Exclusive: Jackson Browne Speaks Out For 'The Dreamer' In Powerful New Song – Forbes

By Steve Baltin - Forbes

When it comes to speaking out on social issues in music Jackson Browne stands alongside Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, John Lennon and other all-time greats as being the most vocal and most profound. So it should come as no surprise that Browne, who has been an ardent and powerful supporter of other cultures through his music for decades, has teamed with Eugene Rodriguez and Los Cenzontles for the moving “The Dreamer,” a song that empathetically places listeners in the situations that those facing deportation under the current administration face.

“We don’t see half the people around us/But we imagine enemies who surround us/And the walls that we’ve built between us/Keep us prisoners of our fears,” Browne sings in the moving tune.

Browne met Rodriguez and Los Cenzontles through Linda Ronstadt. For Rodriguez, who calls himself a Jackson Browne fan “for a very long time,” working with Browne was a very big deal. “The opportunity to have met him a few years back was tremendous, but then to be able to work on a song together was kind of a fulfillment for me of really an amazing experience,” Rodriguez says. “And I think the song really represents true collaboration in terms of the fact both of us come to this issue from different perspectives. For me, it’s really a portrayal of the community within which I work. This issue of immigration has deeply impacted that community. So what I’m really doing is painting a picture of people that I know.”

I spoke with Browne, who was in the studio at the time, and he completely concurs with Rodriguez the song was a collaboration, saying it would be a very different song without Rodriguez’s first-person insights. For both, the important thing is to educate people about those they feel bring a lot to America but have been unfairly and unjustly generalized. As with any group there are good and bad people, but Browne and Rodriguez hope “The Dreamer” forces all of us to recognize the many who Browne calls “hardworking and virtuous” that deserve a place in America.

Steve Baltin: This song very much takes people in to the lives of immigrants. Talk about the role of music in educating people about other cultures and other worlds.

Jackson Browne: I’ve always gotten all kinds of insights into other people from music, and all kinds of music I don’t even understand the words to -- African music, Spanish music, flamenco music. You don’t really know, but you get what’s going on. Hearing music from another culture made me want to go to Mali. Hearing music that I heard from another country made me want to visit that place and know more about it. And it’s always been the way for me. It’s been that way, even simple stuff like wanting to go to England because I loved the English bands. It’s a different culture and England in the ‘50s and ‘60s was very different than the United States. It had been bombed, they had been through a much tougher time than the people in the United States had. And when the punk music happened there were a lot of socio-economic issues for punk in Britain that weren’t exactly the motivation for punk music in the States. So yeah, music always crosses borders and boundaries.

Baltin: Tell us where “The Dreamer” specifically came from.

Browne: When it comes “The Dreamer,” a long time ago I started to write this song and melody and this idea that what was going on down at the border was the Klan and the Minutemen were down there patrolling. I showed this idea to Eugene [Rodriguez] and I never got it written. I never could get very far into the subject. There are some things that are hard to sing about from that vantage point. What Eugene did, which I think was really brilliant, he just told the story of a particular person. And somebody we can all feel for, a child who is coming here to be reunited with her father. That’s a thing that’s written in every sentence about DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], children who were brought here illegally, but without any choice in the matter. And who now are among the most earnest and hardworking and ethical and virtuous people we have. They come to be Americans in every way, but the legal document. We have a procedure that has to be followed in order to do that, that’s only fair. But to send them back would not be fair either. That’s the dilemma I think most people really feel for the dreamers because they’re among us and they’re as American as you or I.

Baltin: Eugene did mention to me Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo played on the track. Talk about that for a minute.

Browne: Yeah, David Hidalgo is a good friend of Eugene’s and a strong supporter of the Los Cenzontles Center up in Richmond, as is Linda Ronstadt, as is Taj Mahal. Eugene has a lot of good friends. What I was gonna say about the harp player is that this guy raises animals, he teaches junior college. He’s hardworking, the idea of the song is to really try to tell the story of those people who really are a very worthy addition to our citizenry. I think the song is very simple. Eugene and I wrote it together, but without Eugene’s experience and his point of view it wouldn’t be the same song at all. It would be me talking from the outside. To me, it’s a very moving song. I love singing in Spanish.

Baltin: How will the song change live?

Browne: I’m sure it will get recorded again by others, if not by me. I have to go out and play it with my band, none of whom play…I asked Hidalgo, “What is that you’re playing?” And he said, “We kind of made it up. We call it a Hildagaro.” He added a chorus of strings to a Quatro, so it’s like an Ocho, I think. Eventually I will be on stage wanting to play this song and my band will be right there. They don’t play these instruments, so there will be a version that gets played, cut down maybe. Or with an electric bass instead of the bass that was used. But that’s the story of rock and roll, that’s the story of country music too. That’s how music travels, people learn to play it and then they do it their own way.

Baltin: I recall a conversation I had years ago with Don Henley about the criticism the Eagles took for basically recreating the record live. And he pointed out that is not easy to do. But then you can have a Bruce Springsteen who can play the same song differently every night.

Browne: In my view, the songs that are the best are the ones that can be done in any way you want to do it. My favorite songs are songs that I’ve heard done that have travelled. I was singing “These Days” at this concert, this Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors one over the holidays, a benefit for LGBTQ youth in New York. I was gonna figure out how to do “These Days,” there are so many different versions of that song and ways of playing it, meaning different chord progressions, different approaches to it. That makes it a song worth hearing. But I can sing that song just by myself, it holds up really well. If you’re the Eagles there’s a great satisfaction in playing these songs note perfect. I recognize that as a difference between how the Eagles worked. They were about making the best record of a song they could make and then rendering that record perfect each time. They do it can cause they can (laughs).

Baltin: Do you hear “These Days” in a different way when you hear others do it?

Browne: Somebody in New York, a friend of mine, sent me a little film she made of a guy singing it in the subway. It said, “This was my morning,” and it has this guy halfway down the subway terminal singing “These Days.” I thought, “That’s really cool, I love that he’s singing this song.” I’ve heard so many people do it and it’s cool every time I hear that because it’s traveled, it’s become part of the people who learned it. It changed as soon as I wrote it. I recorded it differently than when I wrote it because I was really influenced by Gregg Allman’s version of it. But, with him in recent years, I realized how far from his version my version ever got. Even though he slowed it down and played a piano, he simplified it in ways that I couldn’t have.

Baltin: I know you just announced a benefit in L.A. February 9. What else do you have coming up?

Browne: One of the things I’m doing is I’m putting together a benefit. I put together this show last year for a group called Artists For Peace And Justice, who raise money for the school they built in Haiti after the earthquake. They have to raise a lot of money and they do these galas at Toronto Film Festival and L.A. during Oscar week and in London. They ask really wealthy people to donate. So that’s the backdrop of this. This idea is we’re doing songs from the cinema so you’re getting contemporary actors and musicians to render songs that were famous because of the movies, whether it’s “Moon River” or “As Time Goes By” or “School Of Rock” or “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” It’s a really fun thing to do because you have to make a version and you can do the same show every year. So this year I’m looking for other songs. We had Rita Wilson singing an Abba song from Mamma Mia and we had Jeff Bridges singing “The Ballad Of High Noon” and Jack Black singing “School Of Rock.” It’s a really fun party, but it’s not televised and it’s not for a lot of people. It’s a roomful of donors and people that you want to introduce to the work that the APJ is doing, which is really moving.

Baltin: What do you hope people take from “The Dreamer” when they hear this song and see this video?

Browne: I hope they get what I got from it doing it, which is a greater sense of connection with this population that is with us and has been with us since the inception of our country. We come from a state [California] that was Mexican before it was…all these states, Arizona, New Mexico. I’m hoping people will get a stronger connection with the hopeful and virtuous and hardworking Americans they see this in this film. I defy you to tell me which ones are the immigrants and which ones are documented and which ones aren’t. I wanted to put this on my record, but the record won’t be made in time to have any impact in the coming months. I really hope that legislators, people, constituents really open their hearts to people who are here and they should not be turned away because of those legal circumstances. They deserve to have a solution crafted by those who are in a position to do that. I think they deserve our best as a country.

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