Randy Newman is a pianist, composer and arranger from Los Angeles, California. He spent much of his childhood living in New Orleans, Louisiana, before returning to Los Angeles at age eleven. He comes from a musical family; three of his uncles were successful Hollywood composers, each contributing to over two hundred films. Newman became a professional songwriter by age seventeen, active for several years before releasing his own album of songs in 1968. He never achieved commercial success in the traditional sense; he has one Billboard top 40 hit song, “Short People” in 1979. But he earned the admiration of critics and peers for his fearless, clever narratives. Eventually Newman followed his uncles into the movie industry. He received two Oscar nominations for 1981’s Ragtime; since then he composed soundtracks for twenty-six movies. Over his career he has compiled an impressive list of industry awards and nominations. Randy Newman continues to compose and perform his music worldwide.
Randy Newman (b. 1943), piano, composer, arranger
Before this essay, I listened to Randy Newman less than any artist in the big countdown. It was nice to discover how much I enjoy his music. All my music review books are highly complimentary, and I thank them for leading me in his direction. In general, it’s not happy and carefree music, though his movie songs tend to be lighter and more optimistic. I’ve owned his second album, 12 Songs, for twenty years, and around the time I received my first iPod, I augmented my collection by purchasing the 4 CD box set, Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman.
Here’s Randy Newman from a 1979 in Rotterdam, Germany, singing the praises of America in “Sail Away”:
The Unreliable Narrator
Upon greater scrutiny, “Sail Away” reveals itself as a sales pitch to Africans to sail to America, where they will be enslaved. In his Wikipedia biography, Newman is described as often writing from the perspective of the unreliable narrator.
“An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. This narrative mode is one that can be developed by an author for a number of reasons, usually to deceive the reader or audience. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.”
In one of his best songs, “Political Science”, Newman proposes a fanatical solution to the country’s woes:
Though Jewish by heritage, Randy Newman is an avowed atheist. His religious views were molded by his atheistic father. A childhood hospital visit revealed his father’s opinion on fate and the belief of a supreme being. While walking through a children’s ward, the elder Newman pointed at the patients and lampooned the idea of a benevolent and merciful deity:
“That’s God’s will over there and that’s God’s will over there and that’s God’s will over there…”*
Newman’s most pointed religious commentary is “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”:
I burn down your cities, how blind you must be,
I take from you your children, and you say how blessed are we,
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me,
That’s why I love mankind.
You really need me,
That’s why I love mankind.”
— Randy Newman
Here Newman does not dismiss the existence of God; but if He does exist, why must we suffer?
“Mark my word, when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
— Barry Goldwater, November 1994
I have strong reservations about the role of religion in American politics. I believe in the separation of church and state, that each person be allowed to freely practice his or her own faith, or lack of faith. Organized religions are compelled to grow, to increase followers, and spread their ideology to all; they are always striving and fighting for more. Atheists pose the greatest threat to religious faith, as we demand tangible evidence to support any hypothesis. Accordingly, we are viewed with great apprehension. The separation of church and state is essential; without it, any religion with political power could impose their will on the people’s liberty and freedom. To me, that’s the cornerstone of American liberty, to live and work and worship as one chooses.
Before I was four years old, I was looking at books on science and nature, and understood that the world was very old, and that different animals lived in different times. There was one book called “The World We Live In”, which had two page murals of plant and animal life from various eras. At a very young age, by looking at these pictures I learned the basics of evolution, learned about triceratops and trilobytes and woolly mammoths. Eohippus you say? That’s an ancient horse. How old is the eohippus? Very old indeed.
“The World We Live In“, originally a series of papers, was published as a book in 1955. Much of the book’s information is now incomplete or inaccurate; sixty years of investigation has unraveled new discoveries about the ancient world. The theory of evolution remains irrefutable. All knowledge supports the theory, with no contradictory evidence.
There is far better understanding of animal intelligence. When I was a child, animals were generally thought incapable of higher intellect. Today, after fifty more years of research, it is clear that most mammals and some birds are capable of rather nuanced thought. Chimpanzees can easily beat human beings in games of pattern recognition. Crows know the right distance to drop a walnut to crack the shell without shattering it. Some dogs, like our chihuahua, understand many different words, including many that mean food.
Sarcastic Clapping For Second To Last
In 2006, National Geographic magazine conducted a study in 34 advanced countries, to determine what percentage of people believe in the theory of evolution:
40% of Americans do not believe in evolution; another 20% aren’t sure. Out of thirty-four countries, Americans rank thirty-third in terms of percentages. How can this be? Our country is a scientific powerhouse, a research leader for more than a century. The United States is less religious than the typical country on a per capita basis. There can be only one reason — a concerted effort by Christians to protect their belief in The Bible’s inerrancy. Religious organizations work hard to discredit evolution, by distributing propaganda, with false science that creates confusion. Unfortunately, that strategy works, and not surprisingly, America is beginning to cede its scientific dominance to other ambitious countries.
My greatest fear is the people’s ability to suspend disbelief, when the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise. If you believe in God on faith and without tangible evidence, you will be open to accept other statements on faith alone. Introduce aggressive business interests who align themselves politically with the devoutly religious, and you have a recipe for disaster:
1. Global warming is not happening.
2. There is plenty of oil in the ground.
3. Be fruitful and multiply. The economy must grow. God will provide for all.
All three of these policies are counterproductive to the Earth’s long-term health.
