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Latinos give new life to Neil Diamond anthem

May 09, 2006|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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction
Neil Diamond: An article in Tuesday's Calendar on Neil Diamond's song "America" identified Raul Ramos as a professor of history at the University of Texas in Houston. Ramos is at the University of Houston. The article suggested that Diamond did not appear in blackface in "The Jazz Singer." He did briefly. The article also said Clear Channel added "America" to a list of "lyrically questionable" (and temporarily banned) songs after Sept. 11, 2001. In fact, a spokesman for Clear Channel said there was no list of banned songs.

"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.

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