With `America,' immigrants find their anthem

May 10, 2006|By ANN POWERS | ANN POWERS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- Amid the mariachi music, socially conscious corridos and civil rights hymns at last week's immigration-rights rallies, a surprising voice arose - a strong Jewish baritone usually favored by middle-aged women and retro-hip college kids. It was Neil Diamond, singing his own exodus anthem: "America," from the pop elder statesman's 1980 remake of America's first talkie, The Jazz Singer.

The recording opened and closed the May 1 speakers' program at City Hall in Los Angeles. It's made its way into reports of rallies in Dallas, Kansas City and Milwaukee. Although hardly the official anthem of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy group, "America's" portrait of travelers "traveling light ... in the eye of a storm" is outdoing more standard fare such as "If I Had a Hammer," giving Diamond something like the role Bob Dylan played during the civil rights era of the 1960s.

The journey of Diamond's "America" toward its current place within the immigrant movement says much about the open-border policies of inspirational pop. Powerful songs move and change - and not always as some think they should. Party music like reggae or African mbaqanga can stir revolution. A giddy romp can become a heartbreaking plea (balladeer Ray LaMontagne's take on the Gnarls Barkley hit "Crazy," for example). And a song with a complicated past, like "America," can resurrect in new listeners' hands.

"It's the immigrant anthem," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA. "Every time I've been at different activities over time, you'll have the Neil Diamond song. It speaks to the experience."

The song is built like a footpath up a monument, the melody swooping downward to rise up again, its key changes and call-and-response elements ("They're coming to America!" "Today!") forcing the tension. This insistence on being an anthem, makes "America" easy to mock but also impossible to resist.

Salas, though, was quick to shift the conversation toward Hispanic artists Los Tigres del Norte, Ricardo Arjona and CHIRLA'S house band, Jornaleros del Norte, who helped lead one march in the Los Angeles area. Arjona's poignant "Mojado," she noted, is becoming the Spanish-language equivalent of "America." Like many of Los Tigres' corridos, "Mojado" traces a migration similar to those made by Diamond's unnamed dreamers. And its clear connection to the current debate makes it a favorite among activists.

Diamond's "America," on the other hand, raised hackles. One organizer quickly dismissed the "knuckleheads" who played the song at City Hall. It's not surprising that those in charge prefer to focus on clear expressions of Hispanic pride.

What about "America" makes certain people uncomfortable, yet also leads it to surface again and again? One factor, of course, is its English-language origin; though far less ubiquitous, it's akin to the rallies' ever more present American flags. "If you grew up in the U.S., this is a song you know," Salas said, articulating the song's bridge-building usefulness and its limitations. "Immigrants today don't really know it." Yet the language barrier doesn't defeat "America's" irresistible hokeyness.

For his part, Diamond, a 65-year-old Las Vegas veteran, is delighted at the new interest in his 26-year-old song. "That's what it's there for," he said by phone from an undisclosed vacation hideaway. "That song tells the immigrant story. It was written for my grandparents and the immigrants who came over in the late 1800s, the Irish, Jews and Italians. But it's the song for the modern-day Latino coming as well."

Diamond describes its sound as sadness "counterbalanced with joy," and its dynamic and melodic drive is satisfyingly overwhelming. The song's unusual history only intensifies its effect. Its association with The Jazz Singer, a cinematic flop with a platinum-selling soundtrack, raises the specter of American entertainment's most controversial border crossing - blackface minstrelsy. Al Jolson famously appeared "corked up" in the 1927 original.

"America" lifted itself out of the film's context to become its own phenomenon. It's appeared on many Diamond compilations and is so popular with his fans that Diamond often opens and closes his shows with it. Schoolteachers across the country use it in their curriculum on immigration.

It was Richard "Cheech" Marin's 1987 comedy Born in East L.A., however, that linked Diamond's Eurocentric anthem to California's Hispanic populace.

The Hispanic resurrection of Diamond's "America" makes sense. It's an embrace of something seemingly "other" that ends up an invocation of ethnic pride.

As Diamond himself says, "A song belongs to the world. ... It took me a while to get used to that."

Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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