A Wedding In Cherokee County – Randy Newman
…maybe she’s crazy I don’t know
maybe that’s why I love her so…
The Old Market, Hove, Sussex August 13th 2005. Not quite Cherokee County but it’s a universal tale isn’t it ? Hmm maybe not. Anyway. Cherokee County could refer to Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, South or North Carolina or Texas. The song is written by Randy Newman and is off his 5th LP entitled “Good Old Boys” and the LP has a theme – the South of the USA. All of the songs are concerned with life, history or the mentality of living in the South. When he plays live he compares it to Quadrophenia. He’s joking. In case you missed the debate, The South or The Confederacy, finally lost the Civil War in 1865 when Reconstruction began and the abolition of slavery was final. However, the effects of that war have never disappeared as is only too obvious. President Abraham Lincoln was shot dead on April 14th 1865 just as hostilities had ceased, a victim of his support for the abolition of slavery, The South was poor (relatively speaking) for at least 100 years afterwards, voting rights weren’t granted finally until 1964 (Selma) and the Confederate Flag – the flag of the six breakaway states (the ones with the most slaves) – was finally taken down from the Town Hall in Columbia South Carolina this month in July 2015. But this song isn’t about slavery. Or Civil War. It’s about marriage.
Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles to musical parents. His first self-titled LP came out in 1968 and it was immediately clear that he was a distinctive and original songwriter. Mordant, satirical, ironic, witty, irreverent and clever, there is no other writer like Randy Newman. Instead of attacking he goes underneath and makes you smile. I bought his 4th LP Sail Away in the 1970s after hearing it at Simon Korner’s house (or so I thought, Simon has since denied this) – it contained one of my then favourite songs Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear which I knew from the pop charts and Alan Price. Randy wrote it. The entire LP is a masterpiece and I’ll blog it another day – we’re inside the next one – from 1974. ‘Good Old Boys’ is what men from the south call each other. “Them good ole boys was drinkin’ whisky and rye singin’ this will be the day that I die..” That line is a perfect example of the stereotypical sentimental self-pity of the southern man in art and song, a strange mixture of pride and defiance, racism and whisky. “I sang Dixie as he died“. I think this LP is also a masterpiece and I will definitely be blogging five of the songs on it so I won’t go on and on. But just to note in passing that the opening track Rednecks goes where few songs dare and calls out both the southern racism and the northern hypocrisy faced by black people in America.
Meanwhile, Keith & Yarra were getting married. They had a beautiful boy called George who had been born the previous January. But they decided to tie the knot, get hitched, get wed, do matrimony, nuptials, get spliced and legalise publicly and forever their cohabitation and love, and they wanted me to do a reading at the ceremony. Did I have any suggestions? And could I suggest any music?
They both worked in the music business so I was sure they had everything they needed, but I made a few suggestions : Aaron Neville’s Ten Commandments Of Love, Elvis Presley’s Hawaiian Wedding Song, A Wedding In Cherokee County by Randy Newman. The last song wasn’t a great choice to be honest because is it incredibly disrespectful, intentionally hilarious and pretty likely to get the relations kicking off especially if they’ve had a few. Check the lyrics :
There she is : sittin’ there
Out behind the smoke house in her rockin’ chair
She don’t say nothin’, she don’t do nothin’
She don’t feel nothin’, she don’t know nothin’
Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so
But of course Keith and Yarra loved it, and not only did they love it they decided that they wanted me to read it out as a poem at the wedding. Jeepers Creepers ! Not for that first verse, which is funny, but for verse two particularly. I’d never met either set of parents, and now I was expected to stand up in my nice sky blue suit and read :
Her papa was a midget, her mama was a whore
Her granddad was a newsboy ’til he was eighty-four
What a slimy old bastard he was
Man don’t you think I know she hates me
Man don’t you think I know that she’s no good
If she knew how she’d unfaithful to me
I think she’d kill me if she could
They both assured me that it would be fine, that the parents would find it amusing, and that even if they didn’t that was what they wanted me to read. I was honoured to be asked of course so I agreed. I was also a little thrilled. How daring !
..I’m not afraid of the grey wolf
Who stalks through our forest at dawn
As long as I have her beside me
I have the strength to carry on…
Extensions from Nighty Night – me and Lyndsey
Keith and Yarra I’d met via Mark Williams when Jenny and I moved down to Brighton in 1996, they were part of the great loose endless party by the sea that seemed never-ending and full of cider and cocaine. Keith unusually was a Manchester lad who supported Chelsea. He has a streak of decency that is immediately recognisable and very welcome in a seaside town, and Yarra is similarly precious to me. I think he used to work in rock and roll promotion in the biz, but he graduated to design later – for example designing the whole package of Paul Steel’s first LP April and I (see My Pop Life #1) which was like a Mr Men book. I bought four of them to hoard. It’s a brilliant record and a brilliant package. But Keith has done tons and tons of stuff. Not least been a great Dad to George and Milla (who was born a few years later).
Today we will be married
And all the freaks that she knows will be there
And all the people from the village will be there
To congratulate us
I will carry her across the threshold
And I will make dim the light
And I will attempt to spend my love within…
Yarra, Keith and George
So the day of the wedding came and all was well. They’d planned it down to the inch. I knew many of the guests but by no means all – but our Brighton and Hove gang were well represented by Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill (then married and together), Lyndsey, Louise Yellowlees, Erika Martinez, Alex Campbell & Natasha, Lorraine and John and Mark, Emma, Josh, Patrick surely and Adam Mellor must have been there and when I just looked at my crap pictures I could swear that the bass player of Elbow is there, and he might well be because they are mates of Keith’s from Manc-land and I met them all one night in Pool Valley in Brighton after a gig. It was a good wedding needless to say. A good mixture of rock ‘n’ roll and class, flowers, nice clothes and drink and drugs. The congregation were very welcoming when I arose to read out the Randy Newman poem, but the following third verse got a laugh and in the end we were all rather moved :
…though I try with all my might
She will laugh at my mighty sword
She will laugh at my mighty sword
Why must everybody laugh at my mighty sword?
Lord, help me if you will
Maybe we’re both crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so
Randy Newman ‘sometime in the 1970s’
Randy Newman’s songs sound like they were written 100 years ago. They have an incredible weathered quality, the key changes, the simple choices, some of them sound like hymns, some like campfire songs, some like Tin Pan Alley or early vaudeville. I’m not sure how he achieves this stardust 78rpm quality, I’ve watched him very carefully playing piano both live and on the TV and he scarcely moves his fingers up and down the keyboard – everything is bunched together and one new note and a shift of bass line and he achieves miracles. Very little guitar – all strings and brass and piano. Now and again a lick of slide. Only the lyrics give away the non-historical nature of these songs – they are all massively contemporary even when he is pastiching older musical tropes. And just listen to the drum on the first verse of Cherokee County. It’s so late it almost misses the bus.
With a song that somehow expresses the opposite of its subject, which talks about hate, stupidity and mistrust and yet makes you feel sentimental and weepy-eyed about getting married I think Randy Newman had hit the motherlode of genius – but all of his songs are like this. Short People. Sail Away. Political Science. On and on.
Yarra, Keith, Milla & George
Happy Anniversary Keith and Yarra – ten years in a couple of weeks. And I wouldn’t have dared have this song played or read at my wedding. Are you kidding ? Have you met Jenny’s Mum ? So respect…
This never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
a taste of the man himself playing live in 1978 :