We close this week with one of my favorite Mariachi songs ever. I heard this song at a friend’s party once a long time ago and completely fell for the words and the show stopping quality of the vocals. It’s almost always sung by a woman and it requires so much control and agility from the female voice. Switching from chest to head voice all in one phrase is no easy feat! On top of that the text is gorgeous – almost like the Mexican version of “Der Lindenbaum”. It’s what mariachi music is all about: passionate lyrics and music!! I’ve attached the commercial recording by Linda Ronstadt who’s father is said to have taught her all about mariachi music. This is a great recording, but the videos of her singing live are really much more exciting. Sadly the quality of the recordings are not great. But I hope you enjoy nonetheless. Till next time, abrazos!
“La Cigarra” sung by Linda Ronstadt
Don’t sing to me anymore, cicada
Let your singsong end
For your song here in my soul
Stabs me like a dagger
Knowing that when you sing
You are announcing that you are going to your death.
Tell me if it is true that you know,
Because I cannot distinguish,
Whether in the depths of the seas
There is another color blacker
Than the color of my sorrows.
A little dove came flying
That bore a wounded breast
Now almost crying
Said to me very afflicted
Now I am weary of searching for
A mutual love.
Under the shade of a tree
And to the beat of my guitar
I sing this huapango joyfully
Because my life is finished
And I want to die singing
As the cicada dies.
‘As you are dreaming time flies’. One moment you are a kid watching Rosemary Clooney on a black and white TV singing ‘God help the mister who comes between me and my sister/and God help the sister who comes between me and my man’ (Irving Berlin from White Christmas). Years later you are lucky enough to be able to sit at the top of Rockefeller Center with the snow falling over New York skyscrapers. Rosie is ten feet away from you achingly singing a heart-wrenching Jimmy Webb ballad (he had come a long way from ‘Up Up and Away’). And then you find this video clip of the California babe who had pounded out ‘You’re no good, you’re no good’. She too has mellowed and deepened, two goddesses in duet. It was in fact Linda Ronstadt who first brought the song forward, and brought Clooney aboard.
In choosing this song, I wanted to pay homage to all of the classic folk/rock and pop I grew up with. So many of the songs of the sixties and seventies have become part of the ‘American Songbook’. But it turns out that this is in fact a theatre song that Jimmy Webb wrote for a telling of Ray Bradbury’s story Dandelion Wine; so as it happens all my selections this week have a theatrical provenance.
If you want to be awed, go to wikipedia and read (and read and read) about these two artists (really artists, not just in the jargony sense of today); women who started from a height of very young success, then took rocky roads to explore, grow and arrive somewhere else, which is partly what this song is about. From a lyric point of view there are so many surprises and quirks (do you know another song with the word ‘vaporize’ in it?). If you read the lyrics separately, almost every image/concept in the song is repeated twice, laddering against the melody. (“Night turns to dawn and dreams to sighs, And sighs change to sweet love that never dies/and love becomes laughter and lullabies’).
The bridge is a prosy exegesis that leads to the ‘deep umber’ poetry of the last verse…the gift of the AABA song is that it is circular (creating a structure of safety and familiarity), but it also takes us on a journey forward. We cross the ‘bridge’ but on the other side is the home we left from, even as we have changed.
Clooney’s gravelly tones and phrasing further deepen this journey…like Barbara Cook, she had young conventional success, then suffered, grew and really ‘found her voice’ in a more expressive way. Ronstadt has always, to my ear, had too consistently clear a voice (shown off best in her mid-career power ballads), but her musicality and sheer beauty work well in duet with Rosie. She is also at her best with a Jimmy Webb song. Hope that this will remind you of the way that ‘life begins and spirits rise’.
Among pop singer-songwriters Randy Newman stands out in many ways, but most especially in his ability to write for characters nothing like himself. The protagonists of his songs are a rogues’ gallery worthy of Charles Dickens or Ring Lardner. They don’t know who they are, but through Newman’s penetrating portraiture, we get to hear them reveal themselves without being aware of it – and they are by and large a frightening lot. Bigots, boobs, self-indulgent whiners, stoners, petty thieves, politically and ethically benighted – there is not a lot to admire in most of them, save their humanity, which also, in a strange and almost indefinable way always seems to come through somehow. It makes it difficult to judge them as harshly as we want to, because some part of them always manages to seem like us. There’s a kind of genius in that.
Newman has never really succeeded as a theatrical writer in part because his songs are so complete in themselves that they don’t suggest movement through a larger story universe. Each one is the entire story, soup to nuts. His one large-scale work Faust, which moved the Faust legend to the Notre Dame campus, was an ambitious undertaking, but never really a theatrical success. Yet it contains more than a handful of great songs, including “Gainesville,” which I’ve selected for today’s Song of the Day. Newman doesn’t often write for women, but Faust required it, and whether through an innate sense of chivalry or simply a plot requirement, the young woman singing it (in today’s recording it’s Linda Ronstadt) is actually a good person. A sad person, but one who is touched with the very quality that eludes almost all of Newman’s men: self-knowledge. As a result, the song, which seems at first to be no more than an auto-biographical sketch, evolves into a heartbreaking revelation about her romantic fate. In fact, the character has so much of what’s missing from most of Newman’s men – strength of character, clear-eyed intelligence and an awareness of how the world actually works – that it sets itself apart from the bulk of his other work. Which is why I selected it.
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