The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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JUNE 2022 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: Music

6. 1955, Los Angeles

A Spanish-language parody of the TV theme “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” becomes an unexpected hit, especially in a subsequent English version that sells some 500,000 copies. This is a departure for the musician who a few years earlier had provided the soundtrack for the Pachuco subculture with recordings like “Marihuana Boogie” and “El Pachuco.” Across the Southwest, from El Paso to Tucson to LA, young, sharply-dressed Mexican-Americans would gather around jukeboxes to jive to his songs, which bristled with caló, the argot favored by Pachucos. Now, thanks to his sense of humor and melodic gift, Latinos and Anglos alike were listening avidly to his song about one Pancho Lopez, or rather two: in the Spanish lyrics Lopez is a prodigy who learns to shoot at the age of four, to sing, dance and play guitar at five, and by the age of eight is fighting, “brave as a lion,” alongside Pancho Villa. By contrast, his English-language counterpart is a fat “lazy son of a gun” who deserts the revolution to catch up on his sleep, and then “joins the wetback movement”; at the end of the song, he finds happiness opening a taco stand on Olvera Street in the Los Angeles barrio. Despite its popularity, the musician stops performing his biggest hit when it comes to be seen as racist by many Mexican-Americans. Not to make amends for the song but because he cares passionately about his fellow Chicanos, he begins to crisscross California performing at rallies and benefits for the United Farm Workers Union. Years later, his son, also a musician, points out how the real targets of “Pancho Lopez” were not “wetbacks” but the demeaning Mexican stereotypes engrained in the minds of so many white Americans. A more subtle message of both versions of the song, which few listeners pick up on, is that Davy Crockett, the American folk hero and Alamo martyr, met defeat and death at the hands of the Mexican Army.

(Lalo Guerrero)

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

All Issues