General Leonard Chapman was a United States Marine Corps general who served as the Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1968 to 1972. He was a highly decorated World War II combat veteran, who retired from the Marine Corps to become the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). When he first worked for the INS, it was very easy to cross from Mexico to the USA. By introducing more efficient processes, it became much more difficult to do so. In 2016, a study at Princeton University found that the rapid escalation of border enforcement backfired as not only did it become harder to cross from Mexico to the USA, it also became harder for undocumented workers to return to Mexico. Whereas previously many people crossed into the USA to carry out seasonal work before returning to their homes out of season, the difficulty of returning meant that many people stayed in the USA. Here’s a link to the summary of the study.
Throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump called for the construction of a border wall between Mexico and the USA. The border is nearly 2000 miles long and, as of yesterday, about 200 miles have so far been constructed including about 90 miles that have simply replaced existing structures.
In 2017, Billy Bragg released a six track EP which was called “Bridges Not Walls”. He said “I first heard Anais Mitchell sing ‘Why We Build The Wall’ at Occupy London in November 2011, standing on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. The power of the lyrics struck me then and, in the intervening years, the song has become even more powerful as the mass movement of people from Africa and Asia into Europe, North America and Australia has forced migration onto the political agenda. In 2016, matters came to a head when anti-immigrant sentiment was identified as a prime mover in Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected president after promising to build a wall along the Mexican border. In the coming years, driven by climatic changes in their home countries, more and more people are going to be on the move, looking for a better life for their families. Our children and our grandchildren will judge us on our response to those who come to our door looking for shelter.”
I first heard “Why We Build The Wall” on Anais Mitchell’s record called “Hadestown”. This was the 4th record she released and she has subsequently released another 4. The best ones are, in my opinion, “Young Man In America”, “Hadestown” and “Bonny Light Horseman” (which she recorded with Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman). The others are all worth exploring. “Child Ballads” which she recorded with Jefferson Hamer, is is composed of old folk ballads from the collection of the same name by Francis James Child re-arranged by the duo. She is a very interesting artist. We have a very strong connection, Anais and I, after she spoke to me at length just before performing at a small venue in Brighton a few years ago. To be strictly factual, she said “excuse me” as she was trying to make her way to the stage and I was standing in her way.
“Hadestown” has been described as a folk-opera. It follows a variation on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus must embark on a quest to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld. Several of the songs feature singers other than Anais Mitchell, including Justin Vernon (the lead vocalist and guitarist of Bon Iver), Ben Knox Miller (of The Low Anthem), Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown (who is married to Iris DeMent) and The Haden Triplets. Each singer sings the part of a character. For example, Anais Mitchell sings the parts of Eurydice, Justin Vernon sings the part of Orpheus, Greg brown sings the part of Hades etc.
Anais Mitchell originally wrote the songs as part of a musical that was performed in 2006 and 2007. She subsequently recorded the record for release in 2010. She then developed the musical, writing an additional 15 songs which were used in a production that went from Off Broadway in 2016 (followed by a live CD), Edmonton, Canada in 2017, The National Theatre, London in 2018 and finally Broadway in 2019 (also followed by another live CD). It won Tony awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score and it won an Emmy for Best Musical Theater Album. The musicians on this record are not the same musicians who performed in the shows.
The song “Why We Build The Wall” is excellent. It starts by posing the titular question to which the answer is that we build a wall to keep us free. The question is then asked how does the wall keep us free to which the answer is to keep out our enemy. Who is the enemy? Poverty – we have and they have not. The last verse is “What do we have that they should want? We have a wall to work upon. We have work and they have none. And our work is never done. My children, my children. And the war is never won. The enemy is poverty. And the wall keeps out the enemy. And we build the wall to keep us free. That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free. We build the wall to keep us free.” Bearing in mind this was written in 2006, it’s prescience is remarkable. It’s mainly sung by Greg Brown who has a gravelly voice that makes Tom Waits sound like a choirboy.
There are 20 songs on this record and most of them are very good. There’s a song called “When The Chips Are Down” sung by The Haden Triplets which is bright and breezy and features their amazing three part harmonies in the style of stripped-down, old-time country songs that they have used on both of their records.
“Our Lady Of The Underground” is mainly sung by Ani DiFranco. This is in a jazzy style and has a call and response section “Brother, what’s my name”, “My name is Persephone”. This is one of my favourite songs on the record. Anais Mitchell sings an outstanding version of this (see link below).
“Flowers” is sung entirely by Anais Mitchell and is beautiful. It’s slow, sad and tragic. Eurydice, who has now become Hades’ mistress, realises what a terrible mistake she made being tempted by his wealth and power. She regrets leaving Orpheus, the only man who ever loved her, to live with a cruel tyrant and expresses her wish to being reunited with him. Anais Mitchell has a slightly squeaky voice which I love but does take a bit of getting used to. This song, along with many on her solo records, allows her to wring every last emotion out of the lyrics. “Dreams are sweet until they’re not. Men are kind until they aren’t. Flowers bloom until they rot and fall apart. Is anybody listening? I open my mouth and nothing comes out. Nothing. Nothing gonna wake me now.”
Justin Vernon had only released one Bon Iver record when this album emerged and he gets to sing 3 complete songs as well as adding to many others. His falsetto isn’t to everyone’s taste but I love it.
Here’s an extract from the review on “FolkMusic”. “Hadestown is possibly one of the most creative and provocative contemporary folk albums of recent note. Mitchell’s storyline stays true enough to the original mythology so as to honor its tradition, while pulling in modern themes and ideas to keep it fresh. Though it would seem the boomtown imagery is quasi-Depression-era, so much of the desperation and separation of the classes, thirst for power, manipulation, doubt, and all the other things which motivate this story, are timeless and timely themes. In other words, the album succeeds on all counts.”
I was going to write something trite to finish. Something like “In the current political climate, building bridges and not walls seems more important than ever.” It seems too obvious really.