LINDA RONDSTADT: and the mocking birds.
by Norman Warwick
Jim Farber, writing in The Guardian recently, said that right from the start of her career, Linda Ronstadt had talked to the media about her Mexican heritage. ´Back in 1967, Tiger Beat magazine asked me what my ambition was for my career,´ she recalled, when talking to him, ´I said I want to become a really good Mexican singer. But it wasn’t noticed or validated.´
Then, in the 1970s, when Ronstadt became a major star, she told Rolling Stone that her biggest influence was the Mexican singer Lola Beltrán. It fell on stony ground apparently. ´They spelled it Laura Del Turone,´ she recalled. ´They didn’t bother to get her name right because they didn’t think it mattered.´
Even in the late eighties, by which time Linda had made her heritage as obvious as possible by appearing in traditional Mexican garb on the Today Show while promoting an album she had cut of classic songs from that country, Canciones de Mi Padre, the show’s puzzled host, Jane Pauley, asked if her father was half-Mexican.
´Actually, he’s all Mexican,´ a flabbergasted Ronstadt drily answered.
´(The programme host) was trying to soften the blow of the word Mexican,´ the singer thinks now. ´That’s typical of what happens. Mexican Americans are always made to feel invisible.´
The singer’s lifelong frustration with that situation is one of the main reasons she took part in a poignant new documentary titled Linda And The Mockingbirds, a film which illuminates Ronstadt’s near three decade relationship with Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, an educational organization in the Bay Area that builds pride in young Mexican Americans by schooling them in the music and dance of their ancestral land. (this sounds very similar to a role played by Canarian folk lore music and dance here on Lanzarote)
The heart of the film chronicles a 2019 trip Ronstadt financed for Los Cenzontles (an Aztecan term for the Mockingbirds) to travel to the rural town of Banámichi, where her grandfather grew up, to perform with the folkloric dance troupe Grupo Danza Xunutzi. Ronstadt even brought along Jackson Browne, another strong supporter of the school, to add even further star quality.
Jackson is a man appeared on Sidetracks & Detours´ pages in features on his song For A Dancer, and the influence that had on Margaret Greenwood, a dancer in the UK then with SpiralDance, and also for a beautiful song of love he wrote for and about Joni Mitchell. Both articles are available in our archives.
The new documentary grew out of this and is a follow up of sorts to an earlier one released last year, The Sound Of My Voice, which covered Ronstadt’s musical career. The star, who no longer sings due to her 2013 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, was reluctant to take part in the earlier film and agreed to be interviewed for it only if the film-makers followed her trip to Mexico.
´I didn’t want to just be a talking head sitting in my living room talking about retirement,´ she told The Guardian.
The vibrancy of the music performed by Los Cenzontles, as well as the ugly politics that have affected both Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Trump’s “build the wall” era, inspired the film’s director, James Keach, to make the film. A key scene in it captures one of the organization’s most accomplished singers, Lucina Rodriguez, talking in front of the border wall about the harrowing experience she had as a child while crossing into the US with her family from her birthplace in Guadalajara. Purely by coincidence, Ronstadt and the singers arrived to film at the border the very day the Trump administration declared a state of emergency there.
´We got to see exactly what the ‘emergency’ was,´ Ronstadt said. ´It was a few citizens walking around the streets shopping for groceries or picking up the newspaper. There were no hordes of brown people clawing to get across the border. But, all along, the Trump administration has been encouraging resentment of people from Mexico.´
As a prime example, she cites a horrific incident that happened only weeks ago in which the trumpet player for the Mavericks, Lorenzo Molina Ruiz, and his friend Orlando Morales, were allegedly violently attacked in a restaurant in Cool Springs, Tennessee, for speaking Spanish.
Morales reportedly suffered a broken nose, internal bleeding and a concussion. Ronstadt blames the incident on the atmosphere fanned by the current administration.´
´As soon as Trump came down that escalator and called Mexican rapists, I said, ‘This is the new Hitler and Mexicans are the new Jews,’ she said in her interview by Farber.
