I have an aunt who lives in Birmingham, and though I don’t think she’d care for Randy Newman’s other work—certainly not his recent salvo, “I’m Dreaming of a White President”—she does like “Birmingham,” a pleasant tune from his 1974 album Good Old Boys. It’s not hard to see its appeal. There is nothing in the song itself to alert the casual listener that it’s a critique. The chorus offers some bland hometown pride—“Birmingham, Birmingham / The greatest city in Alabam’.” The verses are full of working-class humility: “And I work all day in the factory / That’s alright with me.” On the face of it, the song seems harmless.
“Rednecks,” the song that precedes it on the album, is more provocative. “We’re rednecks, rednecks / And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground / We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks / And we’re keeping the niggers down.” Newman spares us none of the slur’s menace in that resounding last line. Race is the chief concern on Good Old Boys. It lies beneath the mild surface of “Birmingham,” and would be there even without the context of the album. There may be nothing overtly political about a factory worker living in Birmingham, Alabama, but it is fair to assume that in the early ’70s a song titled “Birmingham” would still carry associations of the bus boycotts and church bombings that had taken place there a decade earlier.
The subtext of race is present on another song about the same state, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The song also appeared in 1974, and seems a companion to “Birmingham,” only without the irony. The lyrics are an unsubtle response to Neil Young’s critique of the South in his songs “Alabama” and “Southern Man,” and pay tribute to the place Young supposedly maligns. The band’s argument seems to be that Young’s criticism—or any outside criticism—has no meaning for Southerners: “Well I heard Neil Young sing about her / Well, I heard old Neil put her down / Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.”
It’s fair to say that Young was singing about race. “Sweet Home Alabama” doesn’t ignore racial politics, and the lyrics are not uncritical of the South in that regard. Still, the criticism is couched in a separationist way of thinking. Of Governor George Wallace, who opposed the Civil Rights movement, the band sings, “In Birmingham they love the governor—fool fool fool—now we all did what we could do / No Watergate does not bother me / Does your conscience bother you…?” The argument is simple: Yes, we have problems, but so does the rest of the country—who are you to judge?
“Sweet Home Alabama” has become an anthem not just for the state, but also for the South in general. When I was growing up in Atlanta, the song was played at every party and every high school dance. Last year, the band’s rendition at my cousin’s wedding reception in Birmingham was one of the bigger moments of the evening. Of course, it’s the chorus that counts on these occasions: “Sweet Home Alabama / Where the skies are so blue”; the immediate context from which the song emerged goes unsaid. Still, the message contained in the verses is not insignificant. Here is an expression of Southern pride that relies on Southerners’ strong mistrust of outsiders.
It is precisely this attitude of mistrust that Newman captures, both on “Birmingham” in particular and on Good Old Boys in general. The album consists of a series of grotesque portraits of men in the South. Each of these men is monstrous in his own right, and each plays up his flaws in a way that is calculated. Throughout Good Old Boys, the characters’ goal in criticizing themselves is both self-defense and self-sufficiency—they render the outside critic unnecessary; they can do his job better than he can himself.
Understanding this strategy reveals the menace in the outwardly tame verses of “Birmingham.” The narrator of “Birmingham” describes his simple life, his wife and family, his “three room house / with a pepper tree.” This is not modesty; this man is proud of his image of himself as self-reliant. This is clear in the last stanza, when he boasts outright, “Got a big black dog / And his name is Dan / Who lives in my backyard in Birmingham / He is the meanest dog in Alabam’ / Get ’em, Dan.” His message is clear: Keep out!