By Randy Newman, as performed by him on the album of the same name, 1972, Reprise Records.
I had planned to nominate this song to the list – Newman’s scalding indictment of slave trading in the 19th century – in the back-draft of the serial police killings of unarmed African-Americans in the U.S. Now, it seems particularly timely, and obviously not just for its reference to Charleston Bay (near where one of the deaths occurred) as a destination port. I considered January 1 as an appropriate day, the date of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but that is reserved for “Song of Hope,” from Joe Sealy’s Africville Suite. James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light” is pencilled in for Martin Luther King Day. So I have chosen another hopeful beacon, the day (in 1954) that the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ending the “separate but equal” regime in American public schools.
So: what a perplexity is the United States of 2016 – a country built significantly by slave labour that eight years ago elected an African-American president, only to hobble him with systemic, fearful tribalism.
The chart: The orchestration to this otherwise simple, scarifying narrative lends it a soundtrack quality, at once ominous, momentous, and ironic. (Of course Newman regularly writes music for films.) In slashing satire, the gentle, seemingly compassionate inducement to come along quietly (apparently addressed to a boy or a young man) contrasts with the horrific, unstated consequence of surrender. The repetitive piano refrain promotes a sense of inevitability, of sad, vertiginous fate, as with the rocking of a boat – here, the slave ship, in the middle of the ocean, as the truth dawns. Newman’s deviated-septum singing (celebrated in other pop singers for no apparent reason beyond puerile – bourgeois, actually – pseudo-rebellion; talk about champagne – make that cocaine – socialism!), seems apt here in its homey artlessness. It matches those qualities in the lyrics, their simplistic seduction, the friendly lie in its grandiose symphonic setting, as in Satan’s speeches (particularly to Eve) in Paradise Lost. “You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day. It’s great to be an American.”
In the tradition of socio-political satire in song, I have posted, on the Words and Music page of my website, a rough-and-ready recording of my own tune, “Cold Camembert and Broken Crackers.” It riffs on the Senate spending scandal in Canada (upon being challenged about buying breakfast on the taxpayer when the meal had been served on airplanes en route, one Senator scoffed, “Ice cold camembert and broken crackers, who wants to eat that?”), obviously a much less tragic but still serious subject-matter, part of the saga of deteriorating democracy in the West. Scroll down on that page to hear the song (in the Music section) and read more information about it, including the lyrics with chords.