It must be the current migrant crisis in Europe that has brought these two songs back into my mind over the last few days. Though yes of course I know that it’s not exactly the same: there is a difference between USA’s handling of ‘illegal’ Central American immigrants, and Western European’s response to the families fleeing (particularly) Syria in recent months, seeking asylum, refuge, hopeful new beginnings. Perhaps the connection between that situation and these songs is the way these songs identify the distrust and dehumanisation of suffering individuals, and that even convenient labels employed in media reportage can start to erode necessary compassion.
While not totally overriding the complexity of the issue, Guthrie’s song hints boldly at his country’s institutional doublemindedness about Central Americans aching for more secure and prosperous lives north of the Mexican border – i.e. tolerated when they are economically useful eg to bring in huge fruit harvests at minimal expense; shunted back speedily when that seasonal usefulness is over. The particular shunting flight which occasioned this song never made it – hence the subtitle ‘Plane Wreck over Los Gatos’. The key line which reflects (what he sees as) this callous dehumanizing process of the kind of media coverage discouraging imaginative empathy is the final line, slightly changing each time, of the chorus .. ‘The radio says they are just deportees’. Similarly in the last few weeks I note that people have used social media to challenge British newscoverage-speak and politician-speak resorting to the kind of politically technical terminology – when referring to the tragedies of even the youngest individuals from these migration stories- likely to distance us from true fellow feeling . ‘The word you’re searching for, Mr Cameron’(or whoever, I can’t quite recall now), said one posting,’is simply children!’.
Both these songs are more than mere polemic: they invite us to enter the human situations of those making these perilous journeys: in Guthrie’s case we enter into a sense of loss not just for those who are bereaved by the tragedy (‘Gooodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita..’), but also that their very treatment seems to have deprived them of dignity and identity – ‘You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/ All they will call you will be..deportees’. Shindell’s song is a masterfully imaginative composition, a largely one-sided dialogue featuring a Latin American ‘illegal’ being interviewed by an immigration officer, with a series of racial slurs (‘I bet you Indians can really reel them in..’), threats (‘We know just where [your next of kin] is hiding’), taunting half-promises, quickfire interrogation questions, brutal confrontations (‘good citizen or poor campesino?’) as pressure is applied to give information about more illegals. The extended metaphor throughout is of fishing – the officer, particularly, trying to ‘catch’ the worker out by guile and coercion – both the metaphor and the manner add to the dehumanization that is taking place.
Apparently (Shindell says in concert introductions to this song) he originally wrote it as this monologue, without the worker’s riposte in the final verse: this man is the literal fisherman who has been forced to flee his land of origin. I’m glad he gets a voice in this coda.There is a beautiful contrasting dignity in his response, in his unwillingness to play cynical pay-off games, in his resignation at returning to a land where, despite its presumable danger and poverty, he has a profession, and – in the final image of the fish – there is a paradoxical freedom and ‘wealth’ – ‘They’re waiting there for me/ Running deep’.
Shindell is a terrific troubadour, and my brief sketch of the lyric gives no real reflection of the power of this as a whole, sung song. Joan Baez covers this song well, but for grit and passion, hear the original. Guthrie’s song has been covered many many times (and you won’t be surprised by now if I say that Judy Collins’s version was the first I heard – her cover is both controlled and moving) but – interestingly – Shindell too has recorded it on his lovely covers album ‘South of Delia’. I’m not real sure I’ve heard a bad version – it’s such a solidly good verse and chorus standard of a song.
The best of art, the best of songs, should lead us to enter into and appreciate others’ humanity; these two songs certainly do that. And whatever political and economic solutions and compromises have to be forged between nations and (within nations) by local authorities and communities in the coming months, these don’t negate the necessity for compassion, and anything that encourages compassionate responses is worth listening to intelligently.