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Picante Pero Sabroso: Songs of La Llorona

Close up of a woman in Mexican Catrina makeup

Mamselle Ruiz sang “La Llorona” in the Homegrown 2021 Concert Series. This is a frame of her official video for a different song, “Sombras,” which has a lot of strong Día de Muertos imagery.

This is the third blog post in a series about La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunts Mexican and other Latinx cultures. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021. [Find the whole series at this link!] In this post I’ll talk about songs associated with the La Llorona legend. I got a lot of help on this post from folklorist and musician Juan Díes, leader of the Sones de México Ensemble. Juan shared his ideas about La Llorona songs, as well as transcribing and translating some of their texts. But the main text of the blog is mine, and I’m responsible for any errors or deficiencies!

The Oaxacan “La Llorona”

Henrietta Yurchenco is just one of many folklore collectors to record the son istmeño “La Llorona” from oral tradition. Photo by Basil Yurchenco, from AFC files.

The best known “La Llorona” song is a son istmeño from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca. The earliest versions I have found in printed sources are from a Tehuantepec student publication from 1935 and a Mexican journal of popular culture from 1936. Some attribute the lyrics to musician and poet Andres Henestrosa, which is plausible since he was the right age to have written it in the 1920s or 1930s, and since he comes from the same area of Mexico. Still, most folklorists consider it a traditional song with no known author.

Most folk music collectors who have visited Oaxaca have found versions of the song, including Concha Michel, a singer-songwriter, political activist, playwright, and scholar of Indigenous folklore, who contributed her version to Frances Toor’s 1947 book A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. Henrietta Yurchenco collected it in the 1960s from Oaxacan singer Pablo Castañejo. His version, which has some verses in Zapotec, can be heard at this link, and Yurchenco’s notes and transcriptions can be downloaded as a pdf. (Note that Yurchenco clarifies that “shunca” is a Zapotec word for “girl.” Although she was technically correct, according to the Vocabulario del idioma Zapoteca istmeño another meaning is “beloved,” and that meaning makes more sense in the song.)

Interestingly, although the song makes no direct reference to the Llorona legend, Yurchenco fills in these details for us:

And who is Llorona? She ls the Weeping Woman, the legendary ghostly figure who haunts the lonely places of Mexico. According to the story, a rich young man sets up a “casita” (the house of a man’s mistress) for a simple poor girl with whom he shares his life. She has three children by  him. At the appropriate time his family marries him to a rich society girl and the affair comes to an end. Maddened with grief, she stabs her children to death. Horrified, sheruns wildly through the streets of the city. To this day, people claim to see or hear her as she wails for her children, and takes revenge on men.

My friend Juan Díes, director of the Sones de México Ensemble, explained more about the song:

As is the case with many folk songs in Mexico, the lyrics are not set. Different singers choose from a large repertoire of traditional lyrics. Occasionally, an artist may pen a new stanza, but this is the exception rather than the norm. Each stanza stands alone, it is not part of an epic narrative. In terms of instruments, I have heard Oaxacan versions of “La Llorona” performed by brass bands, marimba ensembles, and guitars with solo, duo and even trio singers, all of these part of the broad Oaxacan arsenal of instrumentation.

Six people stand on a stage with musical instruments

Sones de México Ensemble with Juan Díes (far left) in the Coolidge Auditorium. Photo by Stephen Winick. Find their Homegrown concert at this link.

Sones de México Ensemble recorded their version, with Juan singing, on their 2007 release Esta Tierra Es TuyaHear their version at this link. The lyrics and translation are below:

No sé que tienen las flores, Llorona,
las flores del campo santo;
que cuando las mueve el viento, Llorona,
parece que están llorando.

¡Ay de mí! Llorona, Llorona
Llorona de ayer y hoy.
Ayer maravilla fuí, Llorona
y ahora ni sombra soy.

Dicen que no tengo duelo, Llorona
porque no me ven llorar.
Hay muertos que no hacen ruido, Llorona
y es más grande su penar.

¡Ay de mí! Llorona, Llorona
Llorona, llévame al rio.
Tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona
porque me muero de frio.

