Listen to this track by former songwriter-for-hire , current sought-after soundtrack composer, and musical satirist Randy Newman. It’s his 1972 song “Sail Away” as taken from the album of the same name, Sail Away.
Although known in more recent years mostly for his Grammy-winning soundtracks to children’s films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., Newman stands as one of America’s greatest satirists on record. And this is certainly one of the best examples of this sphere of his work; a pitch from a slaver to a potential slave.
Newman had made a name for himself primarily as a West coast Brill Building-style songwriter from the early 1960s, penning songs for acts like The Fleetwoods, The O’Jays, Cilla Black, Gene Pitney, and Harper’s Bizarre, among others. He’d also work as a sessioner with other notables including Van Dyke Parks, and Leon Russell, working with his friend and long-time collaborator Lenny Waronker.
But, later he’d branch out more as a performer in his own right, an area he’d only dabbled in during his songwriting years creating tunes for other acts. By the end of the ’60s and early ’70s, audiences were ready for a singer with a unique voice such as Newman’s. And they were ready for their pop music to contain more than one layer of meaning, too.
And that’s certainly what they got here, a tale as told by an unreliable narrator (a Newman specialty). But, in addition to the story of a wondrous land of opportunity, with a life of toil and cruelty hiding behind it, there are other layers to be found in this song besides.
One thing that Newman excelled in was in the shattering of illusions, something he would explore quite unrelentingly on this album, and on others. In this song, the land of promise, safety, and opportunity is the illusion, with the listener filling in the historical details for themselves. But despite these historical references to the port of Charleston Bay, it’s very easy to take this song as a more present day comment on how America is presented, perpetuated by myths that surround it, not completely unlike the slaver’s pitch.
With every “greatest country in the world” we in the rest of the world are seeing holes in the myth. We are finding out about the alarming number of children in the U.S living in poverty. We’re reading about the commoditization of human health where insurance company profits take precedence over the welfare of citizens for whom those company’s exist in the first place. And of course, it’s now impossible to ignore the corporate greed and lack of (or even absence of) social mobility where life in the United States is concerned. The “anyone can be president” mythos supported by the myths of the American electoral system in general, prove to be something of an American dream indeed.
But, to be fair, greed, control, and illusions surrounding them are being revealed as worldwide problems as well, including here in Canada. This is particularly true the self-serving nature of large private interests holding sway over the lives of regular people, with pushes for greater profits at any cost often disguised in the language of “job creation”. This is what I hear in this song by Newman, underneath the history of slavery in America. The pitch to paint a rosy picture of a place that is not so rosy after all can come in many forms.
Newman is of a certain ilk of songwriter that is growing increasingly rare, penning tunes that show the dark side of real life, even if the song itself is melodious and sumptuous. This is one of the jobs of the artist in society; to hold a mirror up to the culture in the hopes that it will see the flaws, and seek the means to change them. It’s no wonder that so many governments and oppressive systems have sought to silence the voices of artists ever since civilization began.
To learn more about Randy Newman, investigate the Randy Newman official website for history, discography, and other tidbits about his current tour of Europe.