Strangers in a Strange Land:
A Migration Soundtrack for 2019
Josh Langhoff

Earlier this year, my priest had an inspiration: What if our Advent Lessons and Carols service had a migration theme? What if we skipped the traditional L&C framework—a series of nine or so scripture passages, beginning with Adam and Eve’s disobedience and culminating in that great divine gesture of reconciliation, the birth of Jesus—and instead told the nativity story through biblical stories of migrant people? After all, the members of the Holy Family were migrants twice. They traveled to the city of their ancestors to be counted by their government occupiers, then fled for asylum to a foreign country, saving their child’s life. 

What would it mean, Reverend Lisa wondered, to understand this central story of our faith from the perspective of people who yearn for a permanent home, only to find that dream repeatedly thwarted? We could call it “Strangers in a Strange Land.”

I had concerns. As usual, the first was musical. Over the past century, the Anglican Communion in which I work as parish musician has developed a nice little repertoire of reading-plus-music pairings, as familiar as Stilton and Port. (I assume. I can’t say for sure, since I’m not a cradle Episcopalian.) The story of the serpent in Genesis 3 pairs well with one of the myriad settings of “Adam lay ybounden”; “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” naturally follows a regal prophecy from Zechariah. With this new format, I might have to do some actual work. Not only that, the service might become more work for parishioners expecting to celebrate the season with a repertoire of favorites, only to feel the liturgical rug pulled from beneath their feet.

Lisa and I shared a second, related concern. The idea of a migration-themed Lessons and Carols had obvious connections to hot-button contemporary issues. There was no getting around it: We’d be introducing politics into the sanctuary. The danger was that people would come to church expecting to meditate on the awesome idea of the Word become flesh, and end up getting lectured about border walls. Comedians have a derogatory term, “clapter,” for the half-hearted applause that greets unfunny political jokes. The church equivalent might be “wokeship”: worship so bent on promoting a political cause that it crowds out divine adoration. Worship leaders can and should connect spiritual practice to life outside the sanctuary. But surely worship needs to point us to a reality deeper than the mundane world of the daily news—even as it sends us out, reflecting the light of Christ, to change the news for the better.

When Lisa and I share this Lessons and Carols idea with people, they tend to get excited. One such person was Rich, my previous (Lutheran) pastor. When the three of us met to discuss the concept, we realized the key to the political problem was seeing ourselves—or, more to the point, allowing parishioners to see themselves—in the Bible’s migrant stories. Like the Israelites refusing to sing their songs by the waters of Babylon, the people in church live in exile. 

This is a tricky notion in the twenty-first century United States. It does not mean, for instance, that American Christians are being persecuted. As a demographic, white American Christians are among the least persecuted people in history. Physically, we’re closer to being Pharaoh or Babylon than the Israelites they subjugated. Yet the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Ruth still resonate deeply. As Lisa says, our spiritual orientation is exile. We are not what, or where, we long to be. Stability is fleeting and things fall apart. Our hope is in God, and scripture tells us—almost too many times to count—that God abides among migrant people.

At least, that’s what we hope people will take away from the service. As I write this, Lessons and Carols is still weeks away and unplanned. It’s requiring some actual work: whittling the relevant Bible passages down to a workable number, picking music that’s both familiar and not, and planning how best to teach the carols to choir, brass, and congregation. We’re figuring out what to do with John the Baptist. Politics left unmentioned would become an elephant in the room, so we’ll come up with a litany explicitly tying our universal themes to displaced people around the world, including refugees from Central America, Syria, and Yemen. Maybe we’ll take up a collection for a refugee agency. If all goes according to plan, this year’s L&C will invite both reflection and empathy: reflection on the Word become migrant flesh, and a chance to see ourselves in the predicaments migrant people face. We’ll see how it goes. 

Now, back to the music. 

One blessing of planning a familiar service in a new way is the chance to hear familiar pieces of music with new ears—for instance, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Like many other parishes, we enjoy singing this setting of the early church’s O Antiphons during Advent. We typically sing it near the beginning of Lessons and Carols, where it introduces the morning’s theme of waiting for Jesus to arrive. The problem is, when Christians sing “Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel,” we can reinforce within ourselves a condescending attitude toward modern Jews. “I wouldn’t ascribe bad intent to anyone singing it,” said the man directing Chicago’s office of the Anti-Defamation League in 2002; but, “In this twenty-first century context, one could reasonably hear those lyrics as hostile toward Jewish people.” My solution (we’ll see how it goes) is to sing the antiphons as a response to Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon,” a psalm of exile. By anchoring the hymn to that specific historical moment, maybe it’ll seem more expressive of human longings that transcend history.

