Music of the Border: As Complicated as the Border Itself

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In my time between marriages, I wallowed in country music. Back in the 70s, it wasn’t as slick-pop as nowadays, so it was definitely good for wallowing—broken hearts, drinking in bars, cheating hearts, drinking in cars, lonely nights and neon moons and juke boxes (in bars), and even more drinking. But one day, New York City’s WHN played something that sounded completely different: “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” hit #1 on the Billboard charts for both Country and Pop, driven by a sentimental declaration of undying love delivered in a distinctive tenor, every word clear, the style straightforward, the melody eminently singable. Freddy Fender had arrived.

Named the Most Promising Male Vocalist of the year in 1975 by the Academy of Country Music, with Single of the Year going to “Teardrop,” Fender was eventually quoted as wanting to be the first Mexican-American inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. We’re still waiting on that, but Fender entered the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 1999, evidence that his real talents lay not in American country, but in the music of the border, with all its varied influences.

Born Baldemar Garza Huerta in the town of San Benito, Texas, in 1937, to a Mexican-American mom and a Mexican dad, Fender’s work epitomizes the musical and social “stew” that makes up border music: Tejano, conjunto, orchesta, pachuco (Fender’s album Eddie con Los Shades combines pachuco and rock), among many others; his final recording (2001) was of Mexican boleros, titled La Música de Baldemar Huerta.

 

Key Genres of the Border

The roots of border music started growing in the nineteenth century, when the US-Mexican “border” was a fairly fluid concept. Then again, in cultural terms, a border is almost never the precise line you see on the map. A cultural border is where the supposedly separate cultures interact—socially, politically, economically, artistically. Mexican anthropologist Manuel Peña sees in three border genres (the corrido, the conjunto, and the orchesta) reflections of the complex and conflicted relationship between Mexicans and Anglos in the border region.

The Corrido. The last half of the 19th century was a time when Anglo ranchers along the border started intermingling with Mexican ranchers, which worked out for a while, but by the 1890s, the more entrepreneurial Anglos were starting to subordinate the Mexicans in an exploitative labor relationship. The corrido ballads express Mexican reactions to this ethnic/racial subordination. Peña quotes from “El corrido de Kiansis,” which describes a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas in which 30 American cowboys couldn’t keep the 500 steers together; 5 Mexican cowboys, however, had them all penned up in 15 minutes. In various corridos, Mexicans are portrayed as unacknowledged heroes who show up American ineptitude, greed, or stupidity.

The corrido image of Mexicans changes drastically over time, however; as border Mexicans migrate to northern cities, they integrate into different levels of the established Anglo class structure; they also encounter more prejudice. The corrido image of Mexicans transforms from hero to victim, in an expression intended to elicit defensive action against discrimination. A corrido from the 1950s memorializes the struggle to arrange burial for a Mexican-American soldier killed in the Philippines; when his body was returned to his family, the local funeral home in Three Rivers, Texas, refused to accept it. The Mexican-American community began pressuring local authorities so effectively that Senator Lyndon B. Johnson arranged for burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Conjunto. This genre, too, presents an oppositional face to majority culture, but in a very different way. Unlike corrido, conjunto’s key characteristic is not so much its form or content, but the particular sounds and rhythms produced by its key instrument, the button accordion. First appearing in the border area in the later 19th century, the accordion was popular with both Mexican and Anglo working classes, in large part because it was so well suited to lively dancing, including, of course, Mexican polkas. Middle- and upper-class Anglos, along with Mexican-American middle-class folks pursuing the path to assimilation, were appalled by the fandangos, or “low-class dances” where conjunto was played.

Supported by the bajo sexto guitar and tambura de rancho (ranch drum), conjunto ensembles evolved a bit as the accordion developed, but then took a giant leap in the 1930s as major U.S. recording companies started issuing albums of Southwestern music. Master accordionist Narciso Martinez transformed the conjunto when he began emphasizing the higher “melody” buttons rather than the oom-pah-pah bass buttons.

The sound of conjunto brightened up immensely, challenging “even the formidable mariachi,” according to Peña in an article in Smithsonian magazine. Post WWII “modern conjunto” innovations included adding trap drums and the contrabass to the ensemble, and adding vocals, often in ranchero (country) style, to what had originally been purely instrumental music. Still popular today, the conjunto remains the expression of working-class tastes and themes, historically in opposition to the orchesta.

 

The Orchesta. The orquesta tradition would have been most familiar to our parents, because it represented a “refined” border music preferred by Mexican-Americans who wanted to assimilate into Anglo culture and social structures. While there had always been “orchestras” to play Mexican music, modern orquesta reflects that shift in the 1930s, accelerated after WW II, to assimilation among middle-class Americans. Before the shift, orchesta wasn’t all that different from conjunto, but once the Mexican-American middle class market for a “classier” music emerged and the record companies came calling, more professional and innovative orchestas appeared. Innovations consisted of “cleaning up” the more earthy music of conjunto, incorporating music to accommodate northern/Anglo (remember learning the foxtrot?) and other Latin dances (rumba, anyone?). All in all, it was música jaitón (that would be “high-tone”), that could easily mix in the canción ranchera to gently remind everyone of their ethnic heritage. Studies of orchesta music find that it’s fading, however, struggling to live on after the generation that championed it.

Keeping Up with Border Music

Perhaps the best-known source of border music was Ideal Records, bought out by Arhoolie Records, or maybe Folklyric, now issued by Arhoolie as well. Arhoolie has assembled single CDs and series of CDs, ranging from Orquestas de cuerdas (The String Bands, recorded 1926-38) to a series on The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music (recorded in the 1950s). Just google!

As for Freddy Fender’s bicultural success, he was a key player in The Texas Tornados, which comprised Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, and Flaco Jiménez from San Antonio, and Fender; they won a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance for their song “Soy de San Luis.” Fender and Jiménez were also members of Los Super Seven, along with David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Ruben Ramos, Joe Ely, and Rick Trevino; Los Super Seven won a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance on an album.

You’ll have noticed that this has been an article about male musicians—in the next Music Issue of The Eye, you’ll hear about the “unsung” women of border music. From Lydia Mendoza, “La Alondra de la Frontera” (The Lark of the Border), who put out her first recording in 1928, to Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, shot to death at 24 by the president of her fan club in 1995, they’ll be here.

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