What's In a Song?

The art of music as a cultural tool

By Frankie Firme
Published on LatinoLA: September 10, 2007

What's In a Song?

The World in which we live can only be described as autonomous. I mean that to say, no matter what I or others do, the World is still gonna turn, the sun is still gonna shine, and people are gonna to have to realize that everyday, there's more of us... and we're just gonna have to get along.

Nothing can debate or change those facts. What is debatable and worthy of consideration for change is the impetus for this piece...so read on, my friends.

I stopped to ponder recently, as I took some time off from my real world job and my beloved Chicano music world after a dizzying summer of activity and travel that brought me closer to the Gente ...and I thought, where did this all come from, and where is it going?

A cacophony of explanations, descriptions, rationalizations, and conclusions can not suffice to say that we are living in a historical era that will be examined and judged by the art of our times 100 years from now.

The dictionary defines art as : (1) "The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, or other elements that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production, of the beautiful in a graphic medium" (2) "a non scientific branch of learning"(3) "human works of beauty that can be considered a group".

With that stated, and with my efforts to explore many new aspects of art hitherto insignificant to me, I couldn't help but notice that the art of music and song chronicles our life and times for posterity, and I wondered how my grandchildren will see the world my generation has left them.

Bands with names like TIERRA, NUESTRO, TOWER OF POWER, EARTH-WIND & FIRE, EL CHICANO, WAR, BROTHERS OF SOUL, and others who's names originated in their desire for peace and harmony while reflecting their social concerns during the tumultuous times during and after the 1960's & Viet Nam War, a time when so much social change occurred that we're still digesting it over 40 years later, are my candidates for chroniclers of my generation of baby boomers.

Concern and worry for our world, our people, our society, and the survival of the earth is not new, as many classic songs and poems reflect.

While searching through some historical art and song, I came across a childhood rhyme that reflected a health hazard that was killing people in mass numbers in Europe during the Dark Ages ( roughly 5 A.D. to 1000 A.D.). "Ring around the rosie" is a song describing the ultimate result of the bubonic plague. Wow! A 1000 year old health warning, I thought!

Over 34 years ago, we had a very serious gas shortage in America that I doubt drivers under 40 can even recall. I'm talking gas lines, odd & even days, remember? During that time, the TOWER OF POWER recorded a song called "There is only so much oil in the ground" that predicted and described problems we're now facing. We're presently at war, and the loss of World power associated with the most plentiful reserves of oil in the World are what's at stake if we lose this war.

Speaking of war, the war we are presently engaged in is the first one our country's ever been involved in that didn't depend on conscripted young men, in other words, the draft.
The draft ended in 1973 in the U.S. as a direct result of mass social protest over the U.S.'s 15 year involvement in Viet Nam. EARTH , WIND, and FIRE recorded a song called "Where have all the flowers gone?" that softly describes the loss of young soldiers during the Viet Nam war with a haunting chorus directed towards our political leaders "...when will they ever learn?.."...the message is still clear today.

TIERRA, a band who's name literally means "The land", took the name as a social statement, playing music that reflected the spirit, people, and tastes of the Brown society post Viet Nam, post Chicano Movimiento, post Nixon~Watergate. Their early original cut "Barrio Suite" remains a classic in West Coast social commentary.

For Chicanos, Mexican~Americans, and other Latinos, the word "immigration" puts a bad taste in our mouths, as we have become the focus group for the ignorant when this word is now mentioned.

Over 40 years ago, the word "gay" simply meant "happy, joyful, cheerful, and excited". A social attitude change, resulting in acceptance, has added another definition well known to us now.

Over 100 years ago, the word "immigration" meant a change, and chance to start a new life somewhere else out of poverty and political hegemony.

Today, both those words are used derogatorily by the ignorant, uninformed, and uncaring segment of our population. (...we gotta get along, remember?...)

EL CHICANO, a music group originating out of San Gabriel, California, took their name as a vanguard banner of the social upheaval & protest during the Chicano Movimiento & Moratorium of the late 1960's and early 1970's. Fighting stereotype, especially from many of their own people, EL CHICANO set out to prove that "Chicano" was not a dirty word by impressing the world with their original and versatile style of West Coast Chicano Latin Jazz. Many could not believe that these Mexican~American kids were capable of sophisticated musical talent, good enough to be invited to perform at New York's famed Apollo Theater. Their first hit song "Viva Tirado" reflects the Chicano's attitude and desire to succeed while going against the grain of traditions and accepted expectations."Viva Tirado" was written by L.A. Jazz trumpeter Gerald Wilson in tribute to Mexican bullfighter Jose Ramon Tirado...who would refuse to kill the bull he was fighting, hence, reflecting Tirado's love and respect for life, even in an arena of violence an death.

