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October 15, 2008 4:33 AM   Subscribe

It's not so often that a US Top 40 chart hit is a song whose origins can be traced back 300 years, and even less often that such a song would be sung in Spanish. So when Ritchie Valens went into a studio and recorded La Bamba 50 years ago this month, he carved himself what would become a special place in American pop music history. It was one of those cases of the B side becoming the hit, though: the A side was Oh Donna, which showcased a sweeter, croonier side of Valens (singing in English), but was a somewhat unremarkable tune on its own. Here's a live recording of La Bamba by Valens, who, of course, along with rock'n'roll legend Buddy Holly, lost his life in an airplane crash just as his career was blossoming. Almost 30 years after La Bamba's original release, a version by Valens' natural heirs Los Lobos became a hit once again. And, admittedly, I didn't make it through the entire clip, but it's perhaps worth noting, for the record, that a Barack Obama-related version is available for your listening and viewing, er, pleasure?

And by the way, the drummer on La Bamba was session great Earl Palmer, whose recent passing prompted a MeFi post.
posted by flapjax at midnite (44 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Always loved this song. When I hear it, I think of that scene in Born in East LA
when Cheech tries to impress his Tijuana friends by playing "Twist and Shout" on the guitar ... to which they all start singing "La Bamba".

That said, no Yum! Yum! Orange?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:50 AM on October 15, 2008


I'm intrigued by the idea that its origins can be traced back 300 years. Which one of them there links has the cite?
posted by sidereal at 5:40 AM on October 15, 2008


"La Bamba" is a folk song whose origins can be traced to the Mexican state of Veracruz over 300 years ago. - Wikipedia

(If it's on Wikipedia, it must be true)
posted by Lokheed at 6:06 AM on October 15, 2008


sidereal - the LaBamba Wikipedia entry has a little bit of info.

I am not a sailor.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:06 AM on October 15, 2008


WP: "Valens learned the Spanish lyrics phonetically, as he had been raised from birth speaking English."

To clarify, he basically spoke no Spanish at all, assimilation being the thing in the 1950s. The apocryphal story is that he'd had to confirm the words with his still-fluent-in-Spanish grandmother. It's probably in the movie (tb;dw).

The 1980s Los Lobos cover is one of those rare cases in pop music where the cover is hipper, better performed, and adds more to the story. Dig it.

a Barack Obama-related version is available

Yeah, well they blew it from the start. "Time to vote for O ba ma" is lame. "Ba ba ba rack O ba ma" would be awesome, or rather will be when I roll it out next weekend.

Here's a bit of audio history -- eight and half minutes of the original La Bamba recording session, as producer Bob Keane tries to get the undisciplined Richie Valens to play at a consistent tempo, etc.

Personnel:
Bob Keane: Producer
Ritchie Valens: vocals, guitar with the volume turned way down
Rene Hall: baritone guitar (lead)
Carol Kaye: rhythm guitar
Ernie Freeman: piano
Buddy Clark: bass
Earl Palmer: drums

Interesting that on a record with two bass parts (actually a string bass and a baritone guitar on lead) that Carol Kaye played guitar.

Don't forget this rockin' little number: Come On, Let's Go!
posted by Herodios at 6:24 AM on October 15, 2008 [7 favorites]


Love that song
posted by caddis at 6:25 AM on October 15, 2008


Here's a bit of audio history

Man, that is super-cool.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:37 AM on October 15, 2008


"Twist and Shout" wasn't the only song to borrow the chords.
posted by EarBucket at 6:39 AM on October 15, 2008


the cover is hipper, better performed, and adds more to the story

I gotta say, though, I really, really miss the groove of the Valens version.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:41 AM on October 15, 2008


Good comment Herodios, but I'd dispute endlessly that Valens' version is cooler.

Some more audio history: A possibly authentic recent recording of a folk version of the song.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:42 AM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


A possibly authentic recent recording of a folk version of the song.

Now that's some fine business, PA.

I love the guys fanning the ground from the bambación.

I am not a sailor, but I am your captain.
posted by Herodios at 6:51 AM on October 15, 2008


"Twist and Shout" wasn't the only song to borrow the chords.

