Editorial: Bang, bang, trouble in America/Roanoke Times/May 14, 2019
Some singers sing protest songs.
Alejandro Escovedo’s protest was to not sing a song.
In 2005, the Texas musician — who has managed to merge his diverse roots in punk rock and alternative country into a single style — learned that his most popular song, “Castanets,” was on President George W. Bush’s iPod.
That wasn’t so surprising. Bush liked a lot of what some call “Americana music,” a non-commercial blend of country and rock. Escavedo’s isn’t a name you’ll hear on a Top 40 station of any genre, but being from Texas, Bush certainly knew of him — and, whatever you may think of his politics, Bush’s tastes in music were surprisingly progressive. Escovedo, though, was not flattered to find himself on the president’s playlist.
He vowed to stop playing “Castanets” until it was either off Bush’s iPod or Bush was out of office. An otherwise inoffensive but up tempo song about a complicated relationship — the chorus goes “I like her better when she walks away” — suddenly became political.
It would not be Escovedo’s last political statement.
Wednesday night, Escovedo brings his band to The Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount. The odds are good you’ll hear “Castanets.” The odds are also good you’ll hear some songs from his new album “The Crossing,” which is all about immigration along the U.S.-Mexican border. These are not protest songs in the sense of being anthems, but songs that tell bittersweet personal stories that tend to get lost in the nation’s political debate over whether to “build the wall.”
Until now, Escovedo has not been known for political songs of any type. He grew up in San Antonio, part of a musical family that includes his more-famous niece, who goes by the stage name Sheila E. Now 68, Alejandro Escovedo, grew up playing punk rock (yes, punk was that long ago) in a band that once opened for the Sex Pistols and later switched to alternative country, gaining fame in the band Rank and File and working with Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown. If you don’t know the Americana genre, just know that those are very big names in the field. In 1998, the magazine No Depression, which covers the genre, named Escovedo as Artist of the Decade. There’s a lot of beautiful music out there you’ve probably never heard of.
Most of Escovedo’s songs are about the standard fare of love and love lost. It’s only in recent years that Escovedo has turned to politics as an inspiration. Or, perhaps more accurately, the nation’s immigration politics turned to him. As one of the characters on the spoken-word song “Rio Navidad” says: “You probably don’t even know about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. You know, come to think, the border crossed me, I didn’t cross it. If you really want to think about it, you’re really the wetback coming across the Atlantic.”
Time to brush up on your history: The treaty he references is the one that ceded much of northern Mexico to the United States. It’s a poetic flourish that challenges the listener to think more broadly about immigration matters.
“The Crossing” is a concept album about two immigrants — one from Mexico, one from Italy. It calls on Escovedo’s family legacy; his father was a Mexican who immigrated to Texas at a time when that was just a normal part of life on the border. It also involved some journalistic research on Escovedo’s part. He interviewed immigrants in Dallas, where he now lives. The song “Texas In My Mother” is based on those interviews — specifically about a boy who carried his sister across the Rio Grande while their aunt drowned: “We hiked for days against the desert sun / Hear the devil laughing / We are safe / As he drove away / The elders were slowly fading / I’ll try to call her often / Please tell her that I love her / I work two jobs, sold my guitar / Pay the coyote dog.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Escovedo says for a long time he resisted singing about immigration-related themes: “I grew up in an era where we were constantly being told we couldn’t do things. ‘You’re Mexican-American? Go to the workshop.’ Know what I mean? ‘You’re going to be a laborer. Why do you think you can be an artist? Why do you think you can be a doctor or a lawyer?’ So you fight against these things. Sometimes I think the nature of my culture is that you internalize them, because you’re taught to be respectful, taught to be quiet, taught to be strong and that you just endure.”
On “The Crossing,” it all comes out.
On the song “Fury and Fire” — the title name-checks and reverses the phrase President Trump once uttered about North Korea — Escovedo angrily sings: “A man came to gamble on a better life / the TV says that they’re going to run us out / call us rapists, go and build a bigger wall / we’re going to tear it down.”
There’s not much subtlety here, just lots of guitars and horns — and a sense that America under Trump has changed, and not for the better. “He can’t believe what happened to America / they want to tear it down / whatever happened to the promise of a better life? / they want to tear it down.” And later: “I can’t believe they want to take my dad away . . .”
The songs on “The Crossing” tend to be both sad and hopeful at the time — sad because bad things happen but hopeful because he clings to the belief that America can still be a land of opportunity despite ugly anti-immigration feelings. These characters are in love with America — and the American ideal — a point that sometimes gets lost in our political debates.
Escovedo’s lyrical style is spare but sharp as a dagger. From “Something Blue”: “The government lies, children die / They still won’t appeal the court / Is there money to be made / Off the people’s parade / Selling broken hearts outside the door?”
And from the title song: “We all become history when we make the crossing.” That’s a line that’s both religious and political at the time — all a matter of how you chose to hear it.
If all you want to know about immigration policy is how high the wall would be, you may think that wall will safeguard the America you know. Escovedo sings a very different song — that the wall would fundamentally change America’s character. Perhaps, at least, you can agree on part of the chorus from “Fury and Fire” that goes: “Bang bang, there’s trouble in America.”