9 Powerful Songs about Immigration

Immigration, be it voluntary or forced, is always a contentious issue. The majority of people will have discussed it, many of us at length and the disparity between opinions can span the width of a continent. From this discourse, creative types often find inspiration, in the form of art, literature, film and music, with the latter being the focus of this article. Music can lift your spirits but it can also strike a chord, forcing you to confront difficult, sometimes tragic, realities. The following is a list of powerful songs that make us address how we view the subject of immigration.

 

Anaïs Mitchell- Why we Build the Wall

Many will recognise folk singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell as the musical genius behind the popular Broadway show Hadestown. The critically acclaimed musical has enjoyed numerous wins and nominations, including eight Tony Awards. In particular, it won the Tony for Best Original Score and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album. The album itself is a powerful call to recognise the state of our societies and to address the issues we would rather hide, behind walls and barriers. But it is Why we Build the Wall, Act One’s closing medley, that forces us all to acknowledge our own thoughts. Anaïs’ soulful version is a simple, husky arrangement that quickens in tempo and continuously asks “why do we build the wall?” She asserts “we build a wall to keep us free.” But then she wonders “who do we call the enemy, the enemy is poverty and the wall keeps out the enemy.” By repeatedly asking a question with a potentially dangerous answer, she builds a narrative based on her own understanding of the situation. We go with her on this journey to discover who the real enemy is and what walls and barriers truly represent. It is a deeply clever exploration of human rights, hidden in simplistic lyrics and sounds designed to lure you in. 

  • Notable Lyrics- They want what we have got. We have and they have not.”

 

Ralph McTell-From Clare to Here

Ralph McTell’s From Clare to Here, tells the all too common story of the isolation and loneliness experienced by those who have had to leave their homeland. Ireland has a long and complicated history of emigration, with millions of people forced to abandon their lives to find work and a profitable future abroad. McTell’s intrinsically Irish-folk arrangement and lyrics perfectly capture that longing to go home. Ralph was inspired to write the ballad after an Irish co-worker on a building site revealed how different life in England was for him, saying “yes it is a long way from Clare to here.” The song went on to be recorded by The Furey Brothers & Davey Arthur. Their version introduces a lighter, quicker element, that loses the melancholic tone slightly, but excites and entertains all the same. 

  • Notable Lyrics-It’s a long long way, it grows further by the day. It’s a long way from Clare to here.”

 

The Killers-Land of the Free

Land of the Free was released as a single by The Killers in 2019. This indie track has elements of a ballad and its gospel style vocals address issues that should not happen in a civilised world. Frontman Brandon Flowers’ strong, impassioned performance explores the lives of refugees, but also addresses the social issues experienced in the so called “Land of the Free.” The track, in a manner that is both catchy and horrifying, points out larger flaws in the system, with “in the land of the free,” echoing ominously in the background. This blunt reminder that nowhere is perfect and that we can all do more, leaves a lasting impression. The music video was overseen by lauded director Spike Lee and shows harrowing images of people desperately trying to improve their lives, at any cost. In 2020 the band re-worked the lyrics adding a reference to the horrific and senseless murder of George Floyd. “Eight measured minutes & 46 seconds, another boy in the bag, another stain on the flag.” The inclusion of societal problems, such as gun violence, over-incarceration and racism, alongside the wider issue of immigration, shows society as a whole needs to unify, if all of us want to rise together. 

  • Notable Lyrics- Down at the border, they’re gonna put up a wall. Concrete and Rebar Steel beams (I’m standing crying). High enough to keep all those filthy hands off. Of our hopes and our dreams (I’m standing crying). People who just want the same things we do. In the land of the free.” 

 

Denise Chaila- Duel Citizenship

Duel Citizenship is a powerful  rap-piece that offers a unique and deeply personal account of life as an immigrant. Denise, born in Zambia, was raised in Co. Limerick, Ireland from the age of three and used this identity as an “other” in both countries, to inspire her song-writing. Her EP, released in 2019, is a poetic study of the very fabric of personal identity and sometimes wilful ignorance of people who refuse to accept that times have changed. Her energetic and commanding performance grips you so fully, you could hear a pin drop when she speaks and it is this quality that empowers her to be a voice for the under-represented. Denise asks “where are you from? Originally?” A question that many people of different life experiences are sick and tired of hearing. And though by the end you still have no answer for her, you are more aware of the bias built into the structure of our societies. 

  • Notable Lyrics- “Where are you from? Originally? See our souls are composed of borders. And all of the lines that we have crossed, which tangle our wires when we speak.”
  • “Because I learned how to be Irish, knowing that some people would always think that I was beyond the pale. I learned how to be Zambian with too little dialect to prove that I haven’t lost my way.” 

