Sunday, August 1, 2010

Obama's Subway Dream: Randy Newman's "Sail Away"

Back on June 2nd, Paul McCartney performed at the White House for President Obama, the First Lady, Michelle and their two kids. The occasion was McCartney receiving the third Gershwin Prize For Popular Song from the President. As well as accepting the award, McCartney played a whole selection of songs. With Stevie Wonder, he reprised "Ebony and Ivory." He serenaded the First Lady with the obvious choice of "Michelle," plus had other invited guests cover his material. In top form, Jack White turned "Mother Nature's Son" (morphing it with "That Would Be Something") into something strange out of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Dave Grohl amped up "Band on the Run," Emmylou Harris brought a plaintive mournfulness to "For No One," and Elvis Costello revisited the shimmering "Penny Lane." The Jonas Brothers (no doubt brought in for the kids) surprised all with their dynamic rendition of "Drive My Car." Later, President Obama praised McCartney saying that he had "helped to lay the soundtrack for an entire generation."

Randy Newman.
But what if, with the success of that evening still ringing in his ears, Obama decided to celebrate an American performer who was equally worthy of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song - say, Randy Newman. The evening might go like this: Newman turns up looking rather surprised to have been asked to perform (for the first time) in the White House. President Obama assures Newman that his kids loved his songs in Toy Story while Newman quietly suggests another more appropriate song. The President graciously tells Randy that it's his concert and in the new democratic spirit of the land he should play what he wants. Newman then takes his place at the piano which is situated under the photos of George Washington and his wife Martha. He begins nervously by introducing the number. "Years ago, I wrote this sea shanty for a short film that was ultimately never made," he began. "It was in the Nixon years so there wasn't very much money for this kind of thing." The audience laughs quietly in recognition of a time that had long passed. "But it's an Irish kind of tune, you know, like 'The Ballad of Pat O'Reilly.'" Everyone looks a little puzzled - especially the kids - since nobody knows the song. "Anyway, it's about a sea voyage that begins in Africa and it kind of goes like this."

Newman begins the opening chords of his song. "In America, you'll get food to eat." Of course, America feeds the starving Africans. This is a good message. People quickly perk up to the promise they hear in the song. But as he continues, Newman adds, "You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day. It's great to be an American." The President fidgets and looks at Michelle. "What did he just say about wine and Jesus?" Newman assures the gathered crowd in the following verse that they won't find lions, or tigers, or mamba snakes in America, but they'll get to eat watermelon and buckwheat cake. Then, softly, he implores, "Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me." Before he can reach the chorus, which is so majestic that it arouses an eagerness to jump aboard in spite of the words being sung, the President suddenly looks around as if trying to find some way to tell Newman that the song is, ah, maybe somewhat inappropriate. But an aide, who is hip to Newman's work (in fact, he had a hand in getting him invited), whispers to Obama that the song is a parody of the slave trade. A parody? How can you joke about that?

Aretha Franklin.
After some polite applause, the President swiftly awards Newman his prize and tells him that he looks forward, as do his kids, to more Disney songs. But Newman asks him what he thought of "Sail Away?" The President demurred by saying, "Well, I'm no music critic." Later at the state dinner honoring the evening, though, Newman again brings up the song. "I wrote 'Sail Away' because the slave trade is our main imperialist crime," he explained. One of the cabinet members turned to Newman to ask, "This song you wrote, sung from a slave trader's perspective about bringing blacks to America, is supposed to be a condemnation of slavery?! What were you thinking?" "What am I supposed to say?" Newman politely asked the cabinet member. "Slavery is bad? It would be too easy and would have no effect." But there was more. As the argument continued, President Obama began to reflect back on what he heard. "Sail Away" perhaps held a bigger paradox than what Newman was aware of while writing it. There was a something horribly unresolvable about a beautiful song dealing with American slavery, for it allowed you to contemplate that without the slave trade, with all its shame and horror, there would have also been no black culture enriching America - no Booker T. Washington, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker, James Baldwin, Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Ralph Ellison, Aretha Franklin, Toni Morrison, Ray Charles, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre - and no election of Barack Obama.

The President realized upon reflection that the hideous joke of "Sail Away," with its intended irony, transcended the poisonous tree of slavery. Maybe the unease stirred by a song like "Sail Away" was actually better than showcasing a simple, more topical polemic about the evils of racism. He turned to Newman and thanked him for offering such a provocative and intelligent evening of songs. But he stopped short of saying that he had "helped to lay the soundtrack for an entire generation."

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic and teacher. He is the author of the just recently discontinued (due to poor sales) Randy Newman's American Dreams. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. First time I heard this song. I found it thanks to the review of 12 Years a Slave.

    I haven't seem the movie, nor do I have any intentions of seeing it (Shame was enough for me), but I was reading indiewire's summary of its detractors* and thought that in this website someone must have written something more pertinent on the subject. I was right!

    Thank you for refreshingly insightful reflections on music and cinema.