Randy Newman , “New Orleans Wins the War,” Land of Dreams (1988)
Here’s something it would be easy to read too much into: The first record I ever loved was Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams. I discovered it because I’d heard my father play a song with the refrain “Honest you do.” I thought that song was pretty great, so I described it to my father and asked him what it was. In a rather felicitous failure on my father’s part, he identified the tune not as Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” but as “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do,” a Newman song that ironically quotes the Cooke tune.
I would have been about six years old; I know because when I was in first grade, I drew a picture of the Dixie Flyer, a train that apparently went from Los Angeles to New Orleans and gave the opening track its title and chorus motif. I am not sure what my teacher, Mr. Johnston, thought of my choice, but I’m pretty sure I explained my artwork to him in detail.
“New Orleans Wins the War” is the second track on Land of Dreams, and it’s a knowingly naïve portrait of New Orleans before the Civil Rights Era. Newman wrote it from the perspective of a child — it’s an autobiographical account of his early life in Louisiana — and it’s perhaps fitting that I first understood it through a similar perspective. The unreliability of memory plays a part here. “Mama used to wheel me past an ice cream wagon: one side for white, one side for colored,” was, I’m sure, a lyric I once thought was about segregating different flavors of dessert. But I’m also pretty sure my father explained how the song addressed racial conflict. What could it have mattered though? For a kid in the late ’80s, the late ’40s might have been the 14th Century, and New Orleans might have been Mars, no matter how precisely Newman evoked “Willow in the Garden District, next to the Sugar Bowl.” Besides, at the time, apartheid was a real thing in South Africa — as I knew. Bad things happened in other countries.
So I understood, at some level, the race stuff, even if I didn’t know what an octaroon was anymore than I could identify a macaroon or a copy of the Picayune. What I couldn’t have understood was the song’s sly humor.
1948, my daddy came to the city
Told the people that they had won the war
Maybe they’d heard it
Probably they’d heard it but they just forgot
I knew the war had ended in ‘45 and thought it was strange that people would forget such a thing. The funnier parts, which I could not have understood, were the following lines: “New Orleans had won the war!” — and then an interjection — “We knew we’d do it!/We done whipped the Yankees!” For the South, every war victory was a victory in the one war that mattered more than anything. Who cared about Germans when the memories of defeat at the hands of the Union still hung so strongly over everything?
And it was a long while before I understood New Orleans well enough to understand Newman’s father’s account of the city:
People have fun here, and I think that they should
But nobody from here ever come to no good
They gonna pickle him in brandy
Tell him that he’s saved
Then throw firecrackers around his grave
The closing refrain is one the song’s producer, Mark Knopfler, said should have been attached to a Levi’s commercial: “It’s a blue, blue morning; blue, blue day/All your bad dreams drift away.” No tension at all.