The songs collected here are a people's heritage—their unselfconscious record of themselves, alien for the most part to documents and books. There are few enough writings about the Border people, who happen to be my people. The Anglos who came down to us as conquerors saw us as abysmal savages—benighted by papistry (priest-ridden, as that great Texas liberal, J. Frank Dobie, used to say) and debased by miscegenation (with ditchwater instead of blood in our veins, as another great Texas liberal and scholar, Walter Prescott Webb, once put it). The supercivilized intellectuals of the Mexican plateau were kinder to us; they merely knew us as los bárbaros del Norte, the barbarians of the North.
The whole of a people's past is reflected in these songs, from the days when they journeyed out into Chichimecaland, mid-eighteenth century pioneers, traveling north until they reached the Rio Grande, drank of its waters, and traveled no more. They settled on the river banks long before there was such a thing as the United States of America, and they struck roots that would last for centuries. They clustered around the river, for its waters were life. To these people, during their first century here, the river was the navel of the world.
Then came the pale-eyed strangers from the north, and the homeland was divided. The river—once a focus of life—became a barrier, a dividing line, an international boundary. Families and friends were artificially divided by it. For a long time, however, life went on very much as it had before. Officially, the people on one bank of the river were Mexicans; those on the other side were Americans, albeit an inferior, less-than-second-class type of American in the eyes of the new rulers of the land. But the inhabitants on both river banks continued to be the same people, with the same traditions, preserved in the same legends and the same songs. Together they entered into a century-long conflict with the English-speaking occupiers of their homeland. Time has changed things, as the governments from Washington and Mexico City have made their presence felt. Even so, the bonds reaching across the river have not been broken, just stretched out a bit to meet the demands of two forms of officialdom, originally disparate but growing more like each other day by day.
The songs in this book mean a great deal to me, though I am not by any means alone in treasuring them. There are others of my generation along the Rio Grande who still remember, for whom success in the contemporary marketplace has not been accompanied by a sense of shame in their old ranchero background. For them, as for me, these songs still stir echoes. But the echoes have deeper overtones, reaching beyond those fronterizos who still can contemplate or recapture what they have been. These songs should have resonance in all Mexican-Americans, for they are part of the history of all Mexicans in the United States. They record an important aspect of the Mexican-American's long struggle to preserve his identity and affirm his rights as a human being.
It has been a struggle played out in many settings—in isolated villages of New Mexico as well as in Border "gateways" like Brownsville and Laredo, in urban centers like Los Angeles and in little towns like Crystal City. Nowhere was the conflict longer and more sustained than on the Lower Rio Grande Border. The Border was a wild and unruly place, or so they say. To put it another way, it was a focus of intercultural conflict, based on the Borderer's resolve de no ser dejado, not to take it lying down. For thousands of young Chicanos today, so intent on maintaining their cultural identity and demanding their rights, the Border corrido hero will strike a responsive chord when he risks life, liberty, and material goods defendiendo su derecho.
I started "collecting" these songs around 1920, when I first became aware of them on the lips of guitarreros and other people of the ranchos and the towns. Few of those singers are alive today. Nacho Montelongo, who taught me the first chords on the guitar, and many of his songs, still farms on the Mexican side of the river. But most of the others are gone. Some were voices stilled in their prime. I shall always remember Miguel Morán, who landed with the first assault wave on Attu in 1943, with his guitar strapped to his pack, and who came home to die, still carrying that guitar; and Matías Serrata, who landed in France in 1944, and who never came back. It is less painful to think of others who did live out their lives—Nicanor Torres, for example, who lived to be a hundred and could still sing corridos at that age. There are many others who will not sing again: Alberto Garza, in his time one of the best-known singers on the Texas side; Jesús Flores, blind singer and decimero; Ismael Chapa, itinerant merchant and singer, also blind; José Suárez, el Cieguito, for half a century the dean of Border guitarreros. Those and many more—young and old, relatives and friends—all part of a tradition that has not died but only changed.
Border singers were of many types and had many singing styles, so it is not easy to generalize about them. Women were important in the transmission of songs, though they were not supposed to sing "men's songs" such as corridos and rarely did so in public. Usually they sang at home, almost always without accompaniment, not only at their household tasks but when the family gathered in the evening, at which time all family members might sing in turn. It was rare for women to sing very loudly; in fact, all singers in these intimate family gatherings usually sang in soft or medium voices, in keeping with the tone of respeto that was expected within the family. The extended family was important in Border social life, in the towns as well as in the rural areas. Large gatherings composed of the families of brothers, sisters, and cousins were frequently held. They usually took place at the house of a parent or uncle of the nuclear families, or failing that at the home of one of the older family heads. Women took active part in these gatherings but were less likely to sing before the whole group, more because they were occupied at other tasks than because of any taboo. Extended family gatherings always involved feeding men and taking care of children on a larger scale than usual, and there was always conversation with female relatives to occupy a woman's time.
