Today I received a FaithLink assignment to write about asylum and found I needed to listen to some music before I started reading the news. Some of these are old favorites and others I’ve turned up today. I offer this list of songs, in the words of Finley Peter Dunne’s (no relation) Mr. Dooley (an Irish immigrant) “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” He was talking about the role of the press, but songs can have the same function.
There’s no better place to begin than with Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, which I first heard at my high school. It gave me chills then, and it still does. The lyrics are from the poem “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus to raise money to construct a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The poem was cast into bronze plaque, which was mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal. Set to music by Irving Berlin, here it is performed by the Zamir Chorale of Boston.
No list of immigration songs would be complete without Woody Guthrie’s Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) after a 1948 plane crash in Fresno County, CA, that killed 32 people including 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported to Mexico. National radio and newspaper coverage failed to give the victims’ names, referring to them as “deportees.” Although the Fresno Bee had reported some of the names, Guthrie, who was living in New York, didn’t know about the local coverage and responded with this poem. It was later set to music by Martin Hoffman, a school teacher. Here it is sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary along with Tom Paxton.
Noel Paul Stookey‘s Familia de Corazon is, in his words, about “the promise that sits out there in New York Harbor to all people who want a fresh start, who believe in equality, who are seeking justice and equity.” I find this song particularly poignant at this time when so many children have been separated from their families at the border. Stookey has also has replaced two verses of America the Beautiful (2011) with newer ones, one of which recognizes that we are a “nation of the immigrant.” Both are on the 2015 CD, “At Home: the Maine Tour.”
Will You Harbor Me? was written by Ysaye Barnwell, a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock and is on their album “Sacred Ground” (1995). One of their albums “Raise Your Voices” (2007) has the cover shown at the beginning of the video. Here’s another immigration song by Sweet Honey in the Rock in a video featuring Yonas–We Need a Nation (2010).
These Shoes (2008) by Andrew McKnight shows the vulnerability of an immigrant woman from Central America. In his introduction he asks, “What would it be like to grow up in Guatemala or El Salvador and feel so desperate that the only thing you can decide you can do is to leave behind everything you’ve ever known and loved and make this journey . . . .” The song is on his CD “Something Worth Standing For.” I’m delighted to learn about this singer/songwriter who lives in the northern Blue Ridge of Virginia and has a heart for the marginalized.
Nanci Griffith is joined by Emmylou Harris on Griffith’s Good Night, New York, which is recorded on her album “Winter Marque” (2002).
Bruce Springsteen‘s American Land (2006) recalls the stories of many immigrants who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries who discovered that not everyone who worked hard could make their lives better.
P.S. on July 13, 2018
Since I made this post, several people have suggested other songs about immigration:
Neil Sedaka’s The Immigrant
Ry Cooder’s Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right