As the darkness of Trump’s administration becomes clearer, the power of civil society protests grows stronger. Just over a week ago, immigrants throughout the United States staged ‘a day with immigrants’, to show how important and integral immigration is to all layers of the population. Many workers, oftentimes alongside their employers, refused to show up for work or closed their businesses on that day. This show of solidarity is both effective and powerful, and serves to remind us that many of us live in immigrant societies. Being a descendent of an immigrant family myself—my grandparents immigrated to Israel from post-war Poland in 1957—I am constantly reminded that people don’t simply get up and leave a place they called home for so long. I am ashamed that Israeli society today—being itself an immigrant society in the not-so-distant past—is not more tolerant and empathetic to the agony of refugees. And having left Israel myself—albeit not under threat of death, but out of a deep and growing political alienation—I think I can sympathize, at least to an extent, with the feeling of yearning for a home, and yet knowing that you have no place in the world where you truly feel like you belong. Interestingly enough, although so many cultures today are founded on decades and centuries of immigration, not many popular songs discuss emotional turmoil of leaving one’s home. Much more songs celebrate the home one does have. A fair number, though, does present the pining to a home, many times a home that has been lost.
The Beatles—She’s Leaving Home
While it doesn’t deal with immigration or with pining for home, The Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is not only a beautiful song but somewhat of an anthem of independence and freedom. It is somber and sad, accompanied by strings and vocals alone (and in that it is quite untypical of the quite grandiose album it’s in, the far-more rhythmic ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’), and told from the perspective of the parents who wake up one day to find that their daughter had disappeared. The conflict in the song is obvious, and it is about the actual leaving, and tearing away all the strings that keep you connected to your home. Lennon and McCartney chose not to go into specifics about the fate of the girl, except for mentioning that ‘she’s having fun’, which is—quite obviously—not the fate of most refugees. And yet this song is so touching in describing what it means to leave a place, that I decided it should be included in this list regardless.
Gogol Bordello is a gypsy-punk band based out of New York City. All eight members of the group are immigrants, and their songs often revolve around their identity and convey progressive, radical left messages of internationalism and statelessness. Their 2010 song ‘Immigraniada’ is an autobiographical celebration of immigrant culture, and has both the lyrics and the video clip to prove it. The video depicts the band’s front man Eugene Hütz (himself a refugee who fled from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) working in several blue-collar jobs and meeting various immigrants from all over the world. Historic footage of previous immigration waves is weaved throughout the clip. In an interview to boingboing, Hütz describes the video: ‘It’s a video we always wanted to make, because it completes our story. It’s very autobiographical, and tells a story about eight people who are all immigrants, who came to pursue something in new york city. That’s our biography. But on the other hand, like it coincides with the idealistic belief that people shall always be free to choose the place of their residence. This ties in to the whole movement of worldwide citizenship.’
Paul Simon—American Tune
When I think of Paul Simon I automatically think of Art Garfunkel. But whenever I try to think of Simon’s solo career, ‘American Tune’ always comes to mind and always with a smile, as I truly believe it’s one of the most beautiful and simple songs ever written. Musically based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s choral ‘O Haupt voll Blut Und Wunden’ (‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’), the song possess some lullaby-like qualities, being soothing and lethargic while unfolding the story of immigration to the United States. It’s not an easy account, either. It captures both the hope and the despair of the move, and the daily struggles that don’t seem to end: ‘And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered // I don’t have a friend who feels at ease // I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered // or driven to its knees’ sings Paul Simon. And yet he ends on a positive note: ‘We come on the ship they call the Mayflower // We come on the ship that sailed the moon // We come in the age’s most uncertain hour //and sing an American tune.’
Lou Reed—Dirty Boulevard
A far less optimistic and hopeful take on immigration and on finding one’s home, Lou Reed’s ‘Dirty Boulevard’ (off his 1989 record ‘New York’) bring us the story of Pedro, a child living with his nine siblings in poverty, terrorized by his violent father and begging for money in the streets. The song contrasts Pedro’s miserable life with the glamorous lifestyle of movie stars and celebrities who walk the same streets, and mocks the American ethos of freedom and welcoming immigrant. In a reference to the Statue of Liberty Reed writes: ‘Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on them // that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says // your poor huddled masses, let’s club ‘em to death // and get it over with and just dump ‘em on the boulevard’. The song ends with Pedro’s wish to ‘fly, fly away from the dirty boulevard’, perhaps in reference to the famous country-music Christian hymn.
Boney M.—Rivers of Babylon (Melodians cover)
The bible describes the exile of the Jews from Zion, and how—now in Babylon—they longed for their home, in the following words: ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137:1). It was this line that inspired Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of reggae band The Melodians to write this Rastafarian anthem, and one of the greatest songs ever written about yearning for one’s home. While it was made popular by euro-trash disco group Boney M., and that’s how I came to know it, the original version is quite good as well. In the Rastafarian faith, ‘Babylon’ is any oppressive and unjust regime, whereas ‘Zion’ is a utopian, just and peaceful existence. Therefore, this song is more than simply a reflection on being away from home, but a prayer for a better world and better governance—two things we could all use to this day.
Oi Va’Voi—Refugee (feat. KT Tunstall) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ4j0Xc4e1Q
Kings of Convenience—Homesick https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oll6UfK6iUg
The Antlers—Refuge https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltNtMhIuYi0
Radiohead—Subterranean Homesick Alien https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEsgUiF2jGk
The Fugees—Refugees on the Mic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RaEf5V_zpI