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Songs That Make the Road Dance

Songs That Make the Road Dance
Courtship and Fertility Music of the Tz'utujil Maya

This major collection of courting and fertility songs documents a nearly lost element of highland Maya ritual life, revealing significant remnants of the ancient Maya belief system in songs that date back to the early colonial era.

Series: Recovering Languages and Literacies of the Americas

August 2015
272 pages | 7 x 10 | 21 b&w illustrations, 20 b&w photos |

An important and previously unexplored body of esoteric ritual songs of the Tz’utujil Maya of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, the “Songs of the Old Ones” are a central vehicle for the transmission of cultural norms of behavior and beliefs within this group of highland Maya. Ethnomusicologist Linda O’Brien-Rothe began collecting these songs in 1966, and she has amassed the largest, and perhaps the only significant, collection that documents this nearly lost element of highland Maya ritual life.

This book presents a representative selection of the more than ninety songs in O’Brien-Rothe’s collection, including musical transcriptions and over two thousand lines presented in Tz’utujil and English translation. (Audio files of the songs can be downloaded from the UT Press website.) Using the words of the “songmen” who perform them, O’Brien-Rothe explores how the songs are intended to move the “Old Ones”—the ancestors or Nawals—to favor the people and cause the earth to labor and bring forth corn. She discusses how the songs give new insights into the complex meaning of dance in Maya cosmology, as well as how they employ poetic devices and designs that place them within the tradition of K’iche’an literature, of which they are an oral form. O’Brien-Rothe identifies continuities between the songs and the K’iche’an origin myth, the Popol Vuh, while also tracing their composition to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by their similarities with the early chaconas that were played on the Spanish guitarra española, which survives in Santiago Atitlán as a five-string guitar.



Allen Christenson

Sandra Orellana



A Personal Note

Research in Santiago Atitlán

Chapter 1. The World of the Tz’utujil Maya

The World of Spirits:

Prayer of Nicolás Chiviliu Takaxoy

"Song of the Spirit-Lord of the World"

Duality and Metaphor in the Santo Mundo

The Presence of the Nawals

Chapter 2: The Dance and Songs of the Nawals

Old Mam Creates the "Recibos":

"Song of Francisco Sojuel"

Dance, Movement and Songs: the Divine Currency of Sacrifice

Dancing the Bundle of San Martin:

Midwife's prayer and "Song of San Martín"

Rocking the Cradle of the Marias:

"Song of the Rocking Cradle"

Dancing the Wind-men and the Rain-men

Rousing San Martín and the Spirit-Lords of Rain with Song:

"Song of Martín"

Calling the Spirits of the Dead and the Drowned with Song:

"Song of the Drowned"

Chapter 3: The "Songs of the Road": Texts and Contexts

The Road in the Tz’utujil Maya World

Old Mam, the Guardian of the Road, Creates Music and Dance:

"Songs of Mam"

The Third "Song of the Road", Songs of Fertility:

"Songs of the Young Man"

"Songs of the Young Girl"

"Atpal": a Narrative Song of Courting

"Songs of the Young Men and Young Girls, of Insults and Ridicule"

"Songs of the Old Maid"

Witchcraft and Shape-shifters in the Songs:

"Song of the Young Girl"

Sad Songs or "Tristes":

"They Fought"

"Sad Song of Our Fathers, Our Mothers"

Songs of the Flowers and the Fruit

"Songs of the Fruit"

Chapter 4: The Poetics of Tz'utujil Songs and their Relationship to K'iche'an Literature

The Poetics of the Popol Vuh

The Poetics of Tz’utujil Song Texts

Composition of the Texts and the Influence of Musical Rhythm

Chapter 5: The Music of the "Songs of the Nawals"

Musical Form and Style of the Songs

The "Recibos of Old Mam", the Vessels of Tz'utujil Culture: The "Song of Mam"

"Sad Song of the Young Man"

"Song of the Girl Who Says Goodbye to Her Mother"

"Song of the Old Maid" or "Song of the Road"

"Song of the Fruit"

The Tz’utujil guitar:

Historical Origins of the Tz’utujil Guitar


Playing style and technique


How the Songs Survived: the Process of Assimilation and Transmission

Final Words

Contents of the Compact Discs

Works Cited



Linda O’Brien-Rothe is an independent scholar who holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA. She documented the “Songs of the Old Ones” from 1966 to 1975, and she has devoted the years since then to study and analysis of her large collection of music and of the belief systems and related survivals of music and oral literature of the highland Maya.


"[A] new classic in the field of Mayan music studies."
Latin American Music Review

"[O'Brien-Rothe's research practices] allowed for a collaborative research approach that was not merely a mechanism to compensate for her language skills but a way to understand the broader uses and meanings of ritual language in songs."
Latin American Research Review

“This book is just as important, I believe, as early Colonial indigenous Titles and Testaments for the study of highland Maya theology and worldview. The interpretive material in the book is sound and well grounded in relevant current scholarship, but O’Brien wisely lets the Tz’utujils speak for themselves for the most part.”
Allen J. Christenson, Professor of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature, Brigham Young University; author of Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community; and translator and editor of Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya