The collections of the American Folklife Center reflect a long history of ethnographic interest in Luso-Hispanic American music and song. Much of the early collecting work focused on peoples of the regions that formerly belonged to Spain. In this post I’ll provide a quick overview of the Hispanic-American music in AFC’s online collections.
Spanish Songs in New Mexico and Colorado
Some of the earliest traditional Spanish language songs in AFC collections were documented in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado by folklorist Juan B. Rael (in the Juan B. Rael Collection). A native of the region, he was aware of its unique traditions of sacred and secular music and song. Established in about 1600, this settlement was somewhat isolated from Mexico in colonial times and then was cut off from communication with Spain after Mexico became independent. The community was even left without clergy, as the priests returned to Spain. The settlers preserved old music, developed their own rich heritage of songs, and organized their own religious celebrations. Rael documented dance music, secular songs, alabados (hymns), songs for life passages such as weddings, and songs from religious plays. This example, “Perdió Jacobo a José,” sung by Richardo Archuleta, is a song from the Spanish folk play El Niño Perdido (The Lost Child), brought to New Mexico in the early 1600s by Spanish priests. It is sung in the role of Joseph, expressing his fear when his child, Jesus, goes missing. Rael collected alabados from the Passion plays of the Penitente brotherhood, such as “Dividido el Corazón” (Her Heart Asunder) which tells of the grief of Mary during the Passion. Two versions of this song are available with slightly different lyrics, one sung by Luis Montoya and one sung by Ricardo Archuleta.
Mexican American Songs in Texas
Folklorist John Lomax made his home in Texas and consequently he and members of his family were involved in collecting the music of Texas, including a great deal of Hispanic music. Along with his nineteen-year-old son, Alan, John Lomax recorded Mexican girls singing a game song in 1934, “Hijo, Hijo, Mira Esta Muher.” During the project now called the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip, the Lomaxes documented many Mexican American singers, mainly in Texas. A blind singer, Jose Suarez, provided several corridos (ballads), including “Corrido de José Mosquero,” concerning an outlaw who led a holdup of a US train on the Mexican border, and subsequently gave away most of the money as he fled, becoming a sort of Robin Hood figure still talked of today.  John Lomax also documented Huapango music, a style of mariachi dance music that uses native Nahual rhythms, found in this song, “La Potranquita” (The Filly), sung by Francisco Leal and Agapito Salinas.
Cuban and Minorcan Songs in Florida
During the Great Depression, folklorists in Florida gathered to collect folklore for the Works Progress Aadministration (WPA). Edith Kennedy, the wife of one of the folklorists, Stetson Kennedy, was of Cuban and Bahamian-American parentage, and helped the folklorists by introducing them to members of the Cuban community in Ybor City (now part of Tampa). Ramon Bermudez indulged folklorist Herbert Halpert with a demonstration of five different Cuban dance rhythms, providing good examples of the influence of African American rhythms on Cuban music. The full band including Bermudez also performed the Congo song, “Merce” sung by Adela Martinez, that tells of a young beautiful Afro-Cuban girl who loved to dance.
In addition to Cuban songs, Alton Morrris, another folklorist working on the project, recorded a few Minorcan songs in St. Augustine, including an old Catalan language Easter eve song, traditionally sung by carolers begging for cheese pastries, “Fromajadas.” It was brought to St. Augustine by Minorcan settlers in 1768, and was undoubtedly an old song even then.
Puerto Rican, Spanish, Mexican, and Portuguese Songs in California
Also during the depression, Sidney Roberson Cowell documented Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Portuguese performers as part of the WPA California Folk Music Project. Aurora Calderon, Elinor Rodriguez, and Cruz Losada, Puerto Rican migrants to California, sang songs from their heritage. Here Cruz Losada sings a dance song, “La Pajaro Pinta” (The gay bird), which is also used as a children’s song. The patriotic song, “La Tierruca,” is performed by Aurora Calderon. Elinor Rodriguez sings a sad song about the depression in Puerto Rico that was one of the reasons for people leaving for the US mainland, “Bolero Sentimental.”
Among the Californians who identified themselves as Spanish American, Cowell found Maria Garcia, who remembered songs from Andalusia. Among these is a song Garcia called “Tango Gitano” (Gypsy Tango). She uses her feet to mark the rhythm, demonstrating a Flamenco tango beat, rather than the familiar tango of South America.
Among Cowell’s recordings of Mexican American music is a well-known folksong sung by Pablo Ruthling, “El Soldado,” (The Soldier), in which a soldier tells his sweetheart, “Don’t worry, I will be back tomorrow.” He dies in battle, but his ghost keeps the appointment.
