Early Hispanic Guitar

by

excerpt from David Bradford (www.19thcenturyguitar.com):

In antebellum United States, the guitar was principally a genteel instrument of the middle class. In Mexico the instrument was played by all social and economic ranks of Spanish colonists. Missionaries taught Native Americans to both play and to build the guitar. The Native American converts mastered not only Spanish music and performance practices, but also incorporated the guitar into their own style of music.

This encouraged a rich guitar folk music tradition – actually numerous regional traditions – and also the development of a diverse range of guitars and guitar-like instruments, from the small vihuela (not the six-course Renaissance vihuela, but a smaller guitar with eight strings arranged in five courses, and a rounded back), to the enormous guitarrón, to meet the needs of those folk music styles.

Spain once laid claim to much of the American South and virtually all of the American West. In Spanish California, where the land was rich and settlers quickly prospered, young people of the wealthy landowning class “seem to have a talent and taste for music,” according to one observer. “Many of the women played the guitar skillfully, and the young men the violin. In almost every family there were one or more musicians, and everywhere music was a familiar sound.”

Among the lower classes the guitar was seemingly a constant presence: “In the New Mexican village the sound the guitar is always heard, and the dance is continuous,” wrote a traveler to the Southwest. “Not alone in the evening, but at midday, beneath some shade, or in an open court-yard, the passer-by stops, dances as long as he chooses, and passes on.”

In the Southwest, itinerant professional singer/guitarists – known variously as trovadores populares, ciegos, cantadores and guitarerros – traveled from town to town. These footloose musicians typically were street performers, but also were hired to perform for dances and parties. Alan Lomax, in the 1930s, collected border ballads from a blind singer/guitarist in Brownsville, Texas named José Suarez who was a twentieth century incarnation of the type of musician who had been plying his trade for decades, if not for more than a century, in Mexican and Mexican-American communities:

“He has been blind since childhood, but is cane guides him everywhere through the city, to bars, to dances, to family parties, and everywhere his guitar and his ballads make him welcome. … He knows all the popular songs of the day, all the old border ballads, and whenever anything of excitement and import occurs, he makes a new historia for the information of his people. His songs concern the bandits of the border country, the troubles of the migratory cotton pickers, the disasters of the train wrecks, storms and wars and the pleasures of mescal.”

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