Many older family members and friends, as well as researched people I have been fortunate to have made contact with, have told me the legend of the words "Chicano" and Pachuco".

From what I've been told and researched, there was a large migration of Mexican~Americans from El Paso, Texas in the 1940's, 50's, an 60's. Historically,being the site of one of the U.S. Army's oldest and largest bases, Fort Bliss, El Paso developed a large community surrounding the base that inevitably required bi-lingual abilities from brown, native Indian, and Caucasian people in order to function cohesively. To help protect it's border with Mexico during the manpower shortage of WW I, The U.S. Army enlisted many of the local Mexican~American men, former slaves, and many Mexican Revolution veterans from the neighboring Mexican state of Chihuahua.

These "Chihuahua Mexicanos" (later shortened to "Chicanos") became the first bi-lingual U.S. Soldiers and border guards. Despised by the Mexicans for "speaking the white man's language and going the white man's way" , and mistrusted by many in the U.S. as "just English speaking Mexicans, but still Mexicans", the Chicanos from El Paso had distinguished themselves as expert cavalrymen during the Mexican Revolution, then WW I, and during countless skirmishes with renegade Indians, Mexican bandits, and disgruntled Confederate veterans who migrated to the "Republic" of Texas.

The "Chicanos" were despised and envied, yet flamboyant in their success. This envy has carried down through generations of monolingual, spanish speaking people of Mexico, making the word "Chicano" a source of ridicule and loathe for not speaking spanish as their first language, yet indicating a dark skinned, educated and bi-lingual Mexican American of warrior roots, with talents exceeding those of traditionally accepted farmworkers and ranch hands...an unadmitted source of envy.

"El Chuco" was originally a slang name for the town of El Paso, Texas, in the same manner "The big Apple" denotes New York, "Chi-town" denotes Chicago, and "L.A." denotes Los Angeles. This was later shortened in slang to just "Chuco".

As what happens when languages intermarry, slang and neogisms (new words) form in the vicissitudes of the day, and native tongues are bastardized. The Spanish slang of the 1930's, 40's & 50's became known as "Calo". The style of dress was the "Zoot Suit", initially developed by a white Jazz player in Chicago who would have second hand extra large suits tailored to fit him., because he couldn't afford new ones.

Somewhere along the line the Spanish word denoting support & possession ( "para" or "pa" meaning "for"), got intertwined with the Spanish word denoting origin ("de" or "del" , meaning "from" or "of"), and instead of somebody saying "I am from El Paso" ("yo soy de El Paso") The Calo version became "Yo soy pa Chuco". Hence Chihuahua Mexicanos from El Paso became "Chicanos Pachucos". A later slang word describing them was "chigas patas", indicating a dancer who dressed sharp.

As time evolved, bi-lingual and english speaking only Mexican Americans became known as simply "Chicanos".

During WW II, wanting to avoid the publicity of possibly admitting to losing the war in the early years, the United States and the American media needed another scapegoat aside from the Japanese American citizens, in the same manner that the Nazis needed to scapegoat the Jews of Europe, in a Machiavellian maneuver to divert attention away from the war, and place blame for social ills onto a selected group of people...Chicanos.

Despite young people in the United States of Mexican American, Filipino, Japanese, Jewish, Black, and Caucasian ancestory all wearing Zoot Suits, Zoot Suits were labled as the attire of the Chicanos, many of them "pa Chuco" migrants.

All of a sudden "Zoot Suiters", and the new word "Pachuco" became undeservedly synonymous with gang members and anti Americanism in the early 1940's , and the "Zoot Suit Riots" came to be. There is a whole, albeit small & incorrect, chapter of American history available on this subject that the interested reader is encouraged to research.

History is barely beginning to correct itself over 60 year later, and "Chicano" and "Pachuco" are only dirty words in the minds of the uninformed, the ignorant, and the envious.

Rare music recorded by Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti reflect this era, almost lost to history and Americana.I highly recommend it. Makes good dancing, too!

Times may change, but some things won't....unless we want them to, and we can't go anywhere intelligently as a society...until we know where we've been unintelligently, know what I mean?

Many years ago, people scoffed at the idea of paying for water in a bottle or having a cordless phone that fit into your pocket or needing more than one car...get my drift?

For my money, I'll listen to the music, those voices of the past that still talk me...

...I still have time to learn...we all do !

About Frankie Firme:
Frankie Firme is the Al capone of the microphone, and the Hitman of West Coast Chicano Soul. Catch his raio shows at: www.eastLArevue.com and www.chicanoexpress.com

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