With immigration so much on our minds, I decided to see how many current musicians were making music about those same longings. Quite a few, it turns out; and a lot of their migration-themed music is good. To be sure, some songs settle for trite explanations (the Killers’ “Land of the Free”) or cheap provocation (Vince Staples’s “Camp America”), but this year, many more artists have found ways to explore the topic from different angles. The following songs, all released in 2019 and sequenced as a Spotify playlist, have enlivened my commute, helped me discover unexpected nuances in the topic, and occasionally made me cry. Keep them in mind if you hear anyone suggest there’s no good protest music any more. Most of them are little-heard —but one was the most popular song in the country all summer long.


Afro Yaqui Music Collective
“Enter the Mirrors”

From the album Mirror Butterfly: The Migrant Liberation Movement Suite

This “twenty-five-piece postcolonial big band” has created a traveling avant-jazz opera about the world’s climate refugees. It may play better live. On record the vocal performances, rooted in spoken-word performance art conventions, sound both opaque and embarrassingly on-the-nose. But the band interplay is amazing; and this instrumental prelude sets the bewildering scene with a flurry of free improv for percussion and saxes, which squawk and imitate sirens.


Unchained XL
“My Only Home”

From the EP The Migrant Mind

Synth-horns take up the squawking in this Christian rap song from New Zealand. Unchained XL was born to Nigerian parents, and four of the five songs on his exciting EP The Migrant Mind sound like the jazz-inspired Afrobeat music of Fela Kuti. “My Only Home” is the exception; it’s a tempo-switching pop song with a rat-a-tat militaristic charge in the verses. Along the way, the rapper endorses the Big Bang model of world creation, quotes Jesus—“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but I have no place to lay my head”—and yearns for a return to Pangea, a world without “imaginary lines in the sand.”


Bhi Bhiman
“Beyond the Border”

From the album and podcast Peace of Mind

The California singer-songwriter conceived his latest album as a series of songs fleshed out by podcasts. In his “Beyond the Border” episode, Bhiman has useful chats with activists and an ACLU lawyer, but he’s a good enough melodist that his song works first as music. Bhiman sings relentlessly behind the beat, as though his migrant narrator is succumbing to despair. His fluid, ringing guitar riffs, inspired by the Allmann Brothers, sum up the bittersweet mood.


Los Tigres del Norte
“La Jaula de Oro”

From the album and film Live at Folsom Prison

During its half-century career, this California norteño quintet has amassed a deep catalog of immigrant songs. The variety and subtlety of their stories is unsurpassed. In 2018, Los Tigres were the only musicians to play Folsom Prison for the 50th anniversary of Johnny Cash’s legendary concert. (You can catch the hour-long documentary on Netflix.) After opening with a Spanish-language cover of “Folsom Prison Blues,” they hauled out rocking performances of their classics, and the inmates happily sang and danced along. “La Jaula de Oro” is a 1984 polka about a Mexican immigrant who considers his U.S. home a “cage of gold.” Despite his success, he feels like a man without a country, alienated from his English-speaking children.  


Willie Nelson
“Immigrant Eyes”

From the album Ride Me Back Home

Another American treasure, Nelson has been on a productive (if mellow) tear for as long as anyone can remember, releasing one or two albums every year. On his latest, he contemplates mortality, love, and some songs he likes, including this very contemplative reading of his friend Guy Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes.” Nelson’s voice floats over the beat with a jazz singer’s poise and a bedtime story’s spontaneity as he relates the dehumanizing ways we’ve treated immigrants in every generation. (“They were standing in line just like cattle/ Poked and prodded and shoved.”)


The Highwomen

From the album The Highwomen

Just as Nelson improves on Clark’s song, this country supergroup—four women from the worlds of mainstream country and Americana—improves on The Highwaymen, Nelson’s former supergroup with Johnny Cash. This remake takes the old outlaws’ theme song “Highwayman” further into the mystic, depicting a faith healer, a freedom rider, a preacher, and, in Brandi Carlile’s opening verse, a Honduran immigrant mother—all unjustly murdered, all of whom promise to “come back again, and again, and again.” The group performance is intimate enough to stop time. 


Lil Nas X
“Old Town Road”

Ubiquitous single

Before you run away in terror, I assure you: Lil Nas X belongs here because he says he does. Over the summer, this video game song turned viral sensation became the longest-running #1 hit in U.S. history, after being booted off Billboard’s country chart for not embracing “enough elements of today’s country music.” Nearly every child you know can sing it, whether they like it (my daughter) or despise it (my son). And what are Lil Nas X and his endless remix guests teaching our kids? Persistence matters: “I’m gonna take my horse to the Old Town Road/ I’m gonna ride ‘til I can’t no more.” Follow your own muse: “Can’t nobody tell me nothing.” Plus something about Maseratis and sports bras. In 2019, no song was giddier in its defiance of would-be gatekeepers. For this playlist, I chose the remix with Mason Ramsey and Young Thug because it contains the most sound effects of donkeys.