Indeed, there must be dozens of song that use the I, IV, V chords in the key of C.
They'll all be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.
posted by Herodios at 6:59 AM on October 15, 2008


Always loved this song. When I hear it, I think of that scene in Born in East LA
when Cheech tries to impress his Tijuana friends by playing "Twist and Shout" on the guitar ... to which they all start singing "La Bamba".


Hee! The same thing happened to Bruce Springsteen in real life -- he and a number of other stars did a round-the-world tour to honor Amnesty International in 1988, and they broadcast the finale concert in Argentina. Bruce closed out his set by bringing all the other singers on to do "Twist and Shout," and at some point when he and his band were doing an instrumental break, you can hear several thousand Argentinians all singing "Baaaaam-ba, bamba....baaaam-ba, bamba...."

I think at some point Bruce just gave in and sang a few lines of "La Bamba" just for fun.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:00 AM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another awesome post flapjax.
posted by gomichild at 7:13 AM on October 15, 2008


Muchos gracias for the linkage! :-D

A favourite, for a wholly personal reason; this is the dance-song with which I connect with my dad. Dad, who's an otherwise, serious and sombre person without too much time for frivolity, lightens up for this, and only this, non-Indian song; methinks it's because it reminds him of his wild, swinging days when he was in university. It's late in the night out here; I'm soo going to fall asleep listening to these sounds...

Also, well after all this political circus subsides, someone should make a massive FPP on non-official political music generated during this season. That should be fun.
posted by the cydonian at 7:29 AM on October 15, 2008


Oh Donna is "a somewhat unremarkable tune on its own"? It's a heartbreaking ballad about the break-up of an interracial relationship with a high school sweetheart. It's certainly better than Janis Ian's "Society's Child."
posted by jonp72 at 7:31 AM on October 15, 2008


Blah. I cannot stand that song. I like a lot of music, but not that song.
posted by a3matrix at 7:35 AM on October 15, 2008


La Bamba/Twist and Shout.
posted by mandal at 7:46 AM on October 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


I would love to see an analysis of the relationship between Guantanamera and La Bamba. Wikipedia says a) Guantanamera was composed in the 20's, possibly from a Cuban folkloric melody and b) there are relatively recent Cuban court cases concerning the song's authorship.

YT: Compay Segundo (you will remember him from Buena Vista Social Club).
posted by mwhybark at 7:53 AM on October 15, 2008


The Grateful Dead, Good Lovin' / La Bamba / Good Lovin'.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 8:07 AM on October 15, 2008


Oh Donna is "a somewhat unremarkable tune on its own"? It's a heartbreaking ballad about the break-up of an interracial relationship with a high school sweetheart. It's certainly better than Janis Ian's "Society's Child."

Well, I think 'Donna' is unremarkable in the sense that it's not marked in any way. Particularly.

It's built on the same 'ice cream changes' as ninety-eleven other 50s 'ballads'; the only unusual lyric is in the second verse "(I'm left) all by myself, to wonder and groan" (groan?); a pretty typical slow-dance number. And there's nothing (in the song) to indicate any racial tension other than the girl's anglo name.

'Society's Child' may be irritatingly ham-fisted -- it too was written by a teenager -- but it has a quite unconventional shifting harmonic structure, is a bit of a challenge to sing, makes the racial tension quite explicite, and tells a story with a beginning a middle and an end (or is it only . . ?) in three verses (that's one more than 'Donna'). As a bonus, the record has a fine updated girl-group arrangement that ends with a happening little organ riff.

Sorry, Janis Ian wins this one.
posted by Herodios at 8:10 AM on October 15, 2008


That 300-year claim sounds like bullshit to me; I added a "citation needed" to it in the Wikipedia article.

Great song, great post!
posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


The first time I heard La Bamba was in elementary school. It was a traditional recording (the style is Son Jarocho), and I was learning to dance to it for for a Ballet Folklorico performance. There are still groups in Veracruz who play the traditional way, and there are people who still dance to it the traditional way on a tarima.

