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Corridos of the Texas Border Collected by John and Ruby Lomax

A map of the United States of Mexico, 1826.

A map of the United States of Mexico in 1826, showing that the state of Texas had a different shape than Texas does today. Map by Henry Schenck Tanner. Geography and Map Division. Use this link to see a larger image and bibliographic information.

On September 15 and 16, 2015, AFC will be featuring a lecture and workshop with Juan Díes, and a and concert with Sones de México Ensemble, presenting the corrido, a type of narrative song native to the Texas-Mexico border region. In honor of these events, I thought I would introduce our readers to some of the corridos we have in one of our online collections, Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax Southern States Recording Trip, 1939.  Find out more about the lecture and workshop at this link, and read about the concert at this link.
The concert, Sones de México Ensemble: Mexican American Music & Dance from Chicago, is now available as a webcast, as well as the lecture by Juan Díes, “Corridos: The Story of a Mexican Ballad Tradition about Outlaws and Heroes.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, John and Ruby Lomax, occasionally accompanied by John’s son Alan, recorded Spanish-language songs in Texas. The results of their field trip from 1939, including corridos, are available on the Library’s website. Like many who document culture outside their own ethnic group, the Lomaxes were not  fluent in the language, which resulted in some inaccuracies in their titles and descriptions for the songs.  However, they certainly knew what they were looking for; John Lomax was always looking for old traditional folksongs, regardless of the language they were sung in.  He also knew that the southern horn of Texas was a good place for the hunt for old ballads of Texas and its history, including as a Mexican state, an independent Republic, and a U.S. state.  South of the Neches River to the Rio Grande is an area that was felt to belong to Mexico by the majority Spanish-speaking population, long after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was supposed to have settled the matter in 1848.  The original Mexican state of Texas had the Neches River as its southern border, with the Rio Grande becoming its border only with the battle that led to the creation of the Republic of Texas in 1836.  The people of the region continued to think of themselves as Mexican into the early twentieth century, as the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) spilled its violence across the southern border of the United States.1

Corridos are thought to have developed into their unique form during the mid- to-late nineteenth century and blossomed into their heyday in answer to the needs of a war-torn Mexico.  The corrido continues to change today, with some of the old songs now performed at top speed in conjunto style. So the songs the Lomaxes recorded in 1939 may sound slow to those who know more recent corridos, but this is the way they were sung at the time.

The oldest corrido of the United States arose in the late 1860s or early 1870s, “El corrido de Kiansis” or “El corrido de Kansas” was a song of the Chisholm Trail and so can be dated to the long cattle drives from Texas to the railroad stockyard in Abeline, Kansas that began in 1867 and ended as the railroads made their way into Texas in the late 1970s.  The song has two major forms. The one thought to be older is sung more slowly, and tells of the adventures of the trail. The faster version includes the report of the death of one of the vaqueros (cowboys) as reported to his mother at the end.  Stories with tragic endings became the most typical form of these songs, so perhaps these lines were added as the style coalesced.  Frank Goodwyn, who was not of Mexican descent, grew up bilingual on a ranch in Falfurrias where his father was foreman and most of the workers spoke Spanish. He learned corridos from the vaqueros as a child and the Lomaxes recorded him when he was in his 20s.  He sings “El corrido de Kiansis” slowly, in the old style with the first verse typical of the older version, but does include the verses at the end about the death of one of the men.  He sings another song on the same topic, “The Old Chisholm Trail” as the English-speaking cowboys would sing it, demonstrating that he knew not only the language but the style of singing for both Mexican corridos and English-language cowboy songs.

Some corridos tell of the history of Brownsville, Texas, and the Lomaxes recorded several of them from a blind singer named José Suarez, also known as Jose el Ciego.  “Corrido de las elecciones de Brownsville,” (ballad of the elections of Brownsville) describes a period of unrest in about 1900, caused when two prisoners on parole were harassed by the police, a matter that spun out of control until the Texas Rangers were called in, according to the speaker at the end of the recording. The song the Lomaxes called “Corrido del soldado” describes a 1906 incident where the murderer of a bartender was described as one of the African American troops of the 25th regiment. The troops were in their barracks at the time, but a conspiracy trial with the intent of finding the shooter resulted in the dishonorable discharge of 167 men. A re-investigation in 1970 exonerated the discharged men. The corrido tells the town’s version of the story, blaming the shooting on the troops. Finally, “La batalla del ojo de agua,” titled “Bandit Trouble on the Rio Grande Border 1915” by the collectors, tells of a battle that took place on the U.S. side of the border, when Brownsville and its sister city on the Mexican side of the border, Matamoros, were involved in important events of the Mexican Revolution. The ballad tells of the revolutionary and poet Aniceto Pizaña, who was among those who felt that the new Mexico that would emerge from the war should include the parts of Mexico that were lost to the United States in the Mexican American war. Mexican Americans had no reason for loyalty to a country that denied them the rights of citizenship, and so it is understandable that many dreamed of a reunited Mexico. But the revolutionaries did not have an army sufficient to do more than raid the people they considered enemies on the other side of the border for supplies, leading to retaliation by the United States. The battles fought by Pizaña led to his capture by the U.S. in 1916. He was later released and lived the rest of his life on the other side of the border. The title of the song given by the collectors is telling, as these battles were called the “bandit wars” by English-speaking people on the U.S. side of the border. A failure to understand the difference between revolutionaries and the actions of simple robbers is an indication of how deeply the ethnic groups misunderstood each other. 2

Pizaña is not usually described as a bandit in Mexican or Mexican American accounts, but Leandro Rivera may have been one. The Revolution was a period when bandits could become heroes. Unfortunately not much is known of Rivera and his corrido exists only in fragments. These verses of “Corrido de Liandro Rivera,” were collected by the Lomaxes from Atanviro Hernandez.

