by Kevin Burton
For about three minutes and fifty seconds a tidy story unfolds from the pen of lyricist Phil Cody and the voice of the great Neil Sedaka.
Attempt to read between the lines though and you have a mess on your hands, especially with Sedaka dedicating the song to ex-Beatle John Lennon.
It was 1975, the year that saw Sedaka have his biggest pop hit with “Bad Blood” and take a slow version of “Breaking Up is Hard To Do” to the top 10. But his first release of the year was “The Immigrant,” a song written by Cody for his father.
The song peaked at number 22, which gives it a place in our 2022 series.
Cody wrote the Carpenters’ 1975 number 17 hit “Solitaire,” among other songs.
“My dad came to this country. He wanted to be a singing star,” Cody told Songfacts. “He worked in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera before he got married, and then put down his singing career to become a tradesman.”
“My dad and I, up until I was about 28, were constantly at each other’s throats. He wasn’t real happy with the direction I’d taken. He thought I was destined to be a bum for the entirety of my life,” Cody said.
“And then he actually went into a recording studio in Sicily and did a version of ‘Solitaire’ in Italian. “And then I said, ‘wow, I’ve scored with my dad.’”
“So I thought as payback I would try to write about my dad’s point of view of coming to this country and how much promise there was,” Cody said.
The Immigrant paints the rosiest of pictures about the wave of immigration that brought Cody’s father to the USA.
“Harbors open their arms to the young searching foreigner, come to live in the light of the beacon of liberty,” the song begins.
“Dream boats carried the future to the heart of America. People were waiting in line for a place by the river,” is another line, right before the chorus:
“It was a time when strangers were welcome here. Music would play they tell me the days were sweet and clear. It was a sweeter tune and there was so much room that people could come from everywhere.”
Sedaka calls The Immigrant a beautiful song, but it only works as a kind of lyrical snow globe that doesn’t allow in certain realities.
The song ignores the fact that strangers were truly welcome here only if they had a skin color to match the white majority. Perhaps at one point there was room enough for people to come from everywhere, but at no time were all people welcomed equally.
Also the song doesn’t seem to fit its times, the early 70s, when immigration issues didn’t generate nearly the vitriol they do today. Nobody in 1975 was talking about building walls to keep people with brown skin out. The Immigrant seems like much more of a post-2016 song.
Nevertheless, Cody remembers some friction regarding immigration.
“I think I was watching a news report, and I remember thinking, ‘that’s not the way Americans treat people who come to our country.’ And I wanted to write about that.” Cody recalled. “I was put off by the Vietnam war and how our stance in the world just didn’t seem friendly and welcoming.”
A later verse reflects the souring American attitude toward immigrants.
“Now he arrives with hopes and his heart set on miracles, come to marry his fortune with a hand full of promises. To find they’ve closed the door they don’t want him anymore. There isn’t any more to go around.
Turning away he remembers he once heard a legend that spoke of a mystical magical land called America.”
The Immigrant is effective in a limited way, but it never, ever fit John Lennon.
Lennon was hardly a young searching foreigner. He was a conquering capitalist musician who at one time essentially issued the national zeitgeist from his guitar case.
Sedaka dedicated the song to Lennon, because of the British star’s run-ins with the Nixon-era US immigration service.
Lennon was twice ordered to leave the country. The basis for the original federal case, ostensibly, was his 1968 conviction in England for marijuana possession, according to www.udiscovermusic.com.
The real reason was political.
“Lennon’s high-profile, anti-Vietnam War protests and peace campaigning had made him a thorn in the side of the US authorities for years,” the website reads.
The second order came in July of 1974. Lennon immediately appealed.
“As events turned out, by the time Lennon made his appeal on Aug. 31, Nixon had resigned over the Watergate scandal, and his successor Gerald Ford showed little appetite to continue deportation proceedings,” the website reads.