Gary Clark, Jr.
“This Land”

From the album This Land

Unlike most of these songs, “This Land” isn’t a migrant story. It’s the autobiographical tale of someone getting harassed for the crime of living in a nice house while black. When Clark, a Texas-raised singer-songwriter and blues guitarist, recently moved into a 50-acre ranch near Austin, a neighbor refused to believe he actually owned the place. Clark drew on his experience growing up African-American “in the middle of Trump country” to write this powerful, profane update of “This Land is Your Land.” “I remember when you used to tell me… ‘Go back where you come from,’” he sings over layers of screaming guitar, channeling the rage of anyone who’s been cast aside by their fellow human beings.  


Making Movies featuring Rubén Blades

From the album ameri´kana

Blades, the Panamanian salsa pioneer, wrote this heavy mambo in the ‘80s with Lou Reed, but only recorded it this year with the Kansas City band Making Movies. The guitars crunch with anger as Blades’s narrator is “branded and deported,” having made the mistake of following a seductress named Delilah to an unfriendly land. The song’s enormous, swaggering rhythm is almost as seductive as its title character.



From the EP Cages

This’ll be the last “loud guitars signifying defiant anger” song on the list, but it’s a doozy. Rebecca Redbait and Madeline B. front Redbait, an activist hardcore (or, per their bio, “proletarian crust”) band from St. Louis. Their 13-minute Cages EP is one pummeling riff after another, and don’t expect to understand any lyrics—but it’s not like songs about family separation at the border should be pretty. The growled closing line neatly sums up a paradox we’ll revisit in a couple songs: “a country so free it incarcerates children.”


Antonio Sánchez & Migration
“Bad Hombres y Mujeres”

From the album Lines in the Sand

How are politically oriented hardcore bands and jazz bands alike? They both get a lot of mileage out of song titles. “Bad Hombres y Mujeres” would’ve made sense with a more innocuous name, but the provocative one gives the music unexpected urgency—not that it needed much help. Best known for his Birdman movie score, drummer Sánchez leads his Migration band through a series of winding electronic keyboard solos and wordless vocal-plus-sax melodies, placing their sound squarely between ‘70s progressive rock and ‘80s Pat Metheny. 


Hadestown original cast
“Why We Build the Wall”

2019 Tony Award winner for Best Musical

Talk about ideas that refuse to die. Anaïs Mitchell first wrote the bluesy call-and-response “Why We Build the Wall” in 2006, for a community theater show about Orpheus’s trip to the Underworld. In the song, King Hades asks the subjects of his walled city, “Why do we build the wall, my children?” Their answers—“to keep us free,” “the wall keeps out the enemy”—turn increasingly sinister and sad. A decade later, as Mitchell saw her musical staged Off-Broadway, one specific presidential candidate began tapping into the same dark sentiments. No word on whether he’s seen the show, or what he thought of his archetype. 


Maya de Vitry
“Go Tell a Bird”

From the album Adaptations

Like the wall-building impulse, some songs seem to have existed forever. This gentle, resolute anthem works like that: a handful of words and a few modal phrases accompanied by an acoustic band, with gorgeous strings that sound like they’re whooshing out of the past. Each verse ends with a withering dismissal of Underworld Kings in any age: “Go tell a bird about the land of the free.”


Lagartijeando featuring Minuk
“La Frontera”

From the album Jallalla


Jonny Lipford

From the album Migration

The first of these flute beauties is electronic folk from Argentina, with lyrics depicting the narrator’s body melting back into the earth. The second is uplifting new age that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Hallmark store. Both convey the hope that makes people decide to pack up and move in the first place.


The Chemical Brothers
“No Geography”

From the album No Geography

I meant to end this playlist on a note of unfettered hope. In “No Geography,” the Chemical Brothers build one of their joyful, block-rocking dance tracks around a sample of the poet Michael Brownstein: “If you ever change your mind about leaving it all behind, remember: no geography… I’ll take you all with me.” He sounds like a divine Pied Piper—which, I then remembered, isn’t exactly an endorsement. What if this reassuring voice from above was one of those coyotes the Highwomen and Rubén Blades sang about, luring people away from their homeland and into cages or graves? This promise to leave everything behind sounds so tantalizing, you can understand why people would jump at the chance. But in the end, it simply leads back to the top of the playlist, a bewildering world of confusion and isolation.

Unless, that is, you have forty minutes to sit with one more piece of music...


John Luther Adams
Become Desert

Though it has no overt connection to migrant stories, Adams’s sequel to his Pulitzer-winning orchestral piece Become Ocean is all about space and stillness—specifically, the stillness of an environment that many migrants brave during their journeys. The strings and winds create a slow series of complex major chords, broken by chimes that wobble through the texture like mirages. It’s a majestic but cold work, isolating in its enormity. Like the apparently intractable problems faced by migrant people today and in every age, Become Desert is all nuance. May those nuances teach us how to listen.


Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to Mexican music. Check out Langhoff's migration playlist on Spotify:

Works Cited

 Zorn, Eric. “Great music, but lyrics are out of tune.” Chicago Tribune. November 14, 2002.

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