Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Spanish Moon: Spain and Latin America in Dylan’s Texts

Any longtime Dylan fan has undoubtedly noticed how so many of his songs include references to Mexico, Latin America and Spain. Having lived in Mexico for a spell I've been especially fond of many of these songs, most recently the tender version of "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue" on Another Self-Portrait: Bootleg Series, Volume 10.

One of the Facebook sites I recently began following is Bienvenido a Dylan Lorca which highlights the relationship between Dylan and the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, considered by many as one of the most important Spanish poets of the 20th century.

This past week someone posted a really great summary of the numerous times Dylan has cited Latin American and Spanish references in his songs in a paper by Christopher Rollason titled “Sólo Soy Un Guitarrista”: Bob Dylan in the Spanish-Speaking World–– Influences, Parallels, Reception, and Translation.  The following is an excerpt from a section with the heading The Spanish Moon: Spain and Latin America in Dylan’s Texts.

The Songs

In his 1975 song “Abandoned Love” Dylan sang: “The Spanish moon is rising on the hill,” and over his career references to things Spanish and Latin American have been scattered through his work. In his prose text of 1963 “My Life in a Stolen Moment,” recalling his University of Minnesota days, Dylan actually claims some knowledge of Spanish: “I did OK in Spanish though but I knew it beforehand.” Be that as it may, the 1974 song “Something There Is About You,” which speaks of youthful times in Duluth, the town of Robert Allen Zimmerman’s birth, mentions a character called Danny Lopez: Dylan thus relates a Hispanic name to the idea of beginnings. Other Dylan characters find themselves south of the border. In “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” Big Jim thinks he has seen the Jack of Hearts “down in Mexico”; the Brownsville Girl too disappears, in the song that bears her name, “way down in Mexico.” “Goin’ to Acapulco,” “Romance in Durango” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (located in Ciudad Juárez) are all explicitly set in or near Mexican cities. “Durango,” in particular, addressed in the first person to a woman called Magdalena by an unnamed gunman, refers to Mexican culture (“past the Aztec ruins and the ghosts of our people”) and history (“We’ll drink tequila where our grandfathers stayed / When they rode with Villa into Torreón”). “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” though it does not name Mexico, is surely set there, and has often been read as a critique of US intervention in Latin America. 7 That subject is visibly taken up in its economic aspect in “North Country Blues” (“it’s much cheaper down / In the South American towns / Where the miners work almost for nothing”), and “Union Sundown” (“the car I drive is a Chevrolet / It was put together in Argentina / By a guy makin’ thirty cents a day”). Argentinian cultural or political motifs feature in “Farewell Angelina” (“little elves . . . dance / Valentino