‘You Hide Behind The Oak Tree . . .’

Originally posted August 26, 2008

Every once in a while, a song comes along whose lyrics make me go, “Wha?”

That frequently happens with the songs of Randy Newman. He’s got a new CD out – Harps and Angels – that I have not heard, but the reviews I’ve read tell me that the CD marks the return of the acerbic and cantankerous songwriter responsible for such gems as “Sail Away,” “Short People” and many more. Being versatile, of course, Newman is also responsible for many sweet ditties, as testified to by his seemingly annual nominations for Academy Awards for song-writing and by his occasionally stunning work for film scores (the best of which, to me, was his work for the 1984 film, The Natural).

But it’s the odd and occasionally unfathomable Newman songs I have in mind today, specifically “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” from Newman’s debut album, 1970’s 12 Songs.

All-Music Guide says: “A sinewy ballad built around a fine bottleneck guitar riff, ‘Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield’ is a love song, basically, but the slightly demented lyric content is what gives it the edge.”

Slightly demented? You be the judge:

“Let’s burn down the cornfield,
“Let’s burn down the cornfield,
“And we can listen to it burn.

“You hide behind the oak tree,
“You hide behind the oak tree,
“Stay out of danger ’till I return.

“Oh, it’s so good on a cold night
“To have a fire burnin’ warm and bright.

“You hide behind the oak tree,
“You hide behind the oak tree,
“Stay out of danger ’till I return.

“Let’s burn down the cornfield,
“Let’s burn down the cornfield,
“And I’ll make love to you while it’s burning.”

Definitely a “Wha?” to me.

I missed Newman’s 12 Songs when it came out and didn’t catch up for a long time. So I first heard “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” in the early 1990s while listening to Come A Little Closer, a 1974 album by Etta James. I took in the disquieting lyric and scanned the record jacket, then nodded. Randy Newman, I thought. I should have known.

The list of artists who’ve covered “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” is not long. AMG says that sixteen different artists have recorded it, including Morgan Duke, Lee Hazlewood, Nolan, Rain Perry, Lou Rawls, San Samudio (of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs), Madi Sato, the Seatsniffers and the Walkabouts.

Along with Newman’s original, I have access today to two other versions: One by Alex Taylor from his 1972 album Dinnertime, and one by Long John Baldry from It Ain’t Easy, released in 1971. (I have not yet ripped the Etta James version, an oversight that will be rectified soon after we’ve moved and I have access to my LPs again.)

On Newman’s 12 Songs, the credits list three guitarists: Ry Cooder, Ron Elliott and Clarence White, so it’s almost certainly Cooder who provides the snaky guitar lines. Others credited at AMG are Al McKibbon and Lyle Ritz on bass and Jim Gordon and Gene Parson on drums. Lenny Waronker was the producer.

To my ears, Baldry’s cover of the song is more interesting than Taylor’s. The track was on the side of It Ain’t Easy that Elton John produced. (Rod Stewart produced the other side.) Of those who might have played on the track, the credits list Caleb Quayle, Sam Mitchell and Ron Wood on guitar, Roger Pope on drums and Ian Armitt and Elton John on keyboards (though one would assume that it’s John himself providing the superb piano work on “Cornfield”).

Randy Newman – “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” (1970)

Long John Baldry – “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” (1971)

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