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 …

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Smashing Hits! The 80s pop map of Britain and Ireland – BBC 4

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The music of the 1980s is the soundtrack to my life.  Well, to be strictly accurate, the music of the late 1980s and the early 1990s was the soundtrack to my formative years, but, however you put it, 1980s music is “my” music.  I’ve only got to hear the few first bars of a hit song from the second half of the 1980s and I am right back there: I can tell you exactly when it was from, and exactly what was going on both in my life and in the world in general at that time.  Take this morning.  I was in the gym (I go before work during Wimbledon), and on came Sweet Child O’ Mine.  I only needed to hear a few notes of it and I was back in 1989, listening to our form teacher read us the Riot Act over a load of graffiti having appeared in the locker area.  I don’t think the culprit was ever actually unmasked, but I do know that the lyrics to Sweet Child O’Mine were part of the offending artwork.

Life isn’t like that any more.  I haven’t got a clue what’s number one in the charts.  I assume people do still use the terms “the charts” and “the top 40” (and I remember when it was the “the top 30”), incidentally?  My sister and I used to find it hilarious that Mum and Dad referred to the charts as “the hit parade”, and that our late grandad, bless him, insisted on referring to a record player as a “gramophone”!    It’s rather depressing to think that I’m now just as out of touch as we thought they were back then.  Do millennials even know what a record player or a tape/cassette player is?  Do they ever go into a shop and buy a piece of physical media with music on it, or is it all downloads these days?  It’s a different world these days.  So it’s very nice that BBC 4 are allowing me to step back into my world for a little while, with this three-part series about the music of the 1980s.  Because it was the best music ever, right?!  Yep.  That’s what old people say.  It’s what Mum and Dad used to say, in the 1980s and 1990s, about the music of the 1950s and 1960s!

Do little kids still have playground versions of popular songs, by the way?  Like we used to have in the early 1980s?  “Relax, don’t do it.  Pick your nose and chew it.”  “Uptown Wally.  She’s been living in a Tesco trolley.  She had it off with the Action Man.  She left her knickers in an ice cream van.”  Maybe we were just weird at our primary school.  And that was actually rather rude for primary school kids to have been singing, come to think of it.  Er, moving swiftly on …

This is a different take on music history, because it’s about the way in which different British cities produced different music.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, but, it many ways, everything seems so uniform, so samey.  You go on holiday, and you’re in France or Germany or Italy or Spain and there are billboards everywhere showing adverts in English.  The same with slogans in shops or bars.  What??  What is wrong with the language of the country you’re in?  And there are branches of McDonald’s and Starbuck’s everywhere.  It’s all the same.  I tell you, three cheers for Greggs, who make a big effort to stock cakes and pastries that are relevant to the part of the country that each particular branch is in.  The National Trust do as well, to be fair.  I love it when I see bara brith in the tea room at Chirk Castle, or Scouse in the tea room at Speke Hall.  Uniformity is boring!

Towards the end of the 1980s, things did get rather uniform, thanks to Stock Aitken Waterman.  Whether it was Rick Astley from Newton-le-Willows and Sonia from Liverpool, Kylie and Jason from Down Under, or Big Fun who were a mixture of Mancunians, Midlanders and Londoners (what???), it all sounded the same.  Don’t get me wrong – I love SAW songs.  I would never have admitted that, back in the day, because only really uncool people admitted to liking SAW, but, come on, everyone likes those songs, don’t they?  But it was all artificial, and manufactured, and samey.

And then came the “Madchester” era.  Hooray!   I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in London in 1990.  No school uniform on school trips.  Presumably so that, if anyone did anything terrible, no-one would be able to tell what school they came from!  Practically every single kid turned up in a hooded top – bought from places like Stolen from Ivor – and a pair of jeans by Joe Bloggs of Cheetham Hill.  We thought we were the coolest thing ever, strutting round That London in all our Manchester gear.  “You’re twisting my melon, man.”   It was a local thing.  Like Merseybeat’d been in the ’60s.  There was a lot of local stuff going on in the ’80s and early ’90s.  Music meant something: it came from places and times and cultures.

“Madchester”, coming at the end of the 1980s, is going to be covered in the final episode of the three.  Next week’s Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  I’ve just booked to see The Proclaimers in November: I’m very excited about that.  I’d be even more excited if it was Wet Wet Wet, but I did get to see them a couple of years back.  Anyway, the first episode was about London, Coventry and Sheffield.  And it took us right back to the early 1980s – which was before my musical time, so it was quite educational, because I don’t really remember the “scenes” of that time.