The result has greatly exacerbated the sense of alienation and unspoken shame that have long affected Mexican Americans, according to Los Cenzontles founder Eugene Rodriguez.
´It’s a deep shame – one we don’t like to talk about,´ he said. ´It’s something instilled in us by 500 years of colonialism in Mexico.´
Rodriguez feels that teaching young Mexican Americans about the variety and sophistication of that country’s music and art can help heal some of that shame.
´If you’re playing with people who are among your community it’s a way to feel empowered and free,´ he said. ´They can take our land. They can kill us, but they can’t take our culture.´
For Ronstadt, Mexican culture has always been a source of pride. She believes she managed to escape the scourge of internalized prejudice because her light skin and Germanic surname disguised her cultural identity. (Ronstadt’s great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to Mexico in the 1800s).
´People didn’t have a clue I was Mexican unless they grew up with me,´ she said.
At the same time, her ability to “pass” meant that people felt free to voice their prejudices against Chicanos in front of her.
´I heard plenty of it,´ she said. ´I’d straighten them out fast.´
Ronstadt actually grew up in a household in Arizona where her extended family always sang Mexican songs. She always yearned to record them but her record company rejected the idea.
´I told them, I’ve got all these songs in Spanish and I’m sure they’d be hits,´ she said.
One of them was La Bamba and one was La Negra. I said, ‘If La Bamba was a hit, I can make La Negra a hit.´
But, she said, the company told her that Joan Baez had already recorded an album in Spanish for the label (Gracias a La Vida in 1974), so she couldn’t. Still, she bided her time. After having giant hits with albums covering American standards in the early eighties, years before it became a significant trend for contemporary singers to do so, she told her record company her plans to cut an all-Mexican work.
She said the company’s executives ´were horrified. But I had to sing those songs or I was going to die.´
The resulting collection wound up becoming the biggest-selling non-English language album in history. Ronstadt believes that album touched so many people with no experience in this music because the songs have ´emotion that’s very accessible. If it worked on me, I figured it would work on other people.´
She was proved right and tt was a great relief to Ronstadt to finally sing these songs after years of belting out rock anthems in stadiums.
´I was bored with rock’n’roll,´ she said. ´And I was tired of singing fast songs. I’m a ballad singer. And I like drama and nuance. This music has richer poetic images and more interesting rhythms.´
The songs she sang on the first of three Mexican albums she recorded came from the northern region of Sonora, where her family roots lie.
´There is a lot of German and French influence there,´ she said. ´The music uses accordions and German-style brass bands, reinterpreted in a Mexican style. I like to say that Mexicans took German and French music and made it sexy.´
Rodriguez remembers very well hearing Ronstadt’s Mexican music at that time. Many in his community, he says, didn’t then know about her heritage, but once they found out, it engendered pride.
´All the girls in the neighbourhood wanted to sing like Linda,´ he said.
Ronstadt first met Rodriguez a few years later, when she came across his students performing. She was deeply impressed by their authentic rendering of traditional music from a land some of them had never seen.
´They were playing music for the right reasons, to express their feelings and to connect with their grandparents,´ she said. ´They were not performing like trained seals.´
Their work moved her so much, she started bringing famous friends to see them, including Browne (who wound up writing a song with Rodriguez about the plight of Mexican immigrants titled The Dreamer), and Bonnie Raitt and the Chieftains, who took Los Cenzontles on tour with them. The group has also worked with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, recorded scores of their own albums and produced their own documentaries. Collectively, their work captures the unique experience of Mexicans in America.
´Mexican America is like its own country,´ said Ronstadt. ´We call it Aztlan, after the mythical places where the Aztecs originated from.´
In one of the most wrenching scenes in the film, Rodriguez expresses his anger over the treatment of Chicanos in the US, a feeling Ronstadt shares.
