Wednesday, March 9, 2011

¡Víva Las Mujeres Mexicanas! - "La Adelita"

Director Fred Zinneman's 1952 film High Noon is on the short list of the best westerns ever made, and in fact of the best American movies of all time. Beyond the taut drama of a decent man facing almost certain death as the clock ticks relentlessly toward noon, the film was decades ahead of its time in its depiction of good and evil, of racial prejudice, and of thoughtful and mature women. The latter aspect of the film featured the classic cinematic dichotomy between the fair-haired heroine, in this case actress Grace Kelly portraying Amy Fowler Kane, the prim Quaker bride of Gary Cooper's Marshal Will Kane, and the dark and passionate lady Helen Ramírez, played by the superb Mexican actress Katy Jurado. Ramírez owns the local saloon (purchased with money earned in a bordello) and was Kane's lover prior to his marriage.

Both women in the film are frightened by the prospect of Kane's imminent gunfight with four convicts whom he had sent to prison, and wife Amy vows to leave town rather than see her Will shot down. In a last desperate attempt to forestall the duel, Amy visits Helen an hour before the fight to enlist her aid in dissuading Kane from facing his enemies. Jurado's Helen listens in disbelief as Kelly's Amy announces her intention to depart, and then scorches the Quaker woman with her contempt by saying, "What kind of woman are you? How can you leave him like this?...If Kane was my man, I would never leave him like this. I would get a gun. I would fight."

When I first saw the movie on television some years later, that scene burned itself into my memory. I knew that in the Hollywood scheme of things (though clearly not in the subversive Zinneman's view), I was supposed to respond to the delicate, virginal, and ultimately sexless morality and beauty of the Kelly character. But it was Jurado's Helen and her fierce and undying love for the man who had been faithless to her that seized my imagination. "I would get a gun. I would fight" - now THAT was a woman.

And it is just such a woman who has been immortalized in the ever-popular Mexican corrído "La Adelita," a song as widely-known and as frequently sung in México as perhaps "This Land Is Your Land" is in the U.S. The song in its present form dates from the period of the 1910 Mexican Revolution in which Francisco Madero led a democratic rebellion against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (though it may be based on an older tune). The lyrics exist in several significantly differing variants. Some portray Adelita as the beloved of an officer in the revolutionary forces whom he must leave to fight for freedom; in many others, however, she is the very personification of the soldadera, the strong and independent woman who goes to battle herself, both for liberty and for the man she loves. In other words - "I'd get a gun. I'd fight."

Both the authorship of the song and the woman depicted in it are of uncertain origin. Some research seems to suggest that there was a woman from Durango, possibly named Velarde, whose battlefield exploits provided the raw material for the song, but this is speculative and no hard evidence exists. Nonetheless, "Adelita" came to be a term used to describe any of the women who joined the military. One soldadera recalled in a 1979 interview:

The most popular lyric sung today makes only passing reference to Adelita's courage:

En lo alto de la abrupta serranía
acampado se encontraba un regimiento
y una joven que valiente los seguía
locamente enamorada del sargento.

(In the heights of a steep mountainous range
a regiment was encamped
and a young woman bravely follows them
madly in love with the sergeant.)

Popular entre la tropa era Adelita
la mujer que el sargento idolatraba
y además de ser valiente era bonita
que hasta el mismo Coronel la respetaba.

(Popular among the troop was Adelita
the woman that the sergeant idolized
and besides being brave she was pretty
that even the Colonel respected her.)

Y se oía, que decía, aquel que tanto la quería:

Y si Adelita se fuera con otro
la seguiría por tierra y por mar
si por mar en un buque de guerra
si por tierra en un tren militar.

(And it was heard, that he, who loved her so much, said:

If Adelita would leave with another man
I'd follow her by land and sea
if by sea in a war ship
if by land in a military train.)

Y si Adelita quisiera ser mi novia
y si Adelita fuera mi mujer
le compraría un vestido de seda
para llevarla a bailar al cuartel.

(If Adelita would like to be my girlfriend
If Adelita would be my wife
I'd buy her a silk dress
to take her to the barrack's dance.)

One of the earliest recordings of the song is from Trio González, waxed in 1917:

This rendition is in the original, simple, pure mariachi style - accompaniment by strings only, with a simple harmony in thirds around the melody.

A more contemporary mariachi sound, one in a style that you'd be more likely to hear in México today, is by Pepe Aguilar, a great singer in his own right but also son of the legendary Antonio Aguilar:

The trumpet flourish that opens the song is now an almost required element in modern arrangements of corridos, and the lushness of the instrumental accompaniment indicates how sophisticated (or you could say "commercial) traditional music in México has become, as is the case here.

A fine instrumental version here from Stephane Kubiak and orchestra:

Once again, the trumpets open the number, but note both the primacy of the strings (both violins and guitars) and the polka-like tempo throughout.

"Adelita" is one of a handful of genuine Mexican folk songs that has become popular in the U.S., especially in the southwest. Though English-language versions are rare, no less of a major pop vocalist than Nat "King" Cole gave the song a try in Spanish in the late 1950s:

Though Cole is singing only the chorus, he is showing a remarkable respect for and fidelity to the source song, very unusual for a norteamericano at the time.

Cole's version almost undoubtedly inspired the Kingston Trio's loose translation of one version of the lyric where Adelita is the passive lover and not the brave fighter:

This is clearly an anglicized version of the song, but while not copying the Spanish source, it too respects the song's origin in its own way - and it is no further afield from that than many of the KT's and other pop folk groups' renditions of English language traditional songs were.

And Mexican folk has also gone country and electric, as the next two versions demonstrate. First, the Country Roland Band combines "Adelita" with a familiar country tune:

And if you're ready for it - a Mexican punk version:

To such an end folk music seems to be coming worldwide. If you know Oysterband or the Dropkick Murphys or the Pogues or the Killigans, you'll recognize the trend of electrifying and rock-ifying songs that originally were neither.

Yet even in these last versions - which are not to my taste - something of the original spirit of La Adelita survives. I think that my personal favorite of these is the very first one in this collection, for its purity and its proximity in time to the actual inspiration for the song - who in my mind will always look like Katy Jurado: "I would never leave him like this. I would get a gun. I would fight."

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