The Tyranny of the Songbook
- loans, theft and absurdities in folk music

In my collection are at least fourteen very different recordings of the song  Guantanamera (and more appear every time I go looking for them). Let me be more precise: by ”very different” I mean not only that they differ in the way any recording by another artist will differ from other recordings, but that these differ in regard to lyrics as well as musical style.

Three of the recordings are by the composer to whom this song is usually attributed, Jose(íto) Fernández Díaz  himself, and even these differ quite a lot in terms of style, tempo and lyrics. The general character is one of improvisation, and all three recordings leave the impression that José Fernández Díaz would sing and play it in yet another way were he to record it a fourth time – all of this as a result of improvisation.

This alone suggests that the version of Guantanamera we know from official songbooks may not be the only one, let alone the original.

The Peruvian group Los Incas also recorded Guantanamera; their version is much closer to the one in the songbooks, yet not quite like it.  The lyrics are different from those of Díaz and rather remote from the poem by Cuban José Martí  which in songbooks is usually given as the original source.  The music of Los Incas is obviously arranged and rather “mannered” (in the manner of ‘typical folklore’ they way we westerners recognize it as “Latin American”.  It bears a clear mark of “export” but is not suited as a model for communal singing.)

The recording by Los Paraguayos is the one closest to the printed version in the songbooks.  The rendition of the song is rather improvised, but the chorus stays the same after each verse (in contradistinction to the other, abovementioned recordings.)

The American folksinger Pete Seeger used the song as a signature song at his concerts and is often, but erroneously and wrongly, credited as lyricist, even as composer as is the case with songs like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "We Shall Overcome" which is obviously wrong – he was just the one to register them.  Martí's poem was not the original lyrics but added later (because they fit the tune), but all of this only goes to show that the song should not be perceived as something static and fixed in regard to lyrics, melody and style. 

The version of Guatanamera to become known in Europe (as well as in the rest of the world) was not the one by José Fernández Días, but the version by Los Paragyayas who were very popular in the 1960s and almost absolute ambassadors of Latin American music to the World when the professional music scene tried to combat the advent of rock music and looked for new inspiration from the Third World.  (See also the article Latin pop in Denmark.)  Also Pete Seeger adopted the version by Los Paragyayas and used their version of the chorus and a particular verse as a template for his version which enjoyed an instant success in those years of ‘alternative’ and heartfelt folk music. This ensured Seeger his place in the songbooks.

The problem is that the ‘uninitiated’ music teacher may teach this version of the song as the only one possible and without the element of improvisation that is so natural for a song which in its essence holds so many different versions that are all “right” in their own way.

Much the same thing goes for the folksong La Bamba  recorded by Ritchie Valens (Ricardo Velásquez – a Chicano rock icon from 1958.)  When comparing the lyrics of Valens’ rendition to other (more original) renditions of La Bamba one is led to believe that Valens (the Chicano) didn’t know the folk songs of his own people because the lyrics are somewhat poorer in their diction than the ones found in other sources.  Valens sings (and repeats) the first verse only.  It sounds as if he learned the song from a recording like Los Incas' 'export' and 'folkloristic' version and not from his grannie. At any rate, it’s not a folksong in the rock idiom but a Latin rock rendition of the arranged version by Los Incas.

Something similar is seen in new African music when an original African style has been discovered and incorporated in a new muscial style in the US and now returns to Africa as a ‘new’ African style (i.e. when Africans get to know it from a CD instead of from its original context) – an alienation from the people’s own music like the one presented by Ritchie Valens.  

All of which is quite another kettle of fish than the usual statement that Ritchie Valens remade his country’s and his people’s folk music into Latin-American rock’n’roll; it was filtered through the wringing machine of Los Incas’ pop version first. (Originally, Los Incas made it to the top of the charts because of the original sound of their Andes flute – cp. El Condor Pasa – but with growing demand they expanded their repertoire to encompass the music of other Latin-American countries.  (If I need to be corrected, e.g. that it is the other way round, i.e. that Los Incas heard Valens' version before they copied it, please mail me on this subject to erik(at) - substitute (at) with the usual "@".)

The Latin American music we got to know in Europe was not at all the folk music we thought it to be, and Latin-American music remains somewhat of a question mark instead of the exclamation mark that was put when "La Cucaracha" as one of the very first Latin-American hit songs thundered onto the world market in the 1920s. 

To enter a songbook a song must be notated in a fixed form of both lyrics and melody. As a result it stiffens and becomes rigid which is catastrophe for a song conceived as extemporaneously as Guantanamera.  Should we not sing it, then? Please do, but don’t let the instructor ‘correct’ you to make it sound like the one in the book.  

More details about the origins of Guantanamera and its true authors (lyrics and tune) at 
and especially at
both in Spanish

Erik Moldrup