chorus. That’s not supposed to be a word that Newman can say. Yet say it he does, over and over again, imbuing the song with such a stunning level of political incorrectness that the writer Malcolm Gladwell suggested in a 2019 podcast, “I don’t think an album like this could be made today.” (He’s probably right.)
What makes Newman’s transgression even worse (or even better) is that the music feels so good. It shouldn’t, but it does. It grooves and swings. We want to sing along, but realize we absolutely cannot, something that only adds to the song’s uncomfortable genius. (In a twist that Newman has said he never imagined, he felt he had to stop performing “Rednecks” on tour stops in the South after realizing that audiences, ignorant of the song’s irony, were singing along to it, and with gusto.)
“Rednecks,” like a lot of the songs on “Good Old Boys,” contains many of the same tasty musical ingredients heard in some of the Band’s best recordings, and Newman may have been offering a riposte to the sort of soft-focus romanticization of Old Dixie they popularized. Newman grew up in New Orleans, after all, and was pretty familiar with the tangled roots of Southern culture. Robbie Robertson, the Band’s primary songwriter, is Canadian.
“Rednecks” retains its power to shock and scare, no more so than in that introduction about Lester Maddox. It’s a reference to Maddox’s December 1970 appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” when the former governor took umbrage with what he felt was Cavett’s slander of his Georgia constituents. Maddox demanded an apology; unsatisfied with Cavett’s response, he proceeded to storm off the stage, and straight into the lyric of Newman’s song. Yet the catch is: Cavett isn’t Jewish –– Newman’s narrator simply assumes he is. Because he knows what’s really going on: a plot by a bunch of uppity, East Coast liberals and their Jewish-run media designed to take down the country, and decent, hard-working Americans like him. The people in “Rednecks” weren’t about to have it. They still aren’t.
Howard Fishman is a writer, composer and performer based in Brooklyn. His book about the life and music of Connie Converse will be published by Dutton in 2023.
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