Corrido villésta de la toma de Matamoros,” sung by José Suarez, tells of a dark moment in the revolution when sympathizers of the ruling dictator, Porfirio Díaz, were trapped in Matamoros and many were slaughtered. Townspeople trying to escape the violence headed for the other side of the river, so this battle is part of the history of Brownsville as well.

Although corridos related to the revolution are sometimes seen as the art form at its finest, these ballads deal with many other subjects as well. Both English and Spanish speaking Americans can celebrate outlaws as heroes. The theme of outlaws giving goods stolen from the rich (or banks, or railroads) to the poor is a very old one. “El Corrido de José Mosqueda“  sung by José Suarez, tells of a train robber as famous as Jesse James for Mexicans and Mexican Americans. On January 1, 1891, he and his gang robbed a U.S. train on the border and then, as they fled the authorities, it is thought that they divided up money and silver among the gang members and and buried it in parcels.  Various legends have grown up on both sides of the border of the heroic deeds of Mosqueda, including the possibility that the robbers gave money away to the poor, or that the stolen silver can still be found in the brush along the railroad.3 (This recording is incorrectly titled with the name of another corrido. This item record has been corrected.)

“El torro moro,” is a comical story about a purple bull that requires three recordings as it is recounted by Joe Goodwyn, since there are so many verses. He sings the first half of the song on “El Toro Moro,” part 1, and the second half on “El Toro Moro,” part 2. On the recording made first by the collectors, “El Toro Moro” Goodwyn gives an account of the story behind the song in English, and then begins to sing. But he manages only a few verses before the collectors realize that they needed to try again to capture the whole song on multiple recordings. The bull gets loose and causes all kinds of problems for the vaqueros as they try to recapture him. It has a tragic ending for the bull, as he is recaptured and sent off to be slaughtered, much to the relief of the vaqueros. The song may be seen as a comic send-up of the tragic corrido.

Corridos are thought to have their origins in Spanish narrative songs of the 1600s, brought by the first settlers. What happened to these songs between the settlement of Spanish colonies in the Americas and the Mexican Revolution when the modern corrido emerged is debated. Some examples of sung religious dramas may be found in the former Spanish colony in what is now southern Colorado and northern New Mexico collected by Juan B. Rael. These were originally sung in parts and do not much resemble corridos. Corridos have been brought back to life again at various times, notably as part of the Chciano/Chicana Civil Rights Movement. A long struggle brought issues of Hispanic American civil rights before the Supreme Court in 1954. Hernandez v. Texas formally decided that the Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal voting should be granted, over one hundred years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This led to more fervent efforts to achieve equal education and equal pay in the 1960s and 1970s and corridos were composed and sung as part of that struggle. Corridos are alive and well as an art form in the U.S. today. No doubt the corrido will enjoy more revitalizing periods as singers find need of them to tell stories important to the people.

Notes

1. For more on the history and character of corridos, see The Concise Encyclopedia of Mexico, By Michael Werner, Routledge, 2001, pp. 138-142. And “The Mexican Corrido: Its Rise and Fall,” by Américo Paredes (1958) in Folklore and Culture of the Texas-Mexican Border, articles by Américo Paredes edited by Richared Bauman. University of Texas at Austin, 1993, pp. 129-141.  See also Paredes’s books With His Pistol in His Hand (1958) and A Texas-Mexican Cancionero (1976), both from the University of Texas Press.

2. The Lomaxes also collected corridos related to Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who, like Aniceto Pizaña, wished his raids on the U.S. to lead to a larger war and a re-united Mexico. However these songs are only available in the Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress at this time.

3. See Americo Paredes’s article for a careful account of the versions of the corrido and the legends on both sides of the border,  “José Mosqueda and the Folklorization of Actual Events” (1973), in Folklore and Culture of the Texas-Mexican Border, articles by Américo Paredes edited by Richared Bauman. University of Texas at Austin, 1993, pp. 177-214.

Resources

The following collections are available online:

California Gold: California Folk Music of the Thirties. This collection, recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell, includes Spanish American, Puerto Rican, and Mexican American songs and music recorded in California. The Mexican American songs and music were documented at a wedding.

Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande: The Juan B. Rael Collection. This collection primarily includes songs of the passion plays and religious folk dramas of the Spanish American descendents of colonists of southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax Southern States Recording Trip, 1939.

For additional collections with Mexican songs, including further collections by John and Ruby Lomax in the 1939s and 1949s, see this finding aid:

Mexico Recordings in the Archive of Folk Culture,” compiled by Mary Alfaro, Marjorie K. Crouch, Joseph C. Hickerson, and Therese Langer. Revised January 2013. Finding Aids to Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture. Series Editor: Ann Hoog.

The following concerts of Mexican American music and songs are available online as MP4 videos:

Agustín Lira and Alma / Quetzal Cantos de mi Cantón (Songs from My Home), Chicano Music from California. September 14, 2011.

Son Jarocho Master Musicians: César Castro, Artemio Posadas, and Luis Sarimientos, September 11, 2014.

Los Texmaniacs: Traditional Conjunto Dance Music from Texas, September 11, 2013.

Learn more at:

National Hispanic Heritage Month includes 2015 events sponsored by U.S. government agencies, collections online, and webcasts.

Hall, Stephanie, “A Sampler of Luso-Hispanic American Music and Song” in Folklife Today, September 24, 2014.

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