First up, the New Romantics.  Definitely before my time – although I remember my older cousin being obsessed with Duran Duran.  I love Spandau Ballet’s music, but Through the Barricades is the only one of their hit songs that I was really into at the time at which it was out.  Incredible song!  True, To Cut A Long Story Short and Gold are incredible songs too.  Is there anything around now that can come even close to matching music like that?   And Karma Chameleon was one of the first records I owned: Boy George was such an icon, even to younger kids.  The programme, presented by Kim Appleby – and I well remember the sadness when Kim’s sister Mel died so tragically young, and the admiration for Kim as she bravely went on with her music career as a solo artist – and Midge Ure (“Oh, Vienna … ) explored the Soho scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how that gave rise to Adam and the Ants, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club.

Duran Duran are from Birmingham, obviously, just before I offend anyone by seeming to count them in with the Londoners!   In fact, I thought Birmingham should have been given more credit here, because it was just as much of a New Romantic centre as London was.  And a lot of the talk was about the success of British bands in America.  “The second British invasion.”  British music was big.  It was so big!

A lot of this was put down to MTV and the influence of videos.  We didn’t have MTV, until the advent of satellite TV in the late 1980s.  We only got to see the much-discussed videos on Top of the Pops and The Roxy, about an hour a week in total.  But what a big deal the videos became!   I remember the first time that the video for Madonna’s Like A Prayer was shown in the UK.  There’d been a huge fuss about it, because it’d offended the Vatican!   That evening, I went round to my then best friend’s house for tea, and she and I and her brother were sat there, waiting for the video to be shown, like it was some world-changing moment!

And Smash Hits, the music magazine, was also given a lot of credit for the rise of the New Romantics.  Ah, Smash Hits!  Both it and Just Seventeen used to come out on a Wednesday.  In the third year of secondary school, we used to have double physics on a Wednesday afternoon.  I’m sure the teacher was a really nice woman who was much loved by her family and friends, but a) she couldn’t hold the class’s attention and b) she never seemed to notice what any of us were doing.  So we’d all sit there reading Smash Hits and Just Seventeen!  I never did learn very much about physics, but ask me anything about pop music in 1987 or 1988 and I’ll probably be able to tell you!

Sadly, the New Romantics movement didn’t last.  The programme put its demise down to Adam and the Ants miming on The Children’s Royal Variety Performance, during which they were apparently on in between The Krankies and Rod Hull and Emu.  I don’t remember that, so I’ll have to take Midge and Mel’s words for it.  But the music lives on.  ’80s music lives on!!

Next up came Coventry and ska, and, with this, much more of a sense of a particular city’s history and culture.  Sorry, London, but you don’t do regional identity in the same way as other cities do!  I was only thinking about The Specials last week.  “Free Nelson Mandela”.  Ghost Town is the other Specials song that everyone knows – and, as Mel and Midge pointed out, that (again, before my musical time, really) said so much about 1981, the year of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton and elsewhere.  Music then was so much more about time and place than it seems to be now.  And a big element of ska was the influence of Jamaican culture on Coventry.  Funny, we’re hearing so much about immigration at the moment, but I’m not really getting a sense of Eastern European influence on music.  Or am I just too old and out of touch to know what’s going on?!

I’ve never really been into ska, TBH.  But this was Coventry’s thing.  A smaller city having such a big influence on music.  And then it was on to electronic scene, in Sheffield.  Again, its heyday was a bit early for me, but I love some of these songs.  “Don’t you want me, baby?”  “Shoot that poison arrow to my hah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-heart!”  And, again, it was about a time and a place – deindustrialisation in a Northern city in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.  The Human League, Temptation and ABC were the groups discussed.  “All I’m saying. It takes a lot to love you.”   Wonderful stuff.  And all rooted in Sheffield, a city badly hit by the economic problems of the era.

The synthesiser!   That led on – although the programme didn’t go into this – to the later electro-pop music, and that really was my era.  A-ha.  The Pet Shop Boys.  Erasure.  There was even a group called Electronic – a collaboration between the wonderful, wonderful Pet Shop Boys and Manchester’s very own New Order.  “However I look, it’s clear to see, that I love you more than you love me.”  Sorry, that’s way off the point.  Sheffield!  Early 1980s!  The banning of Heaven 17’s “We don’t need this fascist groove thang” by the BBC, in case it offended the president of the United States.  Maybe that song needs a bit of a revival?!

And that was Sheffield.  London.  Coventry.  Sheffield.  Music that grew organically out of the culture of a particular city, at a particular time.  All a bit mad, in its way.  But natural.  Not manufactured.  Not artificial.  Not uniform.  And all so very gloriously 1980s!   There will never be another musical decade like the 1980s, and the music of the 1980s will never die!