Translation:

Oh! Weeping Woman, I don’t know
What it is with the flowers in the cemetery.
When the wind sways them,
They look as if they were crying.

Poor me! Oh, Weeping Woman
Oh, Weeping Woman of today and yesterday!
I used to be a wonder
But today, I am not even a shadow.

They say that I do not mourn
Because they never see me cry.
There are dead ones who never make a noise
And yet, their sorrow is much greater than mine.

Poor me! Oh, Weeping Woman
Oh, Weeping Woman take me to the river!
Cover me with your blanket
I am dying of cold.

Joan Baez sings into a microphone and plays the guitar.

Joan Baez recorded an iconic version of “La Llorona.” Although best known for interpretations of English-language songs, Baez is Mexican American and also interprets Spanish-language songs. The photo shows Baez at the Nice Jazz Festival, 2008. It was shot by Guillaume Laurent and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

In addition to being collected by folklorists, the Oaxacan “La Llorona” song has been very widely recorded in the commercial music world, since the early days of the recording industry. At YouTube, you can see licensed videos by vocalist Lola Beltrán (with guitar); ranchera singers José Alfredo Jiménez (with guitar), Luis Aguilar (with orchestra), and Jorge Fernández (with marimba); eclectic roots artists Lila Downs and Flor de Toloache; and even folk icon Joan Baez (whose father was born in Mexico). You can see it interpreted in son jarocho style by Conjunto Jarocho Catemaco de Juan Alvarado; in mariachi style by Mariachi México Son; or even as a Gothic metal anthem by Légende. Our old friend and Archive Challenge artist Fabrizio Cammarata has recorded an atmospheric version, and 2021 Homegrown Concert artist Mamselle Ruiz performed it as part of her concert.

If you watch movies or TV, you might even have heard it without going in search of it;  Chavela Vargas sang it in Frida (2002); Alanna Ubach and Antonio Sol sang it in Coco (2017); and Angela Aguilar, Aida Cuevas, and Natalia Lafourcade, three nominees who have all recorded their own versions, sang it at the 61st GRAMMY Awards ceremony in 2019.

As Juan Díes pointed out to me:

The lyrics of  (the Oaxacan) ‘La Llorona’ normally don’t narrate the story of the legendary character, but they do keep with the theme of death, the afterlife, and heartbreak.

Domino Renee Perez expands on this, pointing out that the ubiquity of the La Llorona story in Mexican culture practically guarantees that singers of the song are engaging in dialogue with the legend:

Because the singer, usually male, positions himself in the role of the lover in the song, singing about his separation from a particular woman, these performers are casting themselves within the folklore. While they may not directly reference the legend, they are personalizing the experience and drawing upon central features of the legend: separation, loss of love, tragedy.

More than these general features, the song often includes images of graveyards, shawls (rebozos), rivers, and the unquiet dead, which we might consider more specific features of the legend.

Waist-up portrait of a woman in a lace shawl with a hand-fan

Mamselle Ruiz sang “La Llorona” in the Homegrown 2021 Concert Series. Photo courtesy of Mamselle Ruiz.

Many singers who perform “La Llorona,” having grown up with stories of La Llorona, never question that the song is about the famous ghost story. Mamselle Ruiz, whose trilingual version in French, Spanish, and Zapotec can be heard at this link, takes the song to be about the version of the La Llorona legend in which she is the ghost of La Malinche, Cortés’s Indigenous translator who became the mother of his children.

Juan Díes was also a believer: when he first sang the song, he simply assumed it was about the legend. Now, he’s not so sure. He pointed out to me that the song often makes no direct reference to La Llorona’s tragic life story, so it’s plausible that the song is not about the supernatural legend at all.

