Border Radio

Big Jim Griffith collects a compendium of corridos.

Corridos, the ballad-style songs of the northern Mexico borderlands, are not unlike musical versions of journalism, writes Jim Griffith in his liner notes for the new CD album Heroes & Horses: Corridos from the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands.

In addition to being a significant part of Mexican folk literature since the late 19th century, corridos "continue to play a vital role in reflecting and shaping public opinion," Griffith writes in his exhaustive, scholarly and not unentertaining notes.

"Reporting on and interpreting current events, they serve as editorial pages of el pueblo mexicano, or the Mexican people. Corrido composers have long favored a number of subjects--battles and heroes of the Revolution, murderous duels between brave individuals, horse races, disasters and tragedies, incidents of social injustice, spectacular crimes--precisely the topics which, as any journalist knows, the public wants to hear about," Griffith writes.

Known as Big Jim Griffith to many Tucsonans, the folklorist this spring saw the release of that album, which he compiled, annotated and produced, on the government-owned record label Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

The disc's release was co-sponsored by the Southwest Center, a division of the University of Arizona Library. Griffith works there as a research associate. It was released on conjunction with the Smithsonian's traveling exhibition Corridos Sin Fronteras: A New World Ballad Tradition, which opened in Washington, D.C., in February and will continue to travel to other major American markets through 2005.

Folkways Records was founded in 1948 in New York City by folklorist and recording engineer Moses Asch, who made thousands of field recordings documenting music, song, oral traditions and rituals from this country and around the world--the sound of folklore and just plain folk.

The celebrated Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., acquired Folkways from the Asch estate in 1987 and has continued to administer the Folkways archives and develop new recording projects through its Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

And now Griffith has carried on the tradition of Moses Asch, by recording and documenting traditional music--corridos--from our region, the Arizona-Sonora borderlands. Heroes & Horses contains 16 corridos, recorded from 1995 to 1999 in Tucson and the Sonoran towns of Cabora, Oquitoa and Bahia Kino--also known as Kino Bay to beach-loving, deep-sea-fishing and cerveza-drinking Americans.

The corrido tradition--like that that of topical folk music in the English language--is one that never forgets its role as vital storytelling. Most of the events contained in the songs are true, but they also are stories, an ever-evolving art form, and self-reflectively conscious of that fact.

Most corridos on this disc contain lyrics that refer directly to the song's role as an element of oral history. This modern self-awareness is reflected in the opening lines to the song "El Palomino y El Gancho":

"This corrido, good people,
that I carry from La Sangre
composed by my guitar
to ease my worries:
It'll tell you the new history
Of what's happened in Magdalena."

The song stories on this CD were passed from singer to singer and sometimes circulated as recordings or sheet music. Other earlier recordings exist of these songs, and many have been anthologized in written collections. Griffith's notes refer to these when applicable.

Some of the songs are available in unlikely places.

"El Cárcel de Cananea," which he calls Sonora's most famous corrido and is one of the CD's highlight cuts, concerns a jailed copper striker in Cananea. Griffith notes that the most complete printed version of this song is available on a post card sold at the Cananea jail, which is now a regional museum.

Casual listeners may also recognize the loping acoustic-guitar rhythm and baleful male harmonies of "El Cárcel de Cananea" as emblematic of the classic corrido sound. Sometimes, the lonely guitar is accompanied by bajo sexto, upright bass or accordion in the conjunto or norteño fashion. This material therefore is markedly different from the festive large arrangements of mariachi groups.

Anyone who has spent some time in the Southwest also may find familiar the locations and characters in the songs. Towns such as Tubutama, Agua Prieta and Guaymas play large parts in these songs.

The lead-off track is the fascinating "El Corrido de Nogales," which tells the actual tale, well-known among Southwest denizens and historians as "the Battle of Nogales," of a 1918 shoot-out on the border bridged by the so-named twin cities in Arizona and Sonora.

With the United States in the midst of World War I, paranoia about German infiltrators crossing the American border caused tension between our two countries to escalate into a two-hour gun battle that ended with more than 30 Mexican and American citizens dead. An independent documentary film La Mera Frontera, which was shown at the Arizona International Film Festival a couple of years ago in Tucson, also relates this event.

The ballad "Joaquín Murrieta" tells of a famous Sonoran miner who moved to California following the gold rush of the 1850s. Murrieta fought back against the cruelty of non-Hispanic miners and is known still to Mexicans and Chicanos as a symbol of resistance to the Anglo-American social injustices. There is even a park on Tucson's west-side named for Murrieta.

Griffith expertly condenses such history in the notes, as well as providing biographical information about the artists on the discs, who include Sonoran artists Luis Méndez, Fransisco Federico and Antonio González and the Kino Bay group Los Ribereños del Golfo as well as Tucsonans such as Antonio Federico, Bobby Benton and Oscar González.

These singers carry on the tradition of the town crier, or that of a sojourning troubadour, throughout a region--northern Mexico, southern Arizona, eastern and Baja California--that was politically divided by the Gadsen Purchase in 1853. But, as Heroes and Horses proves, the various areas of the region still possess a common flavor in song.

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