World leaders seldom hint at an impending crisis; perhaps its best to keep the public calm and uninformed. We have used about half of all the oil created by 200-300 million years of carbon-based life. Within forty years and probably less, the world will dearly miss having plentiful oil. Fresh water, fish, trees, you name it — everything you need will be harder to get. The world is also getting warmer, and mass migrations to mid-northern latitudes are a likely outcome.
Whether you’re religious or not, why do we consume, and promote consumption so aggressively? I am no saint. I live in a large house and have consumed more than my share. I’m starting to feel quite guilty about that, and am making adjustments. On the other hand, how do you prevent or discourage men and women from a life of comfort and happiness? Human beings are smart and competitive. As far as we know, they are the most intelligent land animals in six hundred million years of life on Earth. Think how lucky we are; every one of our ancestors lived to reproduce, so we could live like the kings of yesteryear. Do you believe God will continue to provide this?
“Randy despises hypocrisy and pretension. He uses irony, satire, humor, pathos and surrealism to get his point across. And underlying all of it is a deep compassion for the people he’s writing about.”
— Russ Titleman**
Spending much of his early childhood in New Orleans, Randy Newman developed a fondness for the South, and sings its praises in some of his best known songs. He also experienced racism first hand. In one of his personal favorites, Newman uses a racist narrative to attack the hypocrisy of northern attitudes to the South:
Newman was inspired to write “Rednecks” after watching then Georgia governor Lester Maddox belittled on The Dick Cavett Show, then a talk show on public broadcasting. I’m not sure he could write this today without significant political backlash, given his relative fame. He wrote other songs that address racism and atheism, but none pack the punch of “Rednecks” or “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”.
After writing from years as passionate observer, a few autobiographical songs began to surface. “Dixie Flyer” and “New Orleans Wins The War” from 1988’s Land Of Dreams are two examples. In this performance, Newman sings “I Miss You” (from Bad Love), a love song to his first wife:
Here, Newman displays his sense of both humor and humility. The world isn’t fair:
I Think It’s Going To Rain Today
“I never had faith, but I have respect for the idea. There’s no joy being an atheist.”
— Randy Newman
I am not against religion. It plays a valuable role in so many people’s lives. It helps develop honest and loving people. And, not surprisingly, I love a lot of gospel music. But here in early 2012, religious fervor is powerful in America, and it’s sort of frightening. I have no interest in preaching my beliefs or changing yours. I want to be free to practice my own spirituality without fear of prejudice.
Randy Newman’s songwriting is fearless. He attacks sensitive issues with absolute candor. He creates beautiful, emotional songs about the spectrum of life’s experiences. He attacks hypocrisy with a gusto. His music can be funny and uplifting, but also foreboding and prophetic.
“Bright before me, the signs implore me,
To help the needy, and show them the way
Human kindness is overflowing.
And I think it’s going to rain today.”
— Randy Newman
Randy Newman Song Notes:
2. “Prologue 1915-1923” is from the opening sequence of the movie The Natural. “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and “I Will Go Sailing No More” are from Toy Story.
3. “I Miss You (Live)” and “The World Isn’t Fair (Live)” are from the album Randy Newman (Live In London).
Randy Newman Songs:
Political Science, Randy Newman ✭✭✭✭
Sail Away, Randy Newman ✭✭✭✭
I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, Randy Newman ✭✭✭
Mama Told Me Not To Come, Randy Newman ✭✭✭
You Can Leave Your Hat On, Randy Newman ✭✭✭
I Will Go Sailing No More, Randy Newman ✭✭
God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind), Randy Newman ✭✭
Rednecks, Randy Newman ✭✭
Birmingham, Randy Newman ✭✭
Louisiana 1927, Randy Newman ✭✭
It’s Money That Matters, Randy Newman ✭✭
The World Isn’t Fair (Live), Randy Newman ✭✭
I Miss You (Live), Randy Newman ✭✭
Love Is Blind (Demo), Randy Newman ✭✭
Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield, Randy Newman ✭✭
Prologue 1915-1923, Randy Newman ✭✭
You’ve Got A Friend In Me, Randy Newman ✭✭
Dixie Flyer, Randy Newman ✭✭
It’s Money That I Love, Randy Newman ✭
Suzanne, Randy Newman ✭
Marie, Randy Newman ✭
Old Kentucky Home, Randy Newman ✭
Rider In The Rain, Randy Newman ✭
Last Night I Had A Dream, Randy Newman ✭
The Girls In My Life, Part 1, Randy Newman ✭
I Love L.A., Randy Newman ✭
Jesus In The Summertime (Demo), Randy Newman ✭
New Orleans Wins The War, Randy Newman ✭
I’m Dreaming, Randy Newman ✭
Old Man, Randy Newman ✭
Mama Told Me Not To Come, Three Dog Night ✭✭
I Will Go Sailing No More, Los Lobos ✭✭
* [excerpt from http://www.celebatheists.com/wiki/Randy_Newman%5D
**[From the liner notes of the “Guilty” 4 CD compilation]