Women did sing at weddings, where they often had the role of performing songs of congratulation to the newlyweds, or of sympathy for the parents of bride and groom, who were losing their children to a new life. These wedding songs—often well-known lyric songs given a new function—were known as enlaces. But most of the singing done by the average Border woman was related to her role as mother. Her stock of cradle and nursery songs was not large, if one insists on a formal definition of cradle and nursery songs. In practice, though, her repertory was quite large, for she sang all kinds of songs to her children, from narrative danzas to romantic love songs. Most of us heard our first folksongs from our mothers. My own mother taught me many songs, including several in this collection. They are children's songs like "Los inditos" (no. 7) or ritual songs like "Los aguinaldos" (no. 42), for the most part.
Border society, however, was not so rigid that it did not allow exceptions. There were women who became well known as singers without losing their status as respected housewives, though they were likely to be viewed as somewhat unconventional. Doña Petra Longoria de Flores of Brownsville was one of these exceptions. She loved to sing corridos, something few women of her generation did. But then, she always had a flair for the daring and the unusual. As a young woman in the early years of the century, she decided she was going to ride the train from Brownsville to San Antonio, and she did so all by her unescorted self. Doña Petra retained her youthful outlook until the end of her days. I have a vivid memory of her at the age of eighty-two, bursting into her living room from the kitchen to sing us "Malhaya la cocina" (no. 56), a half-plucked chicken in one hand and a fistful of feathers in the other.
Jovita Cantú of El Tule, Tamaulipas, was even more unconventional. She not only sang all kinds of songs but was an accomplished guitarplayer as well, good enough to compete with male guitarreros at large rural gatherings. Her father had been a musician, and she had traveled with him in central Texas in the years before World War I. There a TexasMexican poet had fallen in love with her and written her passionate verses which she knew by heart and sometimes recited. A romantic and slightly bohemian figure, she was perhaps unique among the women singers of the Border.
Men counted on a wider range of singing situations, varying from the intimate family gathering to the cantina, with the situation affecting the singing style. The amount of instrumental accompaniment and the tendency toward full-voiced singing increased as one moved away from the intimate circle of the family. There were singers who had their own individual styles, which did not vary much in different situations; but some styles of singing were not approved of outside their proper place. Loud, boisterous singing with much instrumental accompaniment was frowned upon in an intimate family situation; and the head of the house was likely to stop the performance with the admonition, "It's beginning to sound like a parranda."
Border singing situations might be divided into two kinds, "organized audience" and "casual audience" situations. In the first, one had a group that came together for amusement or relaxation, with music as part of the program for the evening. In the second, the group was gathered primarily for purposes other than singing, or there might be no "group" at all in the strict sense of the word. What some Anglo-Americans have called a "lonesome" kind of singing was typical of casual audience situations. Such singing was always unaccompanied by instruments, with long pauses between phrases, slow tempo, and free meter. It might be loud or soft, depending on the singer's momentary awareness of space, but it was always performed in that mood of meditative yearning that is well characterized by the word "lonesome."
Women working in the household or men doing chores around the house often sang softly to themselves in the "lonesome" way, with no audience intended but themselves. The same type of singing was common in the fields when small groups worked together hoeing cotton or shucking corn. If women were in the work group, they might also take part in the singing, though they did not predominate as performers in this kind of situation. Singing in the fields was never group singing, done in chorus. It was always individual singing, though there might be brief moments when two or three singers would harmonize. Not everyone in a working group performed. Each group had two or three who were recognized as the most pleasing or the most enthusiastic singers (los más cantadores). The others listened as they worked, pacing themselves with the music and making joking comments and criticisms about the singers.
Men working on horseback also sang in much the same style, though with some important differences, perhaps because women did not take part in their activities. Their performance was usually higher pitched and at a slightly faster tempo. It was also much louder, with a few reflective gritos here and there. While the singer in the fields sang only loud enough to be heard by his fellow workers, the man on horseback seemed to take in the whole landscape as his potential audience. Men walking or riding along lonely roads at night—whether alone or in groups—used the markedly slow-tempo style used in the fields, but they sang the loudest of all. If there were two or more of them, they would harmonize. Like the men working on horseback, they took everyone within the range of their voices as a likely audience. And it was quite an experience to sit outside on a still, dark night and hear their distant, lonely music.