There is, in fact, another theory about the song’s central themes, an entirely different backstory. It concerns a real life soldier in the Mexican Revolution who wrote a letter home to his pregnant wife as he was dying. The song, some say, was inspired by the text of the letter. The NSS Oaxaca blog has posted a detailed version of this story. It’s plausible enough, but certain things do raise the suspicions of a legend scholar. For example. despite claiming that many people knew the couple and their sad story, the blog is unable to give their names or any details about who they were, just “a youth of Tehuantepec” and a beautiful woman from Juchitan. Also, no documentary evidence is given; no authority is quoted, no book or article is cited. The author doesn’t even claim to have spoken to anyone who knew the couple or to have read any contemporary accounts, instead just asserting that they were well known to the local community. If that is true, though, it should be possible to find some evidence: newspaper stories, diaries, or contemporary writings; records of the wedding, the army service, or the death; or even the original letter. Without making any attempt to present any evidence this nature, NSS Oaxaca may be narrating another legend behind the song.

In its favor, this second legend of La Llorona connects the song more directly to its local community of Tehuantepec rather than the national and even international provenance of the wider Llorona legend. It’s therefore an attractive story for the local community or for people interested in the connections of folklore to places and localized communities. It also does not fully negate Domino Renee Perez’s point: even if the song is primarily about this true story (or second legend),  the word “Llorona” and images of the river, the rebozo, and the graveyard, suggest that any individual singer might interpret the song in relation to the supernatural Llorona, as might any individual hearer on encountering these words and images. In other words, the song doesn’t have to be “about” just one of these stories, but can very easily evoke both at once.

Finally, on a subjective level, the soldier’s story has a beautiful and appropriate ending, evoking Día de Muertos as vivdly as any supernatural tale could hope to do:

Their baby was born a week after the news arrived, and every October 30 they dined together. A wife and a son in the land of the living and a husband from the realm of the dead, until the great eagle brings them together again. Time passed and the story was written into a local folksong which has survived all this time.

The Son Huasteco “La Llorona”

In addition to the son istmeño “La Llorona,” there’s a widespread song on the same theme in the son huasteco style from eastern Mexico. Typical huasteco music is string music with a strong violin line, and most versions of this “La Llorona” use the violin prominently. As with the Oaxacan song, all versions use the same melody, which is completely different, however, from the Oaxacan melody. Also like its son istmeño counterpart, the lyrics vary widely as individual singers select verses from the traditional repertoire and sometimes compose their own verses.

On first listening to one of these songs, Juan Díes and I both had the impression that it might be recently composed, but I have since learned that there are many versions, some of which do go back at least about 45 years. The earliest son huasteco “La Llorona” that I could find with a date attached is by Trio Armonia Huasteca, and it was released on one of their albums in 1977. It tells the story of a woman whose husband has died. Traumatized by this misfortune, she goes to stay with the song’s male narrator, and seemingly has an affair with him. After she moves on from him she opens a meat market (carniceria), where she “sells to married men and gives credit to bachelors.” It doesn’t appear to be about the La Llorona legend, but the story as presented does leave hearers with questions. We are not told just how her husband died, for example, and the end of the song featuring a meat market with different policies for married men and bachelors certainly opens the way for possible double meanings. Some of the ideas in the supernatural Llorona story, such as the character being a seductive but dangerous siren, might be considered subtexts of the song. You can hear this version here, and read the lyrics here.

Similar versions, with variations on the lyrics, have been recorded by many groups. In many cases I haven’t been able to establish recording dates. But I have located commercially recorded versions by Los Camalotes, Trio Tamazunchale, Dinastía Hidalguense, Los Huastecos, Trio Inspiración Huasteca, Vendaval Huasteco, Soraima y sus Huastecos, Trio Cielo de Hidalgo, Trio Destello Hidalguense, Trio Corazon Serrano, Los Tres HuastecosTrio Huasteco del Panuco, and Los Caimanes, among many others. Although there are no dates on many of these recordings, they all seem to be from between 1975 and 1995.

In 2005, Los Camperos de Valles recorded a version of the huasteco “La Llorona” with new lyrics by Artemio Posadas. You can see a video at this link. Posadas explained in the liner notes (which you can download from this site) that in writing new son huasteco verses, one should try to include one verse relating directly to the song’s title; other than that, one has free rein to match the emotional qualities of the tune. He said that most son huasteco groups stick to traditional lyrics but he felt it was time to write new ones for the songs on the album, including La Llorona:

There were various elements that came together for me to say, ‘I’m going to write my own.’ And since in the Huasteca we have the habit of going around singing love songs all the time, well, that was what happened!’

