Ten years ago I wrote a song called “Why We Build the Wall” for the very first draft of a music theater piece called Hadestown. The piece is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, the great musician/poet who tries to rescue his wife Eurydice from the Underworld. It’s set in a darkly political, Americana dreamscape-- the Underworld is not the land of the dead, but something like a company town—a walled city whose citizens engage in mindless, soulless work in exchange for the security promised by their boss-king Mister Hades. In “Why We Build the Wall,” Hades indoctrinates the workers in a call-and-response song:
“Why do we build the wall? / My children, my children / Why do we build the wall?”
And the workers answer:
“Why do we build the wall? / We build the wall to keep us free / That’s why we build the wall / We build the wall to keep us free.”
Hadestown has been evolving slowly over a decade. First it was a DIY community theater project in Vermont, then a studio album and a touring concert with guest singers, and most recently an off-Broadway theater production. At this point, “Wall” is an old song; I never expected it to feel new again. And then Donald Trump came along. It wasn’t just that Trump made the building of “the Wall” central to his initial platform, it was the call-and-response style chants at his rallies:
“Who’s gonna pay for the wall?”
Suddenly it felt like the song was speaking directly about today’s politics, rather than ancient mythology. People began to ask if it was written in response to the Trump campaign, when in reality, both Trump and the song were simply tapping into the same folk archetypes. There is nothing new about the Wall. Political leaders have invoked it time and again to their advantage, because it works so well on people who feel scared.
And scared people are willing to give up a lot for a sense of security. In the original myth, Eurydice literally dies and goes to the Underworld—she has no say in the matter. In Hadestown, though, she makes a choice. What she chooses—Hades, and the security he promises behind the Wall—is a devil’s bargain. It doesn’t exactly cost her life, but it is a kind of death: of the heart, of the soul. By walling others out, the citizens of Hadestown wall themselves in—to hell. Eurydice quickly regrets her decision.
America, too, has a choice coming up. I’ve taken to saying, when I play “Why We Build the Wall” now at my own shows: “This song is ten years old… Any resemblance of any contemporary political figures to the King of the Underworld is purely coincidental.”
But we all know the Underworld Boss/King archetype when we see him. Let’s not elect him President.