We talk real funny ’round here…

Posted by Maximum Fun on 19th March 2006

On this week’s Sound of Young America, I made a difficult snap decision to let Nick Adams say “the N-word.” It’s the focus of a full chapter of his book, and having given the audience fair warning, it seemed only reasonable to me.

I let the word through once before on The Sound, and that was when I played Randy Newman’s song “Rednecks.” I got a call in the studio afterwards, from someone who was quite upset about it. I talked with the guy (who was black, and had tuned in after the warning I’d offered before playing the song) for a few minutes, and helped him understand the satirical thrust of the song, and he reconsidered his stance.

In my book, “Rednecks” is one of the most biting pieces of racial satire in the late 20th century, and maybe the single best to come from a white person. But it does use the n-word, and repeatedly so (see the lyrics at the bottom of the post).

Randy Newman approaches songwriting as a short-story writer would approach a short story — the authorial voice is by no means direct. In “Rednecks,” he writes from the perspective of a salt-of-the-earth Southern racist. He said he wrote the song after he saw Lester Maddox, the infamous segregationist, being ridiculed on a network talk show, and imagine himself in the place of someone who agreed with Maddox, rather than someone who was sympatico with the host & audience.

As the song unfolds, Newman invites us to be scornful of his narrator. Indeed, the narrator seems to invite the scorn almost upon himself.

But as the pile of scorn gets higher and higher, it starts to get unmanagable. In the second verse, the harshness is getting broader, and it starts to make the listener uncomfortable. The only saving grace is that chorus — and specifically, that use of the n-word. In fact, that use of the n-word makes us, particularly if we’re white northern sophisticate types, more, and not less comfortable with the song.

In the third and final verse of the song, Newman springs his trap:

Now your northern nigger’s a Negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free

As he tumbles into a list of Northern ghettos, we listeners start to realize that this isn’t a satire of dumb racist southerners. Instead, this is a satire of arrogant, intellectual, liberal northerners. And because of the structure of the song, we the listeners are implicated in all of this — we’re the ones he’s talking about. All the smugness we felt as we laughed at lines like, “he may be a fool, but he’s our fool” is now turned against us.

In that final vamp, it becomes an indictment of the listener, and of one of the great race issues that white people hate to acknowledge… that racism isn’t solved by our liberal platitudes, and it isn’t everyone else’s problem. Racism isn’t something that happens “over there,” and it isn’t caused by “them.” We can’t get out from under the responsibility that easily.

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
Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool
If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that’s where I made this song

We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town
And we’re keepin’ the niggers down

We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
And colleges men from LSU
Went in dumb. Come out dumb too
Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues
And they’re keepin’ the niggers down

We’re rednecks, rednecks
And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
And we’re keeping the niggers down

Now your northern nigger’s a Negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free

Yes he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South-Side of Chicago
And the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
They’re gatherin’ ’em up from miles around
Keepin’ the niggers down