As Cowell collected songs from Portuguese immigrants in California, she received help from one of the singers she met, Alice Lemos Avila, who introduced her to others who knew folksongs and also assisted with transcriptions and translations of many of the songs. Here Avila sings a popular song “Fado dos Passarinhos” (Fado of the little birds). Fado is a style of sentimental song thought to have arisen in Portugal in the early nineteenth century, although it may have roots in much earlier styles. Popular in the port cities, fado soon spread to the rest of the Portuguese-speaking world. Here is Avila’s translation of the song:
Little bird of the river
If you are not my enemy
Lend me your wings
Let me go flying with you
Across the sky, cutting through space
Goes a band of swallows
Which take you an embrace
And many kind regards from me.
Cowell recorded Portuguese performers from the Azores, including Manuel Lemos and Alberto Mendes, performing dance songs such as “Charamba,” which they said was always opened dances on the island of island of Terceira; and a sad song of homesickness, “Saudade.”
The large collection of Luso-Hispanic American music and song in the American Folklife Center’s collections continues to grow. Performances of Hispanic American music at the Library of Congress not only contribute to the collections, but also reach large audiences online, as it has recently become possible to make concerts available as webcasts. Following is a selection of those currently available:
Agustín Lira and Alma & Quetzal: Cantos de mi Cantón (Songs from My Home) Chicano Music from California (2011). This concert includes songs from the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.
Artemio Posadas: Mexican Music and Dance from California, (2016) [added 2017]
Amuma Says No: Traditional and Contemporary Basque Music from Idaho (2010)
Flory Jagoda and Friends (2007). This group performs songs from the Sephardi diaspora, that is, the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, including songs in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).
Gabriel Muñoz and Melodias Borinqueñas: Puerto Rican Folk Music from New Jersey, (2016) [added 2017]
Marimba Linda Xelajú: Guatemalan Marimba Music from Maryland (2010. This video requires a free Realmedia player).
Mariano Gonzalez y sus Invitados Especiales (Mariano Gonzalez and his Special Guests): Paraguayan Folk Harp Ensemble from Nevada (2012).
Sing Along with Pete Seeger (2007). “Los Colores” is sung by volunteers from the audience with Seeger at about 16 minutes into the video. This Spanish folksong of unknown age was brought to North America by settlers in the eighteenth century. It has been a popular song in the labor movement as well as the folksong revival. Today it is often used symbolically as a celebration of diversity. This is a video excerpt from the symposium “How Can I Keep From Singing?”: A Seeger Family Tribute.
Son Jarocho Master Musicians: César Castro, Artemio Posadas & Luis Sarimientos, Homegrown Concert, 2014. This concert is accompanied by an essay: “Fandango: Convivial Sharing,” by Stephen Winick, 2014. Folklife Today.
Sones de México Ensemble: Mexican American Music & Dance from Chicago, Homegrown Concert, 2015.
Los Texmaniacs: Traditional Conjunto Dance Music from Texas (2013). Conjunto music, or conjunto tejano, is a musical style that originated in southern Texas, as German-made button accordions became available to Mexican American musicians at the end of the nineteenth century.
Torcuato Zamora (2014). Zamora is a Spanish-born flamenco guitarist of international fame. He came to the United States in the 1960s. In this video he performs with two members of the dance troupe Furia Flamenca: Sylvia Melecio and Karina Valverde.
In the “Resources” section below you will find links to assist you in further explorations of Hispanic music and song.
[This article was updated on October 12, 2017, to reflect changes in the California Gold online collection.]
1. To learn more about this ballad see Américo Paredes, “‘El Corrido de José Mosqueda’ as an Example of Pattern in the Ballad” in Western Folklore, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 1958, pp. 154-162.
California Gold: Northern California in the Thirties. This collection includes music, songs, and documentation of musical instruments collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. The ethic music includes Mexican American, Portuguese American, Puerto Rican, and Spanish American. The tangos and fados may have originated in South America.
Díes, Juan, “Corridos: The Story of a Mexican Ballad Tradition about Outlaws and Heroes” , Ethnomusicologist Juan Díes presents an illustrated lecture on the Corrido, a 150-year-old Mexican ballad tradition that narrates tragic tales based on true events and honors folk heroes. Webcast, 2015.
A Concert of Ladino Music, Flory Jagoda in performance with Tiffani Ferrantelli and Zhenya Tochenaya (requires the free Realmedia software). Music of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century. Presented by the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.
Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942. This collection includes Cuban and Minorcan music and song.
Literatura de Cordel: Continuity and Change in Brazilian Popular Literature was a symposium held in 2011 on traditional Brazilian booklets usually containing verses intended to be sung or recited. The “symposium program” page includes links to the webcasts of the sessions.
Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. This collection includes Mexican American music and song.