In 2013, Trio Aurora Hidalguense released their version, which you can hear at this link. Since it makes more direct reference to the Llorona legend, I’ll present the lyrics, as transcribed and translated by Juan Díes:

Una llorona lloraba
la muerte de su marido (2x)
Solita se consolaba
con un suspiro afligido
porque con otro andaba
muy rico y bien parecido.

Dicen que ella es La Llorona
leyenda también cultura (2x)
Cuentan de aquella persona
que le llora a su criatura
Si encuentras a la señora
te vas pa la sepultura.

Bajo la luz de la luna
pasé cerquita de un río (2x)
Se escuchaba La Llorona
con un llorido afligido
Buscaba un niño de cuna
que ya había fallecido.

A weeping woman mourned
The death of her husband.
She comforted herself
With a sorrowful sigh
Because she was dating someone else
Who was rich and good looking.

They say she is La Llorona,
A legend and culture too.
They say that she is the one
Who cries for her infant
If you encounter this woman
You will go to the grave.

Beneath the moonlight,
I passed near a river
I could hear La Llorona
And her sorrowful cry
She was searching for an infant
Who was already dead.

References to the legend of La Llorona in the song include her crying for her dead infant at night near a river. Moreover, the song, like many oral versions of the story, warns us that encountering La Llorona could lead to the listener’s own death.

Another version of the song, from the similarly named Trio Aurora, uses the tune of the son huasteco “La Llorona” to comment on the song itself, singling out especially the yodel-like singing style, which is very difficult to do properly. This verse makes their version a nice example of “metafolklore”:

La Llorona se comenta,
huapango muy cultural. (2x)
El huasteco lo respeta
por su modo de cantar
por su modo de cantar
que no cualquiera interpreta.

(La Llorona is talked about
As a cultural huapango.
Huastecos respect it
For its singing style.
Its singing style is one that
Not anyone can perform.)

The rest of the song, which you can hear at this link, makes reference to searching on the internet for the band’s contact information, underscoring that this La Llorona song belongs to a living tradition in which new lyrics may be added to older ones. It also includes one verse on the theme of love and death, apparently following the same principle articulated by Artemio Posadas above: If you write new verses for a son huasteco song, one of them should reflect the traditional theme in a conventional way, while the others may communicate other ideas.

Three people on a stage. One plays a violin, one a requinto, one a guitar.

Domingo 4 de noviembre de 2018. Como parte del último día de actividades de la Celebración de Día de Muertos 2018 en el zócalo de la Ciudad de México, se realizó la presentación de Tlacuatzin, Son Huasteco de San Luis Potosí y Veracruz.  (Sunday November 4, 2018. As part of the last day of activities of the 2018 Day of the Dead Celebration in the Zócalo of Mexico City, there was a performance by Tlacuatzin, Son Huasteco from San Luis Potosí and Veracruz.) Fotografía/Photography: Tania Victoria/ Secretaría de Cultura CDMX.

One of the latest groups to record the huasteco “La Llorona” are the trio Tlacuatzin Son Huasteco. (As a traditional huasteco trio named after an opossum, they were bound to be mentioned in Folklife Today!) Their version references the supernatural legend only indirectly, in its evocation of a living person yearning for someone who has passed away. A sampling of the lyrics can be translated thus:

When you watch my lips after death
My soul will tell you:
“Don’t cry, my love, it’s not true,
For your sake I go on living.”

Keeping in mind the point that even lyrics not mentioning the Llorona legend exist in dialogue with its themes and images through the title “La Llorona,” I’ll note that in the video created for the Tlacuatzin song, there are more references to magic and the supernatural than are found in the song itself. Costumed actors appear to represent ghosts and demons, and others perform what seem to be pre-Christian rituals, probably a reference to the Indigenous and Aztec roots of the Llorona legend. There is also a child wearing a skull mask, who appears near the beginning and ending, which is a possible reference to the legend’s dead children. Finally, the prominent masked woman wearing a rebozo who lurks in the shadows and crosses a river might represent the legendary Llorona herself. Still, most of the images are more in line with broadly popular Día de Muertos imagery, including beautiful shots of ofrendas and of people in festive Day of the Dead attire. Watching the video at this link would be a fun and appropriate addition to your Day of the Dead celebration.