The songs used in "lonesome" singing were chosen not for their subject matter but because they fitted the tempo of the situation. Most commonly sung were old danzas, some décima tunes, love songs, and a few corridos. Corridos like "Benjamin Argumedo" (no. 32) and "Kiansis I" (no. 12) were often sung in the fields. Most common of the "lonesome" tunes, perhaps, was "Una noche serena y oscura," not included in this collection because it is widespread over the Greater Mexican area rather than being in any sense a song related to the Border. Subject matter did play some part in the selection of songs for different casual audience situations. Romantic danzas and canciones like "La tísica" (no. 51) and "Trigueña hermosa" (no. 49) were quite proper for singing among mixed groups in the fields. But the erotic verses of "La pastora" (no. 1) were reserved for singing among men only, on lonely roads where they could be sung at the top of one's voice.
Intimate family performances could be fairly casual in mood, but they took place in a more organized performance situation. Singing was part of the amusements of the evening, alternating with prose narratives, riddles, and games. As has been said, all members of the family—including women and children—might perform in turn. All types of songs would be performed, from corridos to children's ditties. Voices were kept low, but the singing was not necessarily in the "lonesome" style. If there was a guitar in the house, and someone to strum it, some of the songs would be accompanied, usually those sung by the men. Songs were often preceded or followed by explanatory prose narratives. The father usually had the role of oral historian in the family, the mother being more likely to specialize in legends and tales of the supernatural. These family performances were important in the socialization of the Border Mexican child.
Singing was also important at extended-family gatherings and at more formal and more widely attended events such as weddings and fiestas celebrating anniversaries. (Up until the 1890s, it was also the custom to sing ritual songs accompanied by guitars and other instruments at the funerals of young children, but the custom did not survive into the twentieth century.) These performances were more or less extensions of the intimate family performance, except that there was a higher degree of specialization in the participants. The grito was taboo, classifying the event as de familia, in distinction to situations involving men without women, or men with "women of the other kind." Prose narratives were told to explain corridos and other songs, as in the family performances. But not everyone took part in the singing and storytelling. In these large "family" gatherings, the men were the performers, while the women and children participated only as audience.
Nor did all male singers and narrators perform. When it came time to narrate parts of the life of a corrido hero, only the oldest and wisest men had the privilege of doing so. Similarly, the singers in the highest repute dominated the musical performance; many men who sang at home did not participate except as listeners. Instrumental accompaniment was essential to such fiestas, though some singers of repute preferred to sing without accompaniment. In fact, the large gathering de familia included most singing styles found in other Border singing situations: the lone singer without accompaniment, the singer accompanied by others, the lone singer accompanying himself on the guitar, and the harmonizing singers accompanied by two or more instruments in the nature of a conjunto.
Other organized audience situations involved men alone, both as performers and listeners. The cantina performance and the parranda—an extended, often ambulatory version of the cantina situation—are the most typical, and the opposite extreme from the intimate family situation. The singing is loud and punctuated by gritos. Performance may be by a lone singer accompanying himself, but it is often by two singers harmonizing and backed by several instruments. Corridos predominate, but there is rarely any commentary on their background, much less true narration of events.
The parranda involves not only visiting cantinas but roaming about, drinking and singing. In former times, rural parrandas took place on horseback, while in town automobiles were used. A variation or interlude to the parranda was the serenata, a term for "serenade" more common on the Border than the Greater Mexican gallo. Sweethearts, wives, friends, or even the parents of parranda members would be serenaded. The parranda then assumed, for the moment, some of the characteristics of the de familia situation. Ideally, the approach to the house to be serenaded was made in complete silence, the first sounds being those of the instruments preluding the song. There was no extremely loud singing and no gritos, both of which would have been violations of the respeto due the house being serenaded. The departure of the serenaders also was supposed to be as quiet as possible.
If it was a parent or friend who was being honored, the head of the household might come out and thank the serenaders before they left. Serenaded girls had to devise other ways of expressing their appreciation. They did not come out on their balconies and throw roses at the musicians because balconies and rose gardens were extremely rare on the Border. If they could manage it, they would show themselves briefly at the window as a signal that they had heard and enjoyed.