´I get especially angry when I see how people are treated when they come up here looking for work, especially the farm workers,´ she said. ´I challenge any prep school white boy to spend an hour picking strawberries in the full sun where you’re bent over and somebody sprays pesticide on you. And without ´(those workers), we can’t eat.”
At the same time, the film captures the joy, humour and skill of the music. One moving scene shows a student performing A la Orilla de un Palmar, a song about an orphaned Mexican girl which Ronstadt first heard sung by relatives when she was three. As the student performs the song in the film we see Ronstadt mouthing along with the words.
´I don’t sing any more,´ she says now, ´but I’m still involved with music. Los Cenzontles is my musical home now.´
I have followed the career of Linda Rondstadt since her Stone Ponies debut album in 1967, for which I am forever in her debt as it led me to the music of Fred Neil, because of her cover of Just A Little Bit Of Rain.
The following year brought us Stone Ponies And Friends, and indeed many of the writers she introduced me to on that album became ´friends´ for life. I count the likes of Laura Nyro, Tim Buckley and Steve Gillette as important contributors to my album collection.
Hand Sown Home Grown, her third album had her including songs by Bob Dylan, (check out our five piece special on Dylan in our archives of Sidetracks & Detours), Randy Newman and John D Loudermilk, No song, no writer, was beyond her and although she had a rock attitude it was delivered by a powerful operatic voice that could still somehow be addressed to the individual listener. When she sang to me that I¨ll Be Your Baby Tonight, I was seventeen years old, and my God, I believed her !
Her Silk Purse album of 1970, included, and steered me towards, the songs of Mickey Newbury, Mel Tillis and even a collaboration between Gene Clark and Bernie Leadon. I seem to recall that I knew of her Mexican roots then, but I was far too young and callow to understand the implications of her track lists.
I recall her performance of Blue Bayou on a Muppets show, and her later Trio albums with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris are amongst the half dozen or so albums I most treasure, with the third album of re-masters and out takes also my top ten.
The first album includes a stunning, no,… the most stunning,… version ever of Spector´s To Know Him Is To Love Him and their recording of Hobo´s Meditation, written by Jimmie Rodgers, is sublime.
That was followed a couple of years later with a wonderful, ghostly rendition of Neil Young´s After The Goldrush, (though I´m not sure if I imagined or am confusing another wonderful cut of that by Prelude. Can any reader confirm that? I´d much rather learn from a fan than by goggling at Google !).
The third album, running to over an hour, was sub-titled Unreleased And Alternate Takes, and those Unreleased included Waltz Across Texas Tonight (written by Emmylou in collaboration with Rodney Crowell), the traditional Softly And Tenderly, as well as Pleasant As May and My Blue Tears, both written by Dolly Parton. Also on the track list of unreleased songs was, amongst others, The Grey Funnel Line by Cyril Tawney, (left) a traditional sounding song but actually a contemporary composition being sung in English folk clubs at the time by all and sundry.
Years later, when the albums had become part of the treasures of ´country´ music the three ladies were brought back together to discuss their memories of making the recordings. What shone through our television screens was clear evidence of how genuine was their friendship and mutual respect and well concealed was any sense of stardom.
Nevertheless, look at what Dolly has written. Look at who Emmylou has written and performed with.
Look at the list of songwriters Linda Ronstadt has covered, and how much respect she has paid to their material. Then look again at the song titles just to remind yourself of her impeccable taste.
So maybe, just maybe, the Mexican music she champions is worthy of a much wider audience. I can certainly vouch that much of the country singer writer music I have listened to all my life has carried echoes of Mexico and I can tell you that one of the greatest moments of my life was when my wife and I drove through the dark and over the (fairly treacherous) volcano road on Lanzarote for the first time. We were so relieved when the lights of a village in the valley appeared and as we drove into the area, through crowds of pedestrians, men, women and children, all making the way towards a small stage in the town square,……. and there was a girl singer, and a six strong mariachi band. It was on that evening we decided to come and live here. We owe a lot to Mexican music.
Linda and the Mockingbirds is now available digitally in the US with a UK release date to be announced.