I apologize for the lateness of this post. My day-to-day work has been hellacious.
Kingfish – Randy Newman
There once were a hundred thousand Frenchmen in New Orleans. Back when that mattered. I don’t suppose we’d call Frenchmen in America “Frenchmen” anymore. They’re just Americans with funny accents. Maybe cause they couldn’t stand up to a good old-fashioned American boy. Nobody could.
Huey Long came onto the Louisiana political scene in 1923, running for Governor on a platform of renewal and honesty. A real solid platform on which great things could be built. He lost by a significant margin. Of course. But from tiny seeds do mighty saplings grow. Huey comes back. Can’t keep a good old-fashioned American boy down. He runs again in 1928 and wins. On the same platform. He takes the South (the real South, not the decadence and decaying Spanish moss of New Orleans) and marches them down the highways he builds, all the way to the havens of old money and old corruption. But it takes a real strong broom to drive those folks out…
Randy Newman’s song, off of his aptly titled album ‘Good Old Boys’, resurrects the skulking ghost of one of the twentieth century’s biggest what-ifs. In that classic Randy Newman drawl, with that cool piano, he spouts what is basically a campaign jingle, forty years too late. There’s something mysterious, alluring, something drawing you in and bidding you to research exactly what he means by “every man a king.” Newman has always been a political musician, but this is less of a discussion of the present, more of a paean to a somewhat rose-tinted past.
Huey Long is, in a word, effective. Scorchingly so. Cold-cocking election opponents, firing anybody who disagrees with him… eyebrows are raised. At least among the wealthy, the powerful, the Standard Oil executives. The common folk simply cheer at the prospect of being treated like human beings. Property taxes for the poor are rendered nonexistent. Night literacy classes. Free textbooks for children. Highways far as the eye can see. Is any of this voted for? Huey Long votes for it. He is the State Senate. He is the State Constitution. Vote nay, and you’ll be shouted down – or allegedly worse.
He wants to take it farther, much farther, all the way to Washington. So the natural plan of action is a Senate run. But Huey, wouldn’t becoming a senator force you to step down as governor? The lieutenant governor attempts to succeed him and is thrown out by the state Supreme Court (with a little help from the National Guard). Huey has a sock puppet stooge succeed him instead. Senator and Governor. And he has his eye on more…
Newman is too clever a satirist to write odes to dictators without a hint of irony. He mentions nothing of Huey’s controversies and this is absolutely intentional. It’s from Huey’s point of view. Newman’s narrator views his constituency as a useful bunch of hicks and banks on the fact that they’re proud of it. Nobody rises to power in the South without appealing to the poor. There’s just so many of them down there.
Huey isn’t content with merely being Senator for long. He begins planning a presidential campaign for 1936. His platform now? Socialism, by any other name. He plants the seeds of Share Our Wealth, promising a dissection of millionaire fortunes, free college, some of the most sweeping welfare programs ever proposed in this country. Franklin Roosevelt is scared of him. He says that Huey will split the vote, send the country into chaos under a non-Roosevelt administration from which only Huey can save them as dictator. And Roosevelt just couldn’t out-promise him if it came to that.
In September of 1935, Huey Long was shot and killed.
Newman’s verses are upbeat. His chorus is dark and dirge-like. He understands the wonderful brightness of Huey Long, the humor and the good works, but also the danger. We are terrified of demagogues nowadays because the lies they sell are so appealing. The only weapon Huey needed was the truth of what kind of unspeakable hell it is to be poor in this country.