America suffers from an identity crisis. In our founding documents, the ideal of America is a beautiful vision where all people are free, strangers and immigrants are warmly welcomed, and every person has the inalienable right to pursue happiness.
At the same time those documents were being written though, Africans were being forcibly and violently torn away from their homes to toil away as slaves in America, for generation upon generation.
Then less than 100 years after those documents of freedom and welcome were created and ratified, America went to war, and hundreds of thousands of people died over the issue of whether or not a person should have the right to own another person.
The slaves were set free, and African Americans were left to find their way, and struggle and die for basic human rights for the next 150 years. During this time, people from Mexico, Columbia, Venezuela and other Latin American countries came to the United States to find new lives for themselves, often because home was so violent and poor that coming north was the only way to find peace and happiness. They came to America and worked hard, usually at jobs few others would take, and slowly built meaningful lives for themselves and their families. We now find ourselves in 2018 when our borders are closed, and people looking only for peace and happiness are greeted with tear gas and water cannons.
Who are we? How do we welcome the stranger? How can we resolve the dichotomy that at one time we forced people here against their will, and are now using the military to keep people away? Never has the identity crisis of America, and the dichotomy of our colonialism, immigration policies and slavery practices been better captured than in the song “Sail Away,” by the brilliant Randy Newman.
Randy Newman has always been somewhat of a dichotomy himself. His songs are lush and theatrical while being deeply satirical and shockingly funny. Whether he is singing about short people, “Rednecks“, or Korean parents, Randy Newman writes songs no one else could write, with humor and introspection that teaches the listener almost as much they alarm the listener.
“Sail Away” is a story told from the perspective of a slave ship owner, trying to convince Africans to sail with him to America.
“In America you’ll get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American.”
You could cut the conceit with a knife. The slaver assumes that everyone should love Jesus, and that no one should want to run through the jungle. Of course, what the slaver fails to mention is that they won’t really be American at all. They won’t be seen as members of the community. They will be property.
“Ain’t no lions or tigers ain’t no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Everybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard little wog sail away with me.”
To this white slaver, Africa means only reptiles and dangerous animals. No family or community, nothing that anyone would want to possibly stay for. In America though, the slaver tries to convince his target, everyone is happy. Come with me. Sail away.
“In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You’re all gonna be an American.”
The agenda is not so hidden. The slaver needs to get the African on the boat to get him to America. The only work the African will be doing is working to take care of his family. His family. Is that his wife and kids, or is it the family on the plantation he will be working? Most likely, most of the work he will be doing will be for someone other than people he loves.
The music is orchestral and lush. Newman sings like a mix between a politician and a carnival barker. The listener is almost tempted to sing along…we all want to convince the African to join us.
The position of the slaver is almost enviable. He knows who he is, and what he is trying to do. There is no confusion, and only a little obfuscation. He is trying to make America a better country. The country becomes better, in his view, with more slaves.
Our identity, as a country, is fractured. It was then, it is now. Do we enrich our country by forcing people in, or do we make our country safer by keeping people out? Do we make America a better place by giving all people equal rights, or by accusing an entire people of being nothing more than murderers and rapists?
Though our country may consistently suffer from an identity crisis, Randy Newman knows exactly who he is, and who we are. Newman tells a story that is sharply focused and achingly honest. He stays in character, and he shows clearly how that character is beyond flawed, as is our country.
A lesser songwriter would have included a chorus that explains how bad of a person the slaver is. A lesser songwriter would have felt the need to make it clear that they themselves think slavery is bad. A lesser songwriter would have tried to make us all feel good about our country, our history and our tragic identity crisis.
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay”
Written by Randy Newman
Performed by Randy Newman
Released May 1972