Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border – BBC 2

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Donald Trump’s bizarre obsession with building walls has given Reginald D Hunter an excuse for a road trip along the US-Mexican border and me an excuse to write about a) the Mexican War and b) how lovely San Antonio is.  This programme, far more political than musical, also reminded me about being made to learn The Streets of Laredo in primary school singing lessons.  How weird is that?  Why get a load of little kids in a North of England primary school to learn a song about dying cowboys?!   Anyway, back to the point, which was that, whatever may go on with Mr Trump and his bonkers ideas, music knows no borders, certainly not between northern Mexico and the south western United States.

I’m afraid that most of the musical references in this went over my head.  I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Fernando and Ride Like The Wind?  Just kidding – not really!  I was OK when he was talking about Ricky Martin (who’s actually from Puerto Rico) and Lou Bega (who’s actually German).  And obviously I recognised the song they played at the end, sung by one of the most famous Mexican-Americans of all time – La Bamba, by Ritchie Valens (even if I do associate it with the diner in Grease).  I think I do vaguely remember hearing about Selena, the Mexican-American singer tragically murdered in the 1990s.  But there were a lot of terms I’d never heard before.  Maybe I’m just really ignorant 😦 !  Well, I never claimed to be an expert on world music, did I?!

I now know that narcocorrido songs are ballads about drug dealers.  Nobody tell Donald Trump that, please: he’d be making all sorts of horrendous stereotypes out of it, whereas the style of music actually originates from folk music, and evolved via the norteno-corrido style of ballad that was more about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 – Pancho Villa et al.  I also know that cumbia is not a misspelling of a region of Northern England but is a form of Columbian music.  And that mariachi is a form of Western Mexican music.  According to Wikipedia, being able to play mariachi gave you a good chance of getting a job at a hacienda.  No, not the Hacienda, but an estate in colonial Mexico.

And conjunto, which sounds like something to do with either Juan Peron or the Napoleonic Wars, is a form of music played by small groups – and this is particularly interesting, because it originates in a unique form of Tex-Mex cultural crossover, involving German button accordions.  A lot of Germans settled in Fredericksburg, Texas (not to be confused with Fredericksburg in Virginia, site of the famous battle in 1862), and it still has a strongly German feel to it.  I went there in October (2014), and they were having an Oktoberfest.  The Oktoberfest idea is Bavarian, and the Fredericksburg settlers were mainly from Prussia, but you get the idea.  Loads of German bakeries, as well.  Germans also settled in Mexico (it’s OK, I’m not going to write an essay on the Austrian involvement there in the 1860s), and a lot of those settlers then moved into South Texas at the time of the Mexican Revolution.  There’s always been a lot of that to-ing and fro-ing across the border, and that was the point that Reginald D Hunter was making.

I’m not very keen on Reginald D Hunter, TBH.  I find him quite aggressive and polemical, and it sometimes seems as if he’s deliberately setting out to rile people.  For example, in the middle of this programme, he randomly started ranting about Tennessee being full of “redneck racists”. But he did make some very good points about the culture of the border area, and how the border is fluid as far as that culture goes.

He visited El Paso (Texas), where he talked to local musicians about some of the older-style border songs which present Mexicans as baddies and or involve a lot of sentimentality about doomed romances between Anglo-American men and Mexican women, and also visited Ciudad Juarez (Mexico), where there was a lot of talk about drug cartels.  In both places, people talked about frequently crossing the border to visit relatives who, legally or illegally, live on the other side.  I haven’t been to either of those places, but he said that he felt that San Antonio, although it’s not actually on the border, was the cultural capital of the border area; and that was certainly the impression that I got.

I loved San Antonio.  I’d love to go again.  What an absolutely gorgeous place.   As I said, I was in Texas in an October – and so all the preparations for the Day of the Dead were taking place.  I’d never come across that before, and I was fascinated by it.  And it’s a Mexican thing.  As Hunter said, when you’re in San Antonio, you’re not always entirely sure whether you’re in the United States or whether you’re in Mexico!  Nearly all the signs are in both English and Spanish.  I even spoke to people in Spanish a few times, whilst I was there.

San Antonio was one of the two main reasons that I wanted to go to Texas.  I wanted to see the Alamo.  We got to the hotel late afternoon, and I stopped for about five minutes to have a glass of water and dump my bags, then opened the map and bounded off to the Alamo.  It was next door to a Haagen Dazs café, which was a bit odd, but never mind.  We did go there on a proper guided tour later on, but I had to see it as soon as I’d arrived.  I’m a historian, OK!  And 19th century America is one of my specialist topics.  I was excited!

Just as a slight aside, the other main reason I wanted to go to Texas wasn’t the space centre in Houston (it was interesting enough, but I’m not a sciency person) – it was Southfork.  To quote Abba, “there’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see”.  I actually preferred Dynasty, but I loved Dallas as well.  Now, when the 2012 Dallas reboot (which sadly didn’t last long) was made, the main female character, who had affairs with both John Ross Ewing and Christopher Ewing (who also both had affairs with another woman, who turned out to be the secret daughter of Cliff Barnes) was someone who’d been born in Mexico and had emigrated from there to Texas as a child.  Even in a TV series, you can’t show Texas without showing the Mexican connection.

