April 14, 2006
While the debate over illegal immigration from Mexico has dominated the nation’s headlines in recent weeks, it’s an issue that has long been addressed by this country’s singers, songwriters, guitar pickers and rock-and-rollers. It’s a one-sided debate in music land, however. In all the songs I’ve ever heard, those who cross the border without documentation are regarded with compassion.
Like the issue of crime — on which our politicians scream for harsh punishment while our songsters show sympathy to the men workin’ on the chain gang — songs about immigrants seem to express our kinder side. Here are a bunch of songs that deal with immigration.
* “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)” by Woody Guthrie. On Jan. 29, 1948, a U.S. government plane deporting 28 people to Mexico caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon in California and crashed, killing everyone on board. When he heard news of the crash, Guthrie was not only saddened by the tragedy but angered at how the story was reported. The victims weren’t named. They were just deportees.
The story is told from the point of view of “Juan, Rosalita, Jesus and María” — names he assigned the doomed passengers. (It’s interesting that “Jesus” was among those names. Though Guthrie was an avowed communist — and they’re supposed to be “godless” — the figure of Jesus often appears in his songs as a helper of the poor and powerless.)
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted/Our work contract’s out and we have to move on/Six hundred miles to that Mexican border/They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”“Deportee” has been recorded by dozens of performers, including Joan Baez and Dolly Parton. My favorite rendition was a sad waltz by the Byrds on their underrated 1969 album, The Ballad of Easy Rider.
* “A Matter of Time” by Los Lobos. I’ll argue that this is Los Lobos’ greatest song. Appearing on their first major-label album, How Will the Wolf Survive, more than 20 years ago, it’s at least the first song that proved the East L.A. group was destined to become a great band.
The song is a hushed conversation (”speak softly; don’t wake the baby”) between a Mexican man and his wife right before he departs for the United States. “I’ll send for you, baby/Just a matter of time,” he promises. While the words suggest uncertainty, Steve Berlin’s jaunty sax gives an underlying sense of optimism.
* “Across the Borderline” by Ry Cooder. Cooder performed this song, co-written by John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson, on his 1987 album Get Rhythm. But the best version was sung years before by Freddy Fender in Cooder’s soundtrack for the movie The Border.
“Up and down the Rio Grande/A thousand footprints in the sand/Reveal a secret no one can define ...”This song tells the other side of the story heard in “A Matter of Time”:
“When you reach the broken-promise land/Every dream slips through your hand.”* “California Snow” by Tom Russell and Dave Alvin. The co-writers each recorded it separately, Russell’s version appearing on his 2001 album Borderland and Alvin’s on Blackjack David (1998).
The narrative, as a friend said, could almost be a Cormac McCarthy short story. It’s about a Border Patrol officer who comes across a Mexican immigrant lying in a ditch with his wife, who has died of exposure in the mountains east of San Diego. The experience horrifies the officer and makes his own life seem cheap and empty. By the end of the song he’s contemplating going back to his ex-wife and trying to reconcile.
* “The Line” by Bruce Springsteen. Here’s another song from the point of view of a Border Patrol officer. Here the officer falls in love with an immigrant girl and crosses the line by helping her cross that other line — compromising his friend, another officer, in the process.
This song is from The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen’s 1995 album that has several other songs about immigrants, most notably “Sinaloa Cowboys,” about a pair of brothers caught up in the drug trade.
* “Born in East L.A.” by Cheech and Chong. It’s a goof. It’s a parody of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” But while it’s a joke — about an American Chicano mistakenly deported — it’s a sharply pointed joke, and like the Cheech Marin movie it inspired, it’s a lot better than it should have been and, 20 years later, it holds up well.
* “Wave” by Alejandro Escovedo. This song is about the singer’s father, who came to the United States from Mexico when he was 12 to search for the parents who had abandoned him. The song — from By the Hand of the Father, a play by Escovedo that deals with his family history — starts optimistically: “The sun is brighter there/and everyone’s got golden hair ...” But the boy learns, “the sun’s not brighter here/It only shines on golden hair.”
* “Xich vs. the Migra Zombies” by Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals. This collaboration between two Los Angeles indie-rock vets is a metallic romp about immigration agents chasing two men through a mall. It’s from the 1998 album Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals. Inspired by California’s Proposition 187, which meant to eliminate social services for illegal immigrants, the album also includes a version of Guthrie’s “Deportee.”
* “Across the Wire” by Calexico. The Arizona-based kings of mariachi rock, with trumpets blaring and accordion pumping, sing of “Alberto y Hermano on the coyote’s trail/and dodging the shadows of the Border Patrol/out in the wastelands wandering for days/the future looks bleak with no sign of change.” It’s on their 2003 album, Feast of Wire.
* “Ballad of the Tucson Two” by Howe Gelb (with Freakwater). Dan Strauss and Shanti Sellz, immigrant-aid volunteers, were arrested last summer while taking three illegal immigrants from the desert near Tucson to a hospital. They are facing felony charges. This is a strange but wonderful ode to the two, with Freakwater sounding like Appalachian ghosts singing “Amazing Grace” and Giant Sand man Gelb mumbling his lyrics about the Sonoran sun to a near-bossanova beat. The song is available on iTunes.
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