Strangers Among Us: Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 2
June 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm, by Jonah Rank
Whatever the number is, the point is this: for a long time, it’s been really important for Jews to be concerned with the well-being of strangers.
In fact, you could say Randy Newman has built an entire career out of being a stranger in America.
Whereas the earlier CD offered listeners new recordings of some of Newman‘s best-known music, Vol. 2 is far from a Randy Newman Greatest Hits collection. Vol. 2 is the same idea of the previous collection: just Randy Newman singing and sitting at a piano–no band and no orchestra, and all the rough edges showing.
But Vol. 2 is composed of more obscure songs. Few of them ever had any sort of radio promotion behind them.
Beyond that Randy hand-picked all of them, it’s tough to say what unites the Vol. 2 songs. Perhaps you could say though that most of the songs touch on the theme of being a stranger, a foreigner or just exotic.
With “Laugh and Be Happy,” we hear a sarcastically false explanation of US immigration policy: “Now the country that we’re living in… It’s never been about keeping you out. / It’s about inviting you in and letting you play.” To Newman, the real policy hints at American xenophobia, especially the fear of jobs being taken away by foreigners: “Pretty soon, you’re gonna take their place.”
Fear is replaced by entertainment as “The Girls In My Life (Part 1)” digs deep into the exoticism of the foreigner. “A pretty young French girl” and a “girl at the bakery” who takes Randy’s car “down to Mexico/ [and] ran over a man named Juan” are just 2 of the women who make Randy’s love life so fascinating.
And the objectifying of Mexicans continues as “My Life Is Good” tells of the “young girl” that the Newmans brought back from Mexico. Now “she cleans the hallway. / She cleans the stair. / She cleans the living room…” Their Mexican souvenir does all the hard work around the house, and whenever Newman hears the news he doesn’t want to hear, he can turn to her and to all others willing to be exploited. He can relax and sing his refrain: “My life is good.”
But when Newman steps out of sarcasm, life can be far from good. “Losing You” is based on a family who once visited Randy’s brother, a doctor. Randy puts to music the grief of those parents who lost their son to cancer. “I’ll get over losing anything,” they would have sung to their dead son. In fact, these parents got over the relatives they lost in extermination camps in Poland. “But I’ll never get over losing you.” It’s a shocking moment when Newman indirectly calls the Holocaust unforgivable but forgettable. Yet the loss of a son is both unforgivable and unforgettable. (Newman deftly covers up the background of the characters in the song. In Newman’s America, the past does not matter as much as the present and future.)
Echoing the populist leader Huey “Kingfish” Long, “Kingfish” speaks ill of the “hundred thousand Frenchmen in New Orleans” who have no compassion for “little folks like me and you”–the working-class Americans. In the chorus, Newman quotes the late Long’s campaign slogan: “Every man a king.” Whether Randy is sarcastic here is tough to say. Both “Birmingham” and “Baltimore” similarly tell the stories of common folk trying to be significant in the big city. While “Birmingham” allows the Alabaman to kid with the listener about the dullness of life, “Baltimore” is dark and “dyin’” (“Man, it’s hard just to live”).
With “Dayton, Ohio – 1903,” Randy offers an actual glimpse at American peace sans racial–or even interpersonal–tensions. It’s just a sweet invitation: “Would you like to come over for tea / With the missus and me? / It’s a real nice way to spend the day.”
Concluding his romp through a perverse America (we didn’t touch on the the stalker in “Suzanne,” the necrophile in “Lucinda,” etc….), Newman concludes this collection with “Cowboy,” an ode to a long-gone vocation. “Too late to fight now,” Newman sings of the contemporary cowboy. “Too tired to try.”
Cowboys like Newman–people who have traveled America in search of an idealism they never found–are bound to get tired. The best they can do is sing their refrains over and over.
Perhaps Dayton, Ohio in 1903 captured a moment of serenity, but many American cities are dying from racism. In the American South of Newman’s youth, it was no virtue to be Jewish, and today there still is great appeal to be a gentile: to be not a stranger.
Mexicans and other Spanish speakers in the United States are widely known to be treated often as second-class citizens. To that end, it’s not clear that things have improved since the decades when Newman first penned these songs.
Given how little the country has changed from the vantage point of the Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 2, it’s easy to see why Newman is such a tired cowboy. He has exhausted himself trying to explore that mythical American frontier of tolerance. But we are all still very far from the end of that journey.
I’ve never counted to see how many songs by Randy Newman deal with racial tensions or tolerance, but it’s a pretty high number (perhaps greater than 36, or even 46).
Whatever the number of times it is that he’s said it, Newman’s repertoire leaves us with a mind-bogglingly simple imperative: deal kindly with foreigners.
Through our history, we have known what it’s like to be foreigners. We have wanted to be citizens. We’ve wanted to be equal to all those surrounding us. We’d all like to fit into the larger picture.
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