Song 81: Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927”

Randy-Newman-Good-Old-Boys
Randy Newman tends to sneak up on me. I always expect first-rate songwriting and maybe a humorous turn here and there, but I don’t expect him to wreck me with a line or melody until it’s happening. Like many people, I listened to “Louisiana 1927” with new ears after Hurricane Katrina. The song eerily echoes the 2005 flood in the government’s lax response to both disasters and the opinion that the government purposely delayed a response to the flood to weed out the lower class. The latter is a serious charge, of course, but I can easily imagine feeling that way after not being helped for days, weeks, months, years.

Newman captures that feeling in “Louisiana 1927,” a song about the Great Mississippi Flood, which left 700,000 people homeless. Calvin Coolidge responds to the momentous disaster by showing up with a fat man holding a notebook, blaming only the river for the damage. In true Newman form, touches like these make the song both darkly funny and heartbreaking, but more heartbreaking, especially as the strings swell and Newman sings “They’re trying to wash us away” in a matter-of-fact tone. In another singer’s hands, this song may have been a dramatic call to arms, but in Newman’s, it’s simply a blunt retelling set to gorgeous music, a faded photograph being described by a gifted storyteller.

If you’re at all curious about Randy Newman, Good Old Boys is as good a place as any to start. It’s a record about the American south, told from the point of view of its inhabitants, in varying degrees of likability. The opening track “Rednecks” is about as brave and brilliant as contemporary pop songwriting gets.

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