 

The Last Internationale- Deportees

From 1942 until 1964 America ran the Bracero Program, an initiative that saw migrant workers employed by the agricultural sector. The deal allowed farmers to utilise cheap foreign labour, but they had to meet certain criteria, including reasonable pay, safe conditions and adequate food and lodgings. There were frequent reports of with-holding pay, unsanitary accommodation and substandard food, in one camp over 500 migrants came down with food poisoning. Then in 1948 tragedy struck when an aircraft carrying 28 migrant workers and 4 Americans crashed near Los Gatos Canyon, killing everyone on board. The majority of news coverage chose to identify the four Americans but neglected to name the 28 migrant workers, referring to them only as deportees. Folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie was so incensed by the racist and dismissive attitude shown towards the mexican workers that he wrote Deportees, a tragic song about the loss of life and identity. Guthrie’s other songs have influenced such icons as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Christy Moore, but it is The Last Internationale who were inspired to make Deportees their own. This politically active New York folk/rock group delivers a heartrending, honest performance that leaves you as outraged as Woody Guthrie was, all those decades ago. Lead singer Delia Paz and guitarist Edgey Pires brought the story of what happened at Los Gatos Canyon to a whole new generation of people. 

  • Notable Lyrics- My father’s own father, he waded that river. They took all the money he had in his life.” “ You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be deportees.” 

 

Paddy Reilly & The Dubliners-The Fields of Athenry

If you have ever been to school, a pub or a sporting event in Ireland then you will have heard this song before and many will still have “hey baby let the free birds fly,” echoing in their head. Pete St John’s energetic ballad is a staple in Irish culture and as such is widely performed, in particular for celebratory reasons. This jubilant enjoyment of the song can lead you to forget it is quite a tragic, nuanced piece, about a man forcibly exiled from his homeland. All for the crime of stealing to feed his family during the Great famine. The track, has been extensively covered by artists such as Frank Patterson, Dropkick Murphys, Daniel O’ Donnell, Johnny Logan, The Irish Tenors and The Dubliners, but it is Paddy Reilly’s soulful version that has been the most successful. It remained in the charts for 72 weeks. The song has since been used in several high-profile films, including Veronica Guerin and The Dead Poets Society and it is an eerie, sombre reminder of Ireland’s dark history of colonisation and forced emigration. 

  • Notable Lyrics- “By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling, Michael they have taken you away. For you stole Trevelyn’s corn, so the young might see the morn. Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.”

 

Rise Against- Prayer of the Refugee

Prayer of the Refugee was produced for the bands fourth studio album The Sufferer & the Witness in 2006. The track, a mix of hardcore punk and a melodic indie sound, tackles forced displacement and society’s treatment of refugees. The music video shows the band vigorously performing in a shop, surrounded by products, the scene then cuts to foreign people, many of them children, making those same items in horrendous conditions. The chaotic, almost exhausting, melody perfectly embodies people’s frustrations at a system that mis-treats refugees but then exploits them for profit. The inter-mingling of clips, showing sweatshops and retail establishments, is a jarring reminder of the often heavy price of living in a consumerist society. It ends when the workers attach a “made in the USA” sticker to the products and the wider picture of exploitation and apathy is revealed. Aside from being a powerful exploration of human rights abuses, the song itself is outstanding and both the tune and the message will stick with you. 

  • Notable Lyrics- “We are the angry and the desperate. The hungry, and the cold. We’re the ones who kept quiet. And always did what we were told.”
  • “So open your eyes child. Let’s be on our way. Broken windows and ashes are guiding the way.”

 

Maximo Park- Risk to Exist

Risk to Exist is the titular track on British rock group Maximo Park’s sixth studio album and it explores the ever relevant and worsening European migrant crisis. Paul Smith’s dynamic lead vocals call out for global help against the backdrop of news coverage, from Sky News and MOAS. And the track has a catchy punk sound where it’s efforts to call out the perpetrators of an unfair class system speaks volumes. 

  • Notable Lyrics-  “Throw your arms around me. Before the waves all swallow me. Where’s your empathy. Put your arms around me. I’ve come too far and the oceans deep.” 

 

The Saw Doctors-N17

N17 by the acclaimed Irish folk-group The Saw Doctors, is another song that has become something of an Irish staple. There is something about a cosy Irish setting, be it at home or in a pub, that invites a sing-song. There is always someone who has a tune up their sleeve and this particular song is certainly a crowd pleaser. In a jaunty, high-energy fashion, it tells the story of a man who sees no economic future for himself in Ireland. He makes the tough decision to emigrate and has missed home every day since. Like others on this list, the fast-paced almost jovial style belies the lonesome, wistful lyrics. Re-released in 1991 N17 charted at number 1 and is often cited as the band’s greatest hit. More so, it is a beautiful anthem for those who have had to physically leave their homelands, but mentally never do. 

  • Notable Lyrics- Now as I tumble down highways. Or filthy overcrowded trains. There’s no one to talk to in transit. So I sit there and daydream in vain. And behind all these muddled up problems. Of living on a foreign soil. I can still see the twists and turns on the road. From the square to the town of the tribes.”

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About the author

Laura Varley

Laura is a graduate of NUIG, writes freelance and is an avid follower of Mayo football, the Arts and current affairs.

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