So.  Texas.  The “Six Flags” state – Spain, France (briefly), Mexico, the Texas Republic, the Union and the Confederacy.  When you visit the Alamo, you have to dress and behave as if you were visiting a place of worship.  It’s regarded as a sacred place.  To cut a long story short, a lot of  “Anglos” from America had settled in Mexican Texas, and, with discontent rising over the rule of President Santa Anna, Texas rebelled.  The siege of the Alamo, in 1836, although it wasn’t the decisive battle of the revolution, is the best-known.  Bowie knives, Davy Crockett hats, songs, films, etc.  An independent republic of Texas was set up – and, in 1845, serious moves began to annex it to the United States.  Most people in Texas do seem to have wanted this – the opposition came more from America, where people were concerned about what adding another big slave state to the Union was going to do to the fragile balance between slave states and free states – and, in 1846, it went ahead.

Mexico, which had never recognised Texan independence, wasn’t very pleased, and the Mexican-American War, generally known as the Mexican War, broke out.  I’ve been reading up on the Mexican War since I was 11, because it features heavily in North and South, the first book of the wonderful trilogy by John Jakes.  One of the main characters, played in the TV adaptation by the late, great, Patrick Swayze, loses an arm in the war, and has to give up his plans for a career in the Army.  OK, this has got nothing to do with music, but neither did most of what Hunter was saying: he was far more concerned with slagging off Donald Trump, and having a go at Barack Obama and Bill Clinton whilst he was at it, than in actually talking about songs of the border, or songs of anywhere else for that matter!

Despite the sad loss of Orry Main’s arm (I love those books), America won the war, and helped herself to not only Texas but also what’s now Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, part of New Mexico, a bit of Wyoming, and the vast state of California (where gold was soon discovered – war ended in 1848, Gold Rush in 1849, admitted to the Union, as a free state, in 1850.  My Darling Clementine, not being a border song, did not get mentioned.). The rest of New Mexico and Arizona was bought in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.  At least that bit was paid for.

So that whole area was Mexican long before it was American.  And, no, I’m not forgetting the Native Americans, but Native American culture didn’t really come into this programme.  There was a lot of movement across the border … well, even before Mexico was independent of Spain.  You weren’t supposed to settle in Texas in those days unless you were Catholic – like you weren’t supposed to settle in Savannah, Georgia, in the days when neighbouring Florida was under Spanish rule, unless you were Protestant or Jewish and definitely not Catholic – but people got round that!   And there’s been a lot of movement across the border ever since.  It’s an ongoing story – it’s about history going back many years – as with, say, the Cajun culture of Louisiana – and it’s about today, and it’s about everything in between.

Mexican immigration into the United States was actively encouraged during and immediately after the war years.  It isn’t now, but it’s still going on – and, as we all know, there’s no effective regulation of it.  This has both positive aspects and negative aspects.  There are a lot of issues with undocumented immigration, including the fact that unregistered immigrants are at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, and may struggle to get access to essential services.  There are undoubtedly some problems with cross-border drug smuggling.  There’s the issue of the importance of Mexican workers in the labour market in the border states.

And, as the programme kept pointing out, it’s not just a case of Mexicans going to Txas or other parts of the US and staying there.  It’s people going backwards and forwards across the border on a regular basis.  The programme was meant to be about the border being fluid in terms of music, and it did make that point, but it was also about the border being fluid in terms of the movement of people.   And it is.  Plenty of the people interviewed made that clear.  Some of that’s legal visiting.  Some of that’s illegal working.  It’s a complex situation.

There are two issues here.  One is Mexican-American culture.  Hyphenated American cultures are great.  That shouldn’t be a problem.  It’s only a problem in that there are some negative images about it.  Donald Trump’s unpleasant remarks about Mexicans tie in with those, and don’t help anyone – and it’s highly inappropriate for someone in high office to be coming out with things like that.  The other issue is immigration in general and the regulation of it.  That’s another story, and a controversial one.  But, come what may, there is this cross-border culture, much of it tied up in music.  And that makes the wall idea sound even stupider than it does anyway.

There’s so much history in music, and there’s a fair bit of music in history.  I don’t think Reginald D Hunter really wanted to talk about music.  He just wanted to have a go at American immigration policy, and this was a way of doing it.  But there was some interesting information about music in this, and interesting information about the cross-border culture in general.  And, hey, it’s given me an excuse to write a bit about the Mexican War.

I still don’t know why we had to sing The Streets of Laredo at primary school, though …

2 thoughts on “Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    Another great review. I was there many years ago. There didn’t seem to be much American/Mexican tension, but a lot of prejudice towards, and discrimination against, African Americans. Surprised you didn’t mention the Rio Grand – a most impressive and significant river (forming much of the border). An interesting point (not in the program) is that the port city of Bagdad on the Mexican side of river’s mouth was used by the Confederates during the Civil War. Apparently they were able to ship out bales of cotton in return for armaments.

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