“La Llorona Loca” in Colombia and Greater Mexico

Six young men in fancy ties gathered around a drum kit whose bass drum says "The Gliders"

Los Gliders were a teenage rock band in 1961 when they recorded “La Llorona Loca.” This publicity photo is from AFC’s files.

Alongside these songs referring simply to “La Llorona,” there is a range of other songs calling the central figure “La Llorona Loca,” or “The Weeping Madwoman.” They arise from a variant of the story of La Llorona in which La Llorona becomes insane before dying and is therefore a mad spirit.

Most “Llorona Loca” songs derive from a composition written in the 1930s or early 1940s as a porro, a subgenre of the cumbia, by the prominent Colombian-born songwriter José Barros. According to a detailed website created for Barros’s centennial in 2015, Barros was inspired by a local version of the Llorona legend in which, rather than killing a child that has already been born, the young woman ingests herbs to induce an abortion, then thinks she hears the fetus crying as it drops into the river. This fills her with horror and guilt and transforms her into a “llorona loca,” a weeping madwoman. In the local version of the legend familiar to Barros, the woman is a resident of Tamalameque, which is about 30 km from Barros’s birthplace in El Banco.

Barros’s song narrates a typical encounter with La Llorona Loca, rather than telling her story. My own rough translation of the lyrics goes:

In a street in Tamalameque, they say a weeping madwoman appears
Who dances here and dances there, with a lit cigar in her mouth
She appeared to me one night, one night during Carnival
She wiggled her middle at me, like an iguana in a thicket
I told her stop a moment, don’t move around so much
And on seeing she was so frightening, ay compadre, what a shock!
I hope she doesn’t catch me! I hope La Llorona doesn’t grab me from behind!

Barros first recorded the song in the mid-1940s with a big band arrangement. You can hear that recording on youtube, here.

Center label from the 45 rpm single of "La Llorona" by Steve Jordan y Su Conjunto

Steve Jordan’s single called “La Llorona” is actually a version of “La Llorona Loca.” He recorded it several more times in his career.

“La Llorona Loca” has since been collected from oral tradition in both Mexico and New Mexico. Unaware of its Colombian origin, John Donald Robb speculated on collecting it in New Mexico:

The present version of “La Llorona” is about a crazy woman (a witch) who during the fiesta, is smoking a lighted cigar and accosts a man. It may be an example from one of the Latin-American countries where the Voodoo cults flourish. I have seen witches at a macumba celebration south of Rio de Janeiro, with a wild and weird look in their eyes, hair standing straight out from their heads, and smoking cigars until they glowed red…

His comment is perceptive. Cigars are used as part of religious ceremonies in many of the African-derived religions of South America, which suggests perhaps a religious influence in this Colombian version of the tale with its cigar-smoking Llorona, but we would need more information to be sure.

The song also traveled elsewhere in the United States and Mexico. Robb cites a version in a cancionero published in Guadalajara, and Texas-born Esteban “Steve” Jordan covered it in Norteño style, showing that the song was successful at crossing both national and musical borders.

Tracing Barros’s song from southern Colombia to Texas and New Mexico isn’t that difficult, because it has been a hit in Mexico several times. In 1944, Barros himself moved to Mexico for some years, and introduced his tropical style of Latin music to Mexico city. Mexican artists began to cover his songs, and several recorded “La Llorona Loca.” You can find eight examples in the Chris Strachwitz Frontera collection, at this link. It’s interesting to compare how different Mexican singers and groups dealt with the obviously Colombian references in the song; some left them as is, while others substituted Mexican places and conventions.