Motorized serenatas in town had special problems. Police departments usually were unsympathetic toward music in the streets during the wee hours, so most serenades had to be performed before midnight. It was difficult to achieve a completely silent approach on board a rattling old Chevy or model A Ford. This problem could be solved by coasting in on a dead engine up to the house to be serenaded. A silent and dignified departure was more difficult to achieve. The car had to be started again before one could leave, scarcely a noiseless job, and there were times when it would not start at all, so that the serenaders would have to exit pushing. Twentieth-century technology did provide one boon to the serenata tradition, the electric light. By the 1930s it had become Border custom for a serenaded girl to switch her bedroom light on and off as a signal of acknowledgment. For quick and efficient communication, it beats balconies and roses.
Folklorists have always been concerned about the type of performer supposed to be typical of any folksong tradition. Do all the "folk" sing—all equally well—in the "dancing, singing throng" style of romantic folklore theory? Or does each group include a mass of passive listeners and "a very small number of active bearers of tradition"—the performers and transmitters, as Von Sydow said of the folktale? In the Border folksong tradition, neither of these two extremes is found. Songs are performed by a variety of singers in a variety of performance situations, any one of which is as valid and as "folkloric" as the others, and equally acceptable to the group itself. It is true that a higher degree of technical specialization is required of the performer as one moves away from the intimate family situation, especially as regards instrumental accompaniment, but this is not consistently true.
One may easily identify extremes: a man singing within the circle of his family, accompanying himself with a few tentative guitar chords, versus the multi-instrument conjunto in a cantina, accompanying a singer with some local reputation as a good voice. But a singer who normally performs unaccompanied may be welcomed in a cantina singing situation. Jesús Gómez, whom I knew when he was an old man, never learned to play an instrument, though he was well known as a singer during his lifetime. He used to tell that in his youth he would often be invited to sing in cantinas. He would be accompanied by any guitarists present, though he sang best alone. Such examples involve performance techniques, which are not always important to folklorists in determining who is or is not a "true folksinger." A generally accepted yardstick is the singer's memory and repertory. Border performers and audience agreed on this point; they valued the singer who had the largest repertory and who sang the longest variants of the songs they knew. The more specialized the singer, the more likely it was that his repertory would be ample and that his songs would be good and long. But, again, one cannot make this a hard-and-fast rule. Blind singers like José Suárez and Jesús Flores were truly specialists. They had a tremendous repertory of satisfyingly long songs. All doors were open to them; their singing was as welcome in the cantina as at a small family gathering. On the other hand, men like Nacho Montelongo and Fidencio Barrientos were primarily farmers, and folksingers in their spare time. They performed in extended family situations rather than in cantinas. But their repertory rivaled that of Suárez and Flores, though they were not considered as technically accomplished on the guitar as the blind singers.
So it is clear that there were many kinds of performers and transmitters of Border folksong, and that to be considered something of a specialist among his peers the Border singer had to be proficient at the guitar. The highest degree of specialization could be expected in the cantina, but cantina singing situations were not the richest in terms of total folklore performance. It was the intimate and extended family situations that were truly complete folklore performances, with folksinging a part of a complex of events including oral history, legends, riddles, games, and material folklore. A distinction may also be made as to the modes of transmission of Border songs. New songs, especially those coming from the outside, were most often introduced to Border audiences in cantina situations. The folksinging specialist was also a songmaker, as well as a traveler and man of the world. But the main body of the folksong tradition was transmitted in family performance situations, along with other forms of folklore.
A word about the music for the songs that follow. Only the melody line is given, and it is a "typical" melody rather than an authoritative one, a guide as to how one may sing the song. But just one word of advice: keep it simple. The most specialized of our Border singers were far from being sophisticated musicians. The chords shown above the melody line are the simplest and most necessary ones for accompaniment. The fewer musical butterflies, the more genuine and honest the performance will be.
Chords are shown for the six-string guitar, the guitarra sexta. This is the most common type of instrument on the Border today, but such was not the case in former times. The typical singer fifty years ago used the bajo sexto rather than the guitarra sexta. The bajo sexto (or bajo) is a bass guitar, as its name indicates—not quite as large as the guitarrón used in the mariachi but bigger than the six-string guitar. As its name does not indicate, the bajo sexto has twelve strings instead of six; but it is a different instrument from the usual twelve-string guitar popular among folksingers in the United States, and tuned differently. The bajo allows for fewer fancy runs and trills and other such firuletes that one can produce on the guitarra sexta. Bajos have been used almost exclusively as rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment to the voice of the singer, especially in the straightforward pattern of the corrido. When more "music" has been necessary—at dances, for example—the bajo was combined with the fiddle, the guitarra sexta, or the accordion. But most of the songs in this volume are meant to be sung to the basic chord accompaniment of the guitar.