The Greatest Line: Randy Newman, “Sail Away” (1972)

Theme:  LAYERS

A great line in a popular song might be a zinger, a detachable epigram like “Nobody’s perfect/Not even the perfect stranger,” which is how “Time The Avenger” starts off (by The Pretenders). I particularly like that one. Two clichés struck together produce a flash of insight.

But the greatest song lines are great in the way they’re presented in the song. You want to hear them again and again to experience the musical nuance. This is true of amazingly many lines in the Joni Mitchell corpus—in “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow,” for instance: “A good slave loves the good book/And a rebel loves a cause.”

For the greatest of all song lines I’ll go to the most amazing of all songs in what it says, the slave-trade jingle “Sail Away” by Randy Newman, and to the climactic line of its last verse:

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
Y’all gonna be an American

“Sail Away” last verse and chorus

“Sail Away” has already been well appreciated for its complexity of sense,[1] but I don’t know that anyone has been geeky enough to actually list the various senses the song puts into play. To me this seems worth doing in support of a general claim I want to make—against all the wrongheaded prosaic literalists of the world—that piling on possible senses is very natural to us. We get a kick out of it. (Whether I’m being a literalist at another level by specifying the multiple senses is a problem I won’t bother my head about.)[2] So here goes:

1. We understand that as the slaver promises Africans they will find happiness in America, he may be gung-ho enough to believe the promise; or

1A. He may believe the promise in a depraved, self-deluding way; or

1B. He doesn’t believe the promise and is simply manipulative.

2. The slaver contradicts himself. “Take care of his home and his family” is a wholly different scenario than being “as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree,” which points up the cruel bind slaves are placed in—denied almost all opportunities to live responsibly but allowed only a miserable version of animal-level happiness.

2A-B (see the options under sense 1): The slaver either realizes this contradiction or doesn’t.

3. In any case, we understand that the slaver’s picture of the American experience is not true (dramatic irony).

3A. Though the slaver’s promise is not truthful about shorter-term outcomes for slaves, the longer-term outcomes could be as promised—“America” might work out great for everyone (further irony added to sense 3).

3AA-B. The slaver does or doesn’t have the foresight to think this, or the will to hope this.

4. Randy Newman, as opposed to the slaver character, is unconsciously channeling the history that came out of American slavery and into American popular music.

4A. Newman is presenting his historical position consciously, inviting us to contemplate the irony of a white singer-songwriter summing up the experience of blacks.[3]

5. Charleston Bay is a beautiful destination.

5A. Charleston Bay is the American equivalent of the Auschwitz train station.

6. “Sail Away” is a viable national anthem—it beautifully brings to a focus our most important national experience, including our strongest regrets and hopes.

6A. “Sail Away” is purely satirical—its value is just that of, say, a Tom Lehrer song.

6B. “Sail Away” is a horror song.

6BA. “Sail Away” is vile exploitation of historical horror.

Let’s look now at the tangle of sense in the greatest line itself, the final line. It starts with “y’all,” which poses a linguistic problem, a cultural problem, and an ethical problem. We have to solve all three problems if we’re to finish processing the senses of the song.

As a linguistic problem, even before we construe the sense of the word we have to decide whether we’re hearing Newman say “y’all” (yawl) or the two words “you’re all” partially slurred together. What rides on this is whether we hear him as a specimen of dialect or as a strategic user of a dialect expression. In the recording and in every performance I’ve heard, he hits the exact midpoint between these articulations; this makes him both a Southerner, a creature of slave society whose sense of what is real and possible is already drastically skewed, and a designer who chose slavery as a means to fulfilling the utopian ideal of “America.” That’s the cultural problem. But even the smart “America” engineer, if it’s him we’re hearing, has to talk in the distinctive language of the South to the extent of using that cozening, coercive second-person plural for the second-person individual. Through this lens we look back on the preceding line, “You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree,” and realize we could take it as evidence either that the “America” engineer has cleverly geared his appeal to Africans or that the Southerner is already afflicted with racist stupidity. And the cultural problem is totally an ethical problem: how are we to relate to this guy? Should we be afraid of him? Should we stamp him out? Should we pity him?

In 2012, in the hot afternoon of the American Empire, we must hear the offer, or threat, “Y’all gonna be an American,” in its brutality and supreme optimism as applying to Iraqis and Afghans and just about everyone in the world, in principle, except maybe for 11 million Latinos who work inside the United States. Thus:

7. “Y’all gonna be an American!” We mean it!

7A. “Y’all gonna be an American!” We wish we could say it! But we realize we can’t.

7B. “Y’all gonna be an American!” It’s a ridiculous thought, and we renounce it.

I’m claiming we love to pile on extra layers of sense in our expressions, but I must admit it’s equally characteristic of us to boil sense down to a simple takeaway, especially when we can use it as a weapon or an Open Sesame. The possibility of oversimplification is especially worrying in the present context. What if I go forth beaming upon the peoples of the world my new all-purpose conviction, “Y’all gonna be an American” (sense 7)? Randy Newman’s song is so outrageous that this can’t happen. Surely.


[1] See Greil Marcus, Mystery Train, 4th ed. (New York: Plume, 1997), pp. 107-109.

[2] Did Dante spoil everything by explaining the Divine Comedy’s four layers of allegory in his letter to Can Grande? “You must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. Which method of treatment, that it may be clearer, can be considered through these words: ‘When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion’  (Psalm 113.1-2). If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if from allegory, it means for us our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means to us the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory” (trans. James Marchand).

[3] Marcus brings this sense out wonderfully.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Greatest Line: Randy Newman, “Sail Away” (1972)

  1. Scott Peters says:

    Hi Steve,

    I was searching for an insightful description of Randy Newman’s remarkable 1972 song “Sail Away.” I was glad to find your article. I wanted to point out that inside the original vinyl gatefold LP you will find original lyrics that show “You’re all gonna be an American” rather than “y’all” that you used to build point seven, I figure you were not aware when you penned this in 2012…Also, not sure how it changes your deconstruction of point seven, i.e. What we should take as true meaning(s) of the author, narrator, etc…I am coming down on the narrator is well aware of what awaits his audience in Charleston….thanks for the article.

    • Steve Smith says:

      YEAH, you’re right about the printed lyrics, Scott. I have to base my argument on what it sounds like he’s saying. Note that “you’re all gonna be an American” is grammatically singular and so equivalent to “y’all” in the common odd Southern way of saying that to an individual.

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