Latinos give new life to Neil Diamond anthem
By Ann Powers, Times Staff Writer
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. It’s made its way into reports of rallies in Dallas, Kansas City and Milwaukee. Although hardly the official anthem of La Raza, “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 (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. Rooted in the Yiddish music of Diamond’s Brooklyn youth, the song moves on to Broadway and the Borscht Belt and lands on the edge of disco – a border-crossing trek unto itself. This intentional hugeness, 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 Latino artists Los Tigres del Norte, Ricardo Arjona and CHIRLA’S house band, Jornaleros del Norte, who helped lead the Wilshire Boulevard march. 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; another hung up when pushed on the subject. It’s not surprising that those in charge prefer to focus on clear expressions of Latino pride, like the hundreds of mariachi players participating in last Monday’s downtown march.
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.
A description by Diamond
For his part, the 65-year-old 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, indeed, 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.
Diamond made no such move in 1980, and he’s less guilty of the rock era’s version of minstrelsy than several of his peers (a certain skinny, lip-licking Englishman, for example). Yet by taking on the role once inhabited by Jolson, Diamond highlighted all of pop’s complex existence on the boundaries of race and taste.
“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. Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, adopted it as a theme during his ill-fated 1988 campaign against George H.W. Bush. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the radio conglomerate Clear Channel added it to a list of “lyrically questionable” (and temporarily banned) songs, because it mentioned immigrants entering the U.S. on planes.
‘Cheech’ and song
It was Chicano comic Richard “Cheech” Marin’s 1987 comedy “Born in East L.A.,” however, that linked Diamond’s Eurocentric anthem to California’s Latino populace.
This picaresque tale follows Marin as Rudy, a native Angeleno falsely deported and forced to maneuver his way home from Tijuana. In the film’s climactic scene, Rudy stands at the U.S.-Mexico border, frustrated and mocked by nearby immigration officers. Suddenly, a multitude of fellow border-crossers appear and rush the line. The chorus accompanying their triumphant entry – “They’re coming to America!”
“One of the film’s editors put the song in as a temp track,” said Marin, reflecting on his unexpected mining of the Diamond catalog. “My experience is try not to add any music you’ll fall in love with as a placeholder. But we did, and it just stayed. We showed Neil the movie and he signed on right away.”
Marin’s work is full of slapstick and low humor, but its balance of silliness and acerbic satire represents a strong line in Chicano art. The cartoonist and radio host Lalo Alcaraz, the theater troupe Culture Clash and the “Mexican Elvis” El Vez all similarly infuse their jokes with cutting political observations.
“It goes with the Chicano and Mexican tradition of always having two jobs at the same time,” Marin said. “Taking on the subject of immigration in a comedy is the classic way. You’re able to do two things at once, and people get it better – it goes down easier.”
Raul Ramos, a professor of history at the University of Texas in Houston, seconds Marin’s view. “Irony and satire are powerful tools often used by disenfranchised and marginalized groups,” Ramos said. “During the Chicano movement, Luis Valdez used a style of agitprop theater at farmworker rallies throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Mexicans understand the power of humor and satire. It’s a survival strategy, you could say.”
In this light, the Latino resurrection of Diamond’s “America” makes delicious sense. It’s a joke that’s not a joke, an embrace of something seemingly “other” that ends up an invocation of ethnic pride.
“Not only the Latino community but many other immigrants have told me they love that scene particularly,” Marin said of “Born in East L.A.” “That moment of crossing the border and coming to a place where you don’t know anybody and you’re reduced to the smallest emotional element is something everybody identifies with. I think a lot of them expected that when they crossed the border they’d hear that song.”
Given such agile appropriations, the idea of putting borders around any music – “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for example – becomes ridiculous.
As Diamond himself says, “A song belongs to the world?. It took me a while to get used to that.”