I doubt the lyrics as they are sung by Valens are 300 years old. A son jarocho's lyrics follow a particular structure depending on the song, but they are often improvised in that structure. I'd say La Bamba couldn't go farther back than 150 years. Of course, I don't know much about it, I'm just a dancer.
posted by Mister Cheese at 8:33 AM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's a good youtube video of the song sung Jarocho style.
posted by Mister Cheese at 8:44 AM on October 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


@languagehat: giving the Wikipedia authors the benefit of the doubt, they may be talking about assertions in Cuban musicologist Natalio Galán's 1983 Cuba y sus sones which attempts to link guajira-son (the style in which "Guantanamera" is composed) to earlier Spanish Baroque dance genres.

Peter Manuel published an article that addresses these claims, as well as outlines some of the various legal claims of authorship mwhybark mentions above, in the fall 2006 issue of Latin American Music Review. It's a good read for those with Project Muse access.
posted by dr. boludo at 8:49 AM on October 15, 2008


Also, here's another pro-Obama version -- because everything's better with accordion.
posted by dr. boludo at 8:52 AM on October 15, 2008


Oops -- didn't see that Wikipedia makes such a claim for son jarocho, not guajira-son. I got nothin'.
posted by dr. boludo at 8:55 AM on October 15, 2008


...Valens, who, of course, along with rock'n'roll legend Buddy Holly, lost his life in an airplane crash...

no love for The Big Bopper?
posted by squarehead at 9:09 AM on October 15, 2008


I've just spent the last 40 minutes going through the links in the original post and the comments. Excellent stuff!
posted by Addlepated at 9:27 AM on October 15, 2008


This far in and no one mentioned the Los Plugz version? And they did speak Spanish.
posted by DecemberBoy at 9:43 AM on October 15, 2008


no love for The Big Bopper?
Or pilot Roger Peterson?

posted by kirkaracha at 10:06 AM on October 15, 2008


A great version by Africando.
posted by mike3k at 10:35 AM on October 15, 2008


If Obama-themed parodies are cool, then why not show some love to Weird Al's Lasagna?
posted by owtytrof at 10:39 AM on October 15, 2008


no love for The Big Bopper?
posted by squarehead at 5:09 PM on October 15


Actually, I've always wondered who the Big Bopper was. The Wikipedia article about the crash is fascinating. Valens was on the plane because of a mere coin flip.
posted by vacapinta at 10:52 AM on October 15, 2008


The Wikipedia article about the crash is fascinating. Valens was on the plane because of a mere coin flip.

....Your name wouldn't be Clyde Bruckman, by any chance, would it?


Kidding.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:31 AM on October 15, 2008


dr. boludo - It's interesting that son jarocho is associated with Veracruz; wasn't that the primary colonial-era port for traffic to and from Cuba and Spain?

Here's wikipedia on Guajiras, which places the style in the west and center of the island. So I'd say there's opportunity for direct influence, at the least.

(My American-born Cuban wife has taught me to sing "Guantanamera" hijo-style: "One ton tomato, I ate a one ton tomato. One ton tomaaaaaa-to, I ate a one ton tomaaaaato")
posted by mwhybark at 12:12 PM on October 15, 2008


no love for The Big Bopper?

Well, sort of. . .

In 1966, Jayne Mansfield recorded "That Makes It", an answer song to the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace", imagining the other side of the conversation. Sort of.

Here Mansfield's song is distractingly lip-synced in the video by -- someone.
Here Mansfield distractingly lip-syncs it herself (edited) in the film Las Vegas Hillbillies.

Speaking of editing, this WP article and this depressing doco deny the persistent myth that Jayne Mansfield was decapitated in a car accident. Killed, yes. Decapitated, no. Unclear why that's important, but there it is.

"One ton tomato, I ate a one ton tomato. One ton tomaaaaaa-to, I ate a one ton tomaaaaato")


FWIW, Dana Carvey once did a routine on SNL as dueling latin crooners singing "I get one ton of fan mail", "I get two tons of fan mail" "he had an eye-job" and so on. Look for it wherever 15 year old SNL videos are shown.
posted by Herodios at 12:31 PM on October 15, 2008


"One ton tomato, I ate a one ton tomato. One ton tomaaaaaa-to, I ate a one ton tomaaaaato"

That's not how Die Toten Hosen learned it (the refrain begins at 1:25 or so).
posted by uncleozzy at 12:35 PM on October 15, 2008


I remember in Spanish class in 4th grade we had to translate this song into English. For some reason, the monotonous sound of children reciting the lyrics in English like it was a poem is burned into my head:

In order to dance the Bamba
In order to dance the Bamba
There is one thing you need
A little bit of grace
A little bit of grace
For me
And for you

I am not a sailor
I am not a sailor
I am a captain
I am a captain
I am a captain

Bamba
Bamba
Bamba
Bamba
posted by lucidreamstate at 5:19 PM on October 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


A possibly authentic recent recording of a folk version of the song.
posted by Potomac Avenue

Actually, an authentic version would sound more like this, since the song is originally a Son Jarocho, not a mariachi piece.

That 300-year claim sounds like bullshit to me; I added a "citation needed" to it in the Wikipedia article.
posted by languagehat

For instance, "el chuchumbe" which is another song jarocho song was famously banned by the inquisition during the colonial times. When the ban relaxed the people of the area included quotes from the text of the ban into the lyrics of the song. This style of music goes back a long way and I don't think it would be impossible for La bamba itself to be three hundred years old.
posted by micayetoca at 5:27 AM on October 30, 2008


Of course it's not impossible. It's not impossible that MetaFilter is a subsidiary of Bank of America, or that mathowie is Marie of Roumania. Many things are possible that are not, in fact, true. If I see a professional music historian saying, with evidence, that the song goes back that far, I'll be pleased as punch. I love learning stuff like that. In the meantime, it sounds like bullshit to me.
posted by languagehat at 5:51 AM on October 30, 2008


I believe micayetoca was pointing out that it was actually plausible rather than merely "not impossible." That doesn't prove the song is 300 years old of course but there's also no reason that the statement "The Son Jarocho X is 300 years old" should be seen as an obviously outrageous or bullshit statement to someone familiar with that musical tradition.

micayetoca's contribution to the thread is valuable. There's no reason to play intellectual bully.
posted by vacapinta at 6:31 AM on October 30, 2008


Here is a small piece about "el chuchumbe", the song I said that was banned by the Inquisition. There it says how Gilberto Gutierrez (who is the man singing La bamba in the "authentic" version I linked to) found in the Archivo General de la Nacion (sort of an equivalent of the Library of Congress of the US, an immense archive that holds historical documents) Inquisition documents quoting the verses of El chuchumbe as the reason for the ban.

That piece also mentions research by historian/musicians that dated that verse to 1766.

That's "El chuchumbe", you'll say, we are talking about La bamba. La bamba and El chuchumbe are the most emblematic pieces of the same genre, so while using historical papers to date "El chuchumbe" is no irrefutable proof that La bamba is of the same age it is the quickest way of showing you that the 300 year old remark could easily be right. I'm sure looking around you could find more information (including the academic stuff you require), but my intention was to give you a couple of indicators in the right direction, not really to overwhelm you with irrefutable evidence by Nobel laureates.
posted by micayetoca at 7:18 AM on October 30, 2008


micayetoca's contribution to the thread is valuable. There's no reason to play intellectual bully.

Oh, for fuck's sake, I wasn't playing intellectual bully, I was just snarking a little. If you think that's being an intellectual bully, you have led a sheltered life. Also, micayetoca can obviously take care of himself.

micayetoca: Thanks for the clarification, and yeah, I agree it seems plausible, but I've seen far too many plausible theories turn out to be false to be much impressed by plausibility per se, and obviously in this kind of situation (possible Ancient Cultural Legacies) there's tremendous pressure to make more of the evidence than it warrants (not saying you're doing that, just explaining why I tend to be suspicious). Not looking for Nobel laureates, just reasonably solid chains of historical evidence. Thanks for your contributions, and I hope you didn't take my snark as seriously as vacapinta.
posted by languagehat at 7:54 AM on October 30, 2008


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