The Orquesta Rafael De Paz’s 1953 recording of the song was particularly influential. It used the same words and melody as Barros’s recording, with a lead vocal by Tony Camargo, and a second vocal by Cuban singer Benny Moré. Moré added greatly to the atmosphere of the piece by singing the part of La Llorona, adding a weeping wail whenever her character appears in the lyrics. You can hear that version here.

Center label from Tony Camargo's 45 rpm single "La Llorona Loca."

Tony Camargo recorded “La Llorona Loca” several times in his career.

Only a few years after Tony Camargo’s recording, Rock and Roll came to Mexico, and it wasn’t long before a rock version of “La Llorona Loca” emerged. In 1961, the song was recorded by Los Gliders and became a national hit. Unlike Camargo, los Gliders eliminated references to Tamalameque and Carnival, neither of which made much sense to Mexico City teenagers. Instead they set the song next to a high school on the night after finals–surely a resonant image for their listeners. Sadly, they completely eliminated the iguana, but it’s interesting that in place of the lit cigar in La Llorona’s mouth, they substitute a warning: if you look at La Llorona you might go crazy yourself! This could, of course, be the kind of warning a parent might issue to kids about La Llorona. On the other hand, “going crazy” from watching a person dance the twist has other implications for teenage rock fans, and the lyric could be interpreted in this more benign way. You can find the Spanish lyrics here. My rough translation is:

On a street next to the high school, they say a weeping madwoman appears
Who dances the twist like this, who dances the twist as well
And if you look straight at her you’ll go crazy
She appeared to me the night of my semester final
She wiggled her middle at me, so much I thought it might break
I told her stop a moment, don’t move around so so much
And on seeing she was so frightening, my friend, how I ran!
She might catch me! She might grab me! La Llorona might reach me from behind!

You can hear Los Gliders’ version here. It’s interesting for several reasons. Obviously its use of the rockabilly idiom shows how versatile the song itself is, and their adaptation of the lyrics demonstrates how easily the legend of La Llorona can be reinterpreted for different times and places. Their version also takes a Colombian song and makes it fully North American. Its musical idiom is heavily influenced by African American music, and its lyrics have become fully Mexican, giving the song a diverse background of cultural influences similar to those of the Colombian original. The insertion of Chopin’s Funeral March on the guitar at the beginning adds to its international influences while it evokes both funerals and playgrounds, where it has become the melody for macabre rhymes.

Most interestingly, Los Gliders adapt Benny Moré’s wailing vocal from 1953 but add words to it; in their version, La Llorona Loca wails: “Ay, mis hijos!” This adds to the song one of the most distinctive features of Mexican versions of the legend, a feature which, as we saw in a previous post, has been particularly associated with the Indigenous inhabitants of Mexico City since the sixteenth century: La Llorona crying for her children.

Other songs about La Llorona

Three men play music on stage. Two have guitars, one has a keyboard.

Members of Caifanes, photographed in 2011 by Fernando Messino. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

In addition to these well known songs on the theme of  La Llorona, there are a few other noteworthy songs touching on the story. The Mexican rock band Caifanes wrote a song about ghosts seeking lost love, with the title “La Llorona.” The Tex-Mex band Tejas Brothers perform a narrative song recounting the legend, written by Dave Perez. Most intriguingly for readers of Folklife Today, the musician, theater director and activist Arsenio Córdova of El Prado, New Mexico, recorded a corrido about La Llorona, with accompaniment on trumpet, pennywhistle, and guitar. In the song he refers to the ghost as “La Llorona Loca” and warns children against going out at night. The song is online via the Mediateca of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México.

These different La Llorona songs show that there is no single approach that suits the legend. Song texts range from literal recountings of the tale through texts that mention the ghost in one or two verses, and on to songs in which we can’t confirm there is any overt reference to the ghost story at all. Meanwhile, the music ranges from slow mournful ballad tunes, through stately waltzes, and on to upbeat cumbia and polka rhythms. All of them emphasize and evoke different elements of the multifarious legend.

What all La Llorona songs have in common, though, are the themes of death, remembrance, and mourning, which makes them all appropriate for Día de Muertos or Halloween. I hope you’ll find the above outline of this fascinating song tradition useful in building your own personal playlist for these upcoming holidays.

 

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