Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of Arizona’s strict law targeting illegal immigrants. When Arizona’s SB 1070 passed in 2010, many Latino songwriters in particular used their music to rail against it. But musicians have been singing about the struggles of immigrants ever since the first troubadour packed up his lyre and wandered to the next town over. In light of this latest ruling, here are five great songs about immigration that are worth revisiting.
Ry Cooder, “Quicksand”
For decades, Cooder has written blues-rock at the junction of L.A.’s Anglo and Latino cultures. “Quicksand” is one of his most vivid character sketches about a harrowing border crossing.
Rage Against the Machine: ” Without a Face”
The Angeleno icons have long worked radical politics into their searing noise-funk. This song is one of the band’s most affecting, with a spare breakbeat giving way to pure fury that evokes the loneliness and de-humanization depicted in Zack de la Rocha’s rhymes.
Bruce Springsteen, “Matamoros Banks”
Springsteen is an icon of working-class Americana, and on this song from “Devils & Dust,” he addresses an important component of the working class in today’s America — low-wage immigrants making a perilous border crossing from Mexico. The song is fundamentally a story of thwarted love, and is all the more harrowing for it.
U2, “The Refugee”
Bono’s mawkish earnestness and permanent status on the Davos circuit can sometimes detract from the visceral thrills of early U2. But this punk-funk cut from “War” is one of the Irish band’s most convincing — a huge mess of drums makes a dark topic sound downright lively.
Woody Guthrie, “Deportee”
Guthrie’s response to a 1948 plane crash that killed Mexican men working in the bracero guest-worker program in central California is specific to the accident, but the current of sadness underneath feels very contemporary.
And, just because this can’t go unmentioned in a piece about immigration songs…
Led Zeppelin: “Immigrant Song”
OK, so this is about mythical warriors “From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow” storming Valhalla with the “hammer of the gods.” Not exactly pertinent to our current immigration dilemmas. But still, any occasion to hear Robert Plant wail to the pagan deities on a Monday is fine by us.
– August Brown
Photo: Woody Guthrie. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images