My Pop Life #106 : A Wedding In Cherokee County – Randy Newman

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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…

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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

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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.

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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 :

My Pop Life #79 : People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

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People Get Ready   –   Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

People get ready – there’s a train coming

You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board

All you need is faith to hear the diesel hummin’

Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord…

I bought The Impressions Anthology double LP at some point in the late 70s during my soul conversion years.   The album collects songs from 1961 to 1977 and every one is a classic, but one song stood out for me as head and shoulders above the rest.  More like a hymn than a pop song, this is one of the reasons why pop music is so potent.  To take a church form and turn it into a gospel/political plea of this simplicity and strength takes skill, it’s like a William Blake poem or a Martin Luther King sermon,  it hits you right between the eyes, and goes straight for the heart.

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Black American music has long used biblical imagery in the context of freedom – the crossing of the River Jordan, the walls of Jericho, let my people go (from Egypt) – the language of slavery from the Moses era of the Old Testament perfectly fit the plantation south.  Trains have also been prominent in freedom songs.  The Underground Rail Road was the name for the hidden path to freedom for escaped slaves, a series of marks on trees, directions remembered, safe houses, places to avoid.   The songs Wade In The Water, The Gospel Train and Swing Low Sweet Chariot all refer to the freedom train, or the underground railroad.   Harriet Tubman was one of the main conductors on this train, freeing hundreds of slaves to the Northern states.   The Gospel Train (Get On Board) was sung by contralto Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when she was denied entry to the Constitution Hall in 1939 by the “Daughters Of The Revolution”.

With the aid and support of Eleanor Roosevelt she sang an outside radio broadcast to 75,000 people with millions listening on the radio.   She was later the first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.  Incidentally she has also sung “Erbarme Dich” from the St Matthew Passion (see My Pop Life #76).

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Marian Anderson

So Curtis Mayfield‘s song is in a tradition, it may have the appearance, melody and structure of a gospel tune, and the subject matter of a religious song about God, but Black American music always has significant symbolic aspects of freedom hidden in plain sight.   People Get Ready is very much a song of the Civil Rights era, two years after the march on Washington, and released in the same year of the Selma to Montgomery marches.   A year ealier the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public places – the “coloured” drinking fountains and rest rooms, bars and restaurants, but in some parts of America it was impossible to register to vote.  The freedom train was coming though.   Lyndon B. Johnson‘s presidency was actually more radical than Kennedy’s before him and created many of the institutions of America still existent today – Medicare and Medicaid, public broadcasting, voting rights and public housing.

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The arrangement of the song is special – a choir hums the intro with a xylophone and strings, then the Impressions – Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler and Fred Cash – sing the song.  Guitar lines, trumpets and vocal harmonies grace the key change and then we get taken home, musically.  Something about the chord structure answers a deep yearning for completions and resolution and the song rose into my all-time top ten within a year of buying it.  I put it onto Jenny’s Soul Tape (see My Pop Life #29) along with Gladys Knight, Bobby Bland (My Pop Life #28) and others, and then in the early 1990 we saw Curtis Mayfield live at the Town & Country in Kentish Town Road.  I think most people’s highlight was Move On Up (and fair enough, what a tune), but when he played People Get Ready, in the same arrangement as the original, simple and direct, we melted.    A few months later a lighting rig fell onto him in Flatbush New York and he was paralysed from the neck down.  He still continued to write and play until diabetes lost him the use of a leg.  He died in 1999.

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 His output remains an inspiring and uplifting body of work, from the early Impressions songs through Pusherman and Freddie’s Dead to the last LP New World Order, and perhaps no other artist has contributed so many black pride anthems, from Keep On Pushing through to Move On Up.   But he also managed to balance the righteous freedom politics with an uber-cool image that peaked with Superfly in 1971.

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I’ll just briefly note in passing that Bob Marley is among the artists who covered People Get Ready.  And Stevie Wonder played it with India Arie last month in Brooklyn (see My Pop Life #39).   A towering song.