Hitching along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana, I planned to spend a couple of weeks in Texas, but I got hassled by the cops in Galveston and it was freezing in Corpus Christi, so I scampered down to Mexico. They wouldn’t let me across the border without a bus ticket to someplace, so I picked Ciudad Victoria and spent my first evening roaming the local cantinas as third man in a norteño trio.
I spent the winter of 1985-6 hitchhiking around Mexico, with a brief swing through Guatemala and Belize, and it was great. I had maybe a hundred dollars when I crossed the border and eked that out by playing for tips and food. Sometimes I did the strolling minstrel thing, including a very pleasant week matching songs with the mariachis and norteño trios at the portales in Veracruz; sometimes I played for tips in tourist restaurants; I got an actual club gig in Antigua, Guatemala, which led to a bizarre evening as guest of Sgt. Barry Sadler; and a lot of times I just traded songs for tacos from street vendors — a good deal for all concerned, since a gringo singing for tacos tended to draw curious onlookers who also bought tacos.
I’d prepared for the trip by learning some Mexican ranchera songs, mostly from Flaco Jiménez albums: “Ni el dinero ni nada,” “Tu nuevo cariñito,” “Besos y copas” (though that one came from Chavela Ortíz), and “Gritenme piedras del campo.”
Like much of the classic tejano or norteño repertoire, this was actually a movie mariachi standard, which was good because it meant I had some repertoire for the older generation in central and southern Mexico who thought of the border accordion style as low-class — fans of classic ranchera despised norteño almost as much as Sinatra fans of the same generation despised rock ‘n’ roll.
I got my first taste of those older tastes one evening in Guanajuato. I was walking around with my guitar slung over my shoulder, and a kid started following me and eventually struck up a conversation. I played him a couple of songs, and he said I must come to dinner at his father’s office. Since he was only eleven years old, I doubted his father would second that motion and tried to politely decline, but he declared: “If you do not come, it will be an insult to my honor.” So what could I do?
As it turned out, his father was a coffin maker whose hobby was taxidermy, and his “office” was filled with wooden coffins, stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling, and stuffed birds of prey. The boy introduced me and started cooking — his mother had died when he was small, and the two of them were the family. He was, as it happened, an astonishing cook — when he learned I liked chiles, he went to the freezer and pulled out bags with a dozen different varieties and explained what each contributed to a good sauce. Meanwhile, his father was horrified to learn that I liked norteño and proceeded to play me records of the “real” Mexican singers: Amalia Mendoza, Lola Beltran, the Trio Calaveras… I don’t remember who all he played, but one of the women sang this song and he was very pleased that I knew it.
This was written by Cuco Sánchez, a fine singer, guitarist, sometime actor, and terrific composer. I never listened to him much, but there are plenty of clips from his movies on Youtube. This is among his most famous songs, a classic of ranchera heartache:
Speak to me, mountains and valleys,
Shout to me, stones of the countryside.
When have you seen [anyone] in life,
Love as I am loving,
Cry as I am crying,
Die as I am dying?
In the end, I am in this world like the feather in the air
Without direction I go through life,
Without direction I go through life,
For this, you are guilty…