Song of the Week 30: Louisiana 1927 – Randy Newman

“What has happened down here is the wind has changed…”

This week´s song takes us to New Orleans. But before then we´ll head to Los Angeles for a little background on the songwriter:

Randy Newman was born in L.A. but he lived in New Orleans as a small child and spent summers there until he was 11 years old, by which time his family had returned to Los Angeles. The paternal side of his family includes three uncles who were noted Hollywood film music composers. Two of his cousins, and one of his nephews also compose film scores. It runs in the family.

Newman´s style was like a twisted version of Tin Pan Alley. He was part of the folk rock Laurel Canyon scene in L.A. as he was on the same label, but had little in common musically, and distanced himself from the “confessional clique”, prefering to keep to himself.

“Laurel Canyon has got an awful lot of musicians living in it, but I really don´t know anybody,” he said in 1970. “I never believed it was naked baring of the soul… I think you could take a guess and know a lot more about me than you could guess about Joni or Neil. When you meet them you weren´t so sure that´s what they were writing about.”

He didn´t go in for the rock n roll image. He just wrote great songs, influenced by the sounds he´d heard in New Orleans, songs that would be covered by artists such as Nina Simone, Gene Pitney, Alan Price, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield Jackie DeShannon and Van Dyke Parks (another outsider in the Laurel Canyon scene, who co-produced Newman´s first album).

He was lucky to be on the Warner-Reprise label, who fostered artists like Tom Waits, Ry Cooder, Newman and Parks with the success of other more successful artists on the label. Songwriters were given a few albums to grow, something which is sadly lacking these days, and may be part of the reason why there are so few of these types of songwriters around. Who knows? There are a lot of cover versions in the charts these days. Whoever said “pop will eat itself” might have been on to something. Anyway, I digress…

“At Rolling Stone we just began to realise that this was an extraordinary company. They were the first hip brand among the major labels.” Ben Fong-Torres

“We didn´t know who we were selling Randy or Ry to…” said Parks. “It was strictly on a wing and a prayer.”

Newman was also a composer and arranger, and in 1969 he did the orchestral arrangements for Peggy Lee´s single Is That All There Is, and for the album of the same name, which contained two of his own compositions.

It took a long time for Newman to get anything close to success. His first album Randy Newman, in 1968 was a favourite with the critics, but it didn´t even get into the top 200.

Although his first four albums were all critical successes, and other artists were having hits with his songs, the first real success for Newman came with Good Old Boys (1974). The record is a broad sweep of life in the south, which is rooted in the Huey Long era and contains the song Louisiana 1927.

As I´ve already said Randy Newman isn´t confessional songwriter. He often writes from the point of view of a  biased narrator, but he sings the song in the first person. Listeners sometimes attribute the statements to Newman himself. As a result, some of the things the characters say in his songs can come across as shocking, prejudiced, or politically incorrect. He´s got a great sense of humour, but the trouble is, people don´t always get the joke. When he eventually made his first hit song “Short People” in 1977 (it reached number 2 in the US, only kept off the top by Baby Come Back and Stayin´Alive) , many listeners were outraged that someone could be so mean to people who are “vertically challenged”. It was written from the perspective of a lunatic who hates short people. The song is in fact about prejudice. Newman received threats and there was even legislature drawn up in Maryland to ban the song from the radio, but it didn´t get enough votes, so the bill didn´t pass.

But he´s not always joking. Writing from someone else´s perspective has allowed Newman to write about a wide variety of topics. It gives the writer a distance that allows the song to talk for itself, without ego getting in the way.

Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which has been described as the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce at the time described it as “the greatest peace-time clamity in the history of the country. About 26,000 square miles of land were flooded in seven states, driving an estimated 931,159 people away from their homes. The Mississippi River remained at flood stage for 153 days. Between 250 and 500 people died. And the response from Congress, the 1928 Flood Control Act, would have far-reaching social, political and physical consequences.

Louisiana 1927 is a lament in the key of G-major sung from the point of view of a nameless resident talking about the flooding of Saint Bernards and Plaquemines parishes during the great flood. The narrator describes the winds changing, with incessant rain transforming the countryside, and name-checks the local areas along the river which have been devastated by the flood. It contains the haunting line “some people got lost in the flood…”.

Newman reveals details about the devastation on the day the floods came, but the song does not just express empathy for what happened, there is another level of meaning. Those “winds from the north” are not just literal. It expresses outrage at the treatment received and a perceived injustice that stretches back to the Civil War, which seems to have played a part in the response to this tragedy.

It criticises the heartless and insufficient response of the federal government, where he describes a fictional visit by President Coolidge and the Secretary of Commerce. The reaction of the president is the detached statement: “ain’t it a shame what the river has done to this poor cracker’s land.”

Here´s Newman himself, talking to the late Timothy White. “There’s a feeling down there, definitely, of anti-Yankee animus toward the North, toward government, toward people trying to tell them what to do… and that’s what it’s about to me.”

Here is the song, with photographs from the 1927 flood.

Things don´t seem to have changed all that much. The song took on new significance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The lament of being hit first by the flood, and then by the callous response of the government, resonated with people in New Orleans and the surrounding area and became the unofficial state anthem. “They´re trying to wash us away…”

Marcia Ball, the Louisiana born blues singer, said this of the reaction: “For a long time after Katrina, there just wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I did that song. It has one of those simple, irresistible Randy Newman melodies and lyrics that were so real. In truth, so many people did get washed away.”

Aaron Neville, who was born and raised in New Orleans, heard about the song through his duet partner, Linda Ronstadt, who was another heavyweight in the Laurel Canyon scene and a good friend of Newman´s. He recorded the song on his 1991 album, Warm Your Heart, but sang in a much more emotional, heartfelt way, backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir. A gifted singer, he was able to exploit the melodic rise and fall of the chorus, and because he was a native, he sang as if he himself was caught in the flood up to his waist in water, with a first person authenticity that was missing from the Newman original.

“When I watched the Katrina coverage on CNN,” he said, “I’d see people on the roofs that I knew. I said: ‘Damn, when’s the cavalry coming? The cavalry comes every time, why not now?’ When I used to sing that song, it was about something that happened a long time ago. Now when I sing it, it’s about something that happened to me and my family, so it’s a lot more real.”

Neville and his brothers are closely identified with New Orleans, and have appeared on the TV Show Treme on several occasions. I wasn´t able to find a video of Aaron singing Lousiana 1927 with the character Annie on violin, but it´s in episode 7 of season 3, and it really tugs at the heartstrings. I´ll keep an eye out for it, and post it when I find it. In the meantime, here is a nice little behind the scenes video with the Neville Brothers talking about their song Hey Pocky Way, the Mardi Gras Indians anthem.

“It’s a New Orleans tradition that you can take any music and mess with it.” Bruce Boyd Raeburn.

The key lyric for Raeburn is “They’re tryin’ to wash us away,” because it applies to most of New Orleans history. “It captures that feeling that you’re trying to cling on to your culture, to your life, in the face of this wave of indifference, of racism, of malevolence and of water itself.”

Anyone who watches Treme will be familiar with New Orlean´s favourite, local singer John Boutté, who sings the show´s theme and makes regular appearances. He messed with the lyric and extended the song with new lyrics referencing Katrina.  The line “Clouds roll in from the north” becomes “clouds rolled in from the Gulf. “President Coolidge come down in a railroad train with a little fat man wit a notepad in his hand” became “President Bush flew over in an aeroplane with about 12 fat men with double martinis in their hands.”

“The city had been empty, but the whole world would be coming for Jazzfest…We’d have a soapbox to talk about our loss and about the unconcern others had for us. But I had to find the right song.”

So here he is with John Thomas Griffith and Sonia Tetlow performing their updated version in July 2006.

Long live New Orleans. Long live Louisiana…

Lyrics:

What has happened down here is the winds have changed

Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain

Rained real hard and it rained for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The river rose all day

The river rose all night

Some people got lost in the flood

Some people got away alright

The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana, Louisiana

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

Louisiana, Louisiana

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train

With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand

The president say, ”Little fat man isn’t it a shame

What the river has done to this poor crackers land.”

Louisiana, Louisiana

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

Louisiana, Louisiana

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

6 thoughts on “Song of the Week 30: Louisiana 1927 – Randy Newman

  1. Just had dinner with my friend and her kids from Baton Rouge, Louisiana tonight. She took the lamb leftovers I brought to their thanksgiving feast and cooked them up Creole style. Hot greens and smashed potatoes. Mmmmmm…. I sent her a copy of this song. Thank you

  2. Does anyone know the name of the melody at the beginning of this song? It is so familiar but I sure can’t identify the piece from which it comes. Thanks.

    1. The opening melody is an arrangement of Randy´s own Sail Away (his song about slavery), cause he wanted to combine the two songs symbolically. This extract comes from Randy Newman´s American Dreams, by Kevin Courrier:

      “Louisiana 1927 may, on one level, simply be revealing the details of that horrible day, but those details are charged with a deeper metaphorical meaning – that the transgressions of the South, and the unresolved issues emanating from the Civil War, have invited this calamity. The winds (significantly from the North) dramatically change and transform the countryside, until the town of Evagneline has six feet of water flowing in it´s streets. In the chorus, Newman reaches the essence of the retribution suffered by the Southerners: Louisiana, Louisiana, they´re trying to wash us away.”

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Its passionately moving and shows that the seemingly voiceless people actually have a strong voice that can’t be ignored.
    The earlier we dismantle the ignoble feeling that one race is superior to another, the better for God’s ‘ace’ object of creation: man.
    Please keep the fire glowing.

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