Friday, October 17, 2008

The Corrido Tradition and early radio programs in Los Angeles

The corrido tradition is important to note as it is been a central component of what has been considered Mexico’s strong oral tradition. The song style predates radio, but remains vibrant today, largely because the songs are now spread by Spanish-language stations on both sides of the border. A corrido is a song with many stanzas, often with new words sung to well-known melodies, that tells a story based on real events and folk heroes. The form reached its apex during the 1910 Mexican Revolution; hundreds of corridos were composed about Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and those who fought with them. Corridos often celebrate the deeds of revolutionaries, famously brave fighters, and bandit heroes who rob the rich to give to the poor, in other words, popular heroes who were very often on the wrong side of the U.S. government, the Mexican state or both. Some tell of killings, kidnappings and other true tragedies; there are also some treating historic events from before corridos were first sung. Corridos were composed as early as the 1860s and continue to be composed today. Their principle compiler, Vicente Mendoza, calls them a form both by and for the public. Most authors of corridos are anonymous; anyone could compose a song and teach it to others. Sometimes the writers were people present at the event or a relative of the fallen, other times professionals or intellectuals tried to imitate the voice of the common people and wrote corridos based on newspaper accounts. The songs were spread by traveling singers who went to perform at fairs throughout the country, taking up a collection and sometimes selling the printed lyrics of a song. They were also spread by beggars and by soldiers who composed songs during their downtime. Mendoza also credited radio with widely diffusing the corridos. In a country with high illiteracy, the corrido was a way of memorializing heroes and events and keeping them alive in the popular memory. It was a way of passing the news.

Pedro Gonzalez, one of the first and most famous Spanish-language radio personalities in the U.S., remembered writing corridos with his fellow soldiers when he fought with Pancho Villa. He played many on his program on a Los Angeles station in the 1920s and 1930s. The form easily crossed the border to the U.S. where many Mexicans were inspired to write new corridos about their experiences in the states. The first commercially recorded corrido was written by Gonzalez and was called “El lavaplatos”-- the dish-washer. It was told from the point of view of a young Mexican who came to America with great dreams, but ended up washing plates and lamenting his misfortune. Another corrido from the 1930s particularly relevant to this thesis was about life for Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles and was called “Radios and Chicanos ”:

At last he came to this county and rented an apartment
Without knowing that in this town one dies working in the cement.
When he felt that he had money he began to buy on time;
And when he bought ill-fitting suits he felt himself equal with Carranza.
It is true, it is true, it seems a lie that being a Chicano
So spirited and so healthy that he would come from over there.

He rented a radio and aerial with light bulbs and buttons.
Because his house was very quiet without music or songs.
At the hour that they transmit the concerts to Chicanos
It happens that they advertise pork and the best country gravy.
It is true, it is true, it seems a lie that in place of songs
Those city people would advertise cantaloupes.

After three quarters of an hour they sing us some fox trot,
Then they announce the lady who makes good tepache [a Mexican beverage made of pulque, water, pineapple and cloves].
Other subjects follow, illustrating the bargains
That they will make to the dead if they buy good coffins.
It is true, it is true, it seems a lie that they would vex us
In these places, those of the city; it seems a lie, that they would vex us, those of the city.

It is telling that the radio is a subject considered worthy of treatment in a corrido; in this song there are also a number of important details about early Spanish-language radio in the U.S.. As indicated by “At the hour they transmit the concerts to Chicanos,” most programs were of short duration and were carried on English-language stations at odd times. Because there were so few, most in the Spanish-speaking community knew of and listened to these programs. They featured music, but as the singer of the corrido complains, there was a fair share of advertising, some from local Mexican-American businesses (“the lady who makes good tepache”) and some from regional or national advertisers (“pork and the best country gravy”). On early broadcasts, it was sometimes difficult to tell where the deejay’s commentary ended and the commercials began. Advertisements were read by the deejay, not prerecorded, and many came off as a personal recommendation. Former KGST station manager Ben Gutierrez said, “In the old days, it was very personal. You said, ‘You go buy Rainbow Bread,’ and they would go and buy it because you said it.” “Plugola,” the practice of a deejay pushing a product or business of a friend, or something in which he or she was personally invested, was fairly common in the 1920s through 1950s, as most deejays were amateurs whose bosses could not understand what they said on the air. It became less common as full-time Spanish-language radio stations were founded with professional deejays, Spanish-speaking managers and more government oversight.

“Radio and Chicanos” is also interesting in its commentary on the situation of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans working in California. Songs like “El Lavaplatos” often bemoaned conditions and got in some social commentary as well. One Mexican-American who lived in Los Angeles at that time said that corridos were a way for musicians to “sing what they cannot say.”

Over the 1920s, these very personal, live Spanish-language programs remained relegated to off-hours on English-language stations, but were still enormously popular with Mexican-American communities. Spanish-language radio waned during the Depression and the early years of World War II, when there was little economic incentive for Mexicans to go north and immigration dropped off. Over the late 1940s and 1950s, workers again began flooding to the U.S., just about when KGST hit the airwaves.

No comments: