Word association time: Bluegrass. What comes to mind?
Some might think banjos or fiddles. Others might think about songs of love (“Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arm”) or love lost (“Blue Moon of Kentucky”).
Still others might think of the mountains of Appalachia, be it “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Rocky Top” or . . . well, the list kind of goes on and on, doesn’t it? What you probably don’t think of is this: Bluegrass as a vehicle for a contemporary political protest song. Ah, how little we know of our own history sometimes. Bluegrass aficionados know that the history of the genre is full of political songs, many of them about coal miners, coal mine owners and the conflict between the two. Those union battles, though, were a long time ago, and the adjective we used above was “contemporary.” This is where we introduce you to a relatively new bluegrass song that is very much contemporary (it came out last year) and is definitely political. It’s also a song that’s set a long way from Appalachia. It deals with the U.S.-Mexican border — from the point of view of a Latin American immigrant.
The song “The Wall” is about, well, the title is pretty obvious. So are the key lyrics:
Come sisters, brothers gather near / We’ve come to share our worries
We fear what some folks have been saying about Latin Americans / the truth’s been misconstrued
There’s all kinds of talk ‘bout building a wall / down along the Southern border.
‘bout building a wall between me and you / Lord, and if such nonsense should come true /
then, we’ll have to knock it down.
This is clearly not your granddaddy’s bluegrass. It is, however, the bluegrass of one of the most unusual bluegrass bands around. Che Apalache is a four-man band based in Buenos Aires that includes one member from North Carolina, one from Mexico and two from Argentina.
If you’re at the 18th annual FloydFest this weekend, you have not one, not two, but three chances to hear the band — and likely the song “The Wall,” as well. The band plays today at 4:30 p.m., Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. If you miss Che Apalache there, you have more opportunities. The band plays the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 2, the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, on Aug. 3, the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax on Aug. 4 and in Bristol, Tennessee, on Aug. 9 before moving on to Texas and California.
The song “The Wall” raises a question we haven’t really heard addressed in American politics before. For all the talk about President Trump’s desire to build a border wall, there seems no discussion of what some future Democratic administration would do about that. (And ultimately, yes, someday there will be another Democratic president; the history of modern American politics is that it’s hard for one party to retain the White House for more than two terms in a row and sometimes not even that.) If Trump were to succeed in building a border wall, we can easily imagine some future Democratic president vowing to tear it down.
That’s why we’ve always been baffled by the immigration debates in Washington. If Trump says the price for giving the so-called Dreamers a path to citizenship is a border wall, why not give it to him? Yes, that would be anathema to many Democrats but consider the scale of the trade-offs. Democrats would get a permanent fix to the problem of young adults who have grown up as Americans but lack the paperwork; Trump would get only an impermanent wall that could be taken down later — its pieces sold off as scrap that could be used to build a Southwestern version of the Statue of Liberty along the Rio Grande. Yes, funding a wall you know will be torn down would be a waste of money, but, let’s face it, when have Democrats been that concerned about spending? (For that matter, given the deficit-swelling budgets the Republican-controlled Congress has recently passed, Republicans don’t even seem concerned about spending anymore.) The real fix to uncontrolled immigration along the southern border is not a wall but changing the conditions in Latin America that have inspired the mass migration of refugees fleeing violence.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t an editorial about migration of people, it’s about the migration of music and cultures. Bluegrass is native to Appalachia but now extends to the Andes. It was imported to Argentina in 2010 when the North Carolina-based musician Joe Troop moved there “with only a suitcase, fiddle and banjo,” according to his official bio. He started teaching music — guitar, mandolin, fiddle and yes, banjo. In time, he formed the band Che Apalache with three of his students. Together, they play a variation of bluegrass that is termed “Latingass” — which also happens to be the name of the band’s latest album. It sounds a lot like bluegrass, except that some of it is sung in Spanish, and there are occasionally songs such as, well, “The Wall.”
This fusion of Appalachian music with Latin American sensibilities might seem strange to some ears, but the combination is really as American as, well, everything American. We talk about things being “as American as apple pie” but the apple traces its heritage to the steppes of central Asia. Traditional bluegrass was itself an amalgamation of music from multiple cultures — some from England, some from Scotland, some from Ireland. The fiddle, one of the genre’s foundational instruments, came from Italy by way of the Byzantine Empire; the banjo came from Africa.
Some on the left fret about “cultural appropriation” — the notion of one culture “stealing” from another as if culture were a physical property such as, say, a car. Culture, though, has always been malleable. That is what makes American culture so interesting — we have never been afraid to borrow and blend and create something new. We here in the Blue Ridge live at the northern end of an incredible arc of musical creation, one that stretches all the way to the Mississippi Delta. Lots of different cultures collided along that arc, with the resulting sparks leading to virtually all the major forms of music today — bluegrass, country, jazz and the earliest rock’n’rollers. In Che Apalache — which last year took first place at the Appalachian String Band Festival — we have a rare opportunity see that process of creation continue to play out in front of our eyes, and in our ears.
There may or may not someday be a wall on the southern border, but there can never be a sound barrier. That is a good thing.