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The Immigrants' Movement and Folk Music

A new generation of protest songs


American flag

American flag

photo: Getty Images
As I milled through the demonstrations marking Congress' deliberation over immigration reform, I felt as though I could just as well be wandering through a worker's strike from a hundred years ago. All around me, people were chanting, "The people united will never be defeated" in their own native languages: Spanish, Portugese, French, German, Tagalog, Mandarin, Japanese, and others.

Workers' Rights

The demonstrators held signs that featured statements like, "We Are Hard Workers," "We Don't Need Benefits, We Just Need Rights," and a reference to an old folk song from the Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) Songbook, "Give Us Bread, But Give Us Roses, Too!"

Most resonant in my mind, of course, was the music playing from the giant speakers on the stage at the end of the block, as we all waited for the march (which in this case was thousands-strong) to make its way to the Federal Building where I was waiting with a few hundred others.

The immigration reform soundtrack

The music at demonstrations is always invigorating. At peace demonstrations, there are always folksingers on hand to lead the crowd in singing protest songs like "Oh Freedom," and "We Shall Overcome." But at this demonstration, and I venture to say at the dozens of others like it that were taking place on the same day, the music driving the dissent included songs of empowerment and freedom from around the world.

I couldn't help but think that when, generations from now, we look back on this important moment in American history, we will remember the songs of the immigration movement of the early 21st century that had titles like "De Colores," and "El Pobre Y El Rico" ("The Poor & The Rich").

About protest music

Folk music is, after all, the music of the people. It is made of songs and chants that bind people together and help them tackle the struggles that lie ahead, whether those struggles involve questions like "Where is my next meal coming from?" or more pressing sociological questions such as, "When will we find freedom?"

Many of the songs we've come to know and champion during moments of personal or world-wide struggle were written with immigrants to America in mind. Woody Guthrie is a great example of American songwriters who talked about the plight of the immigrant worker with songs like "Do Re Mi" and "This Land is Your Land."

The labor movement

A hundred years ago, recent immigrants hit the streets around the U.S. to rally for the eight hour work day, the weekend, and laws that would protect them, their families, and their children from unjust treatment in the workplace. The songs to which they joined their voices a century ago came to define the folk music of a generation, just as their great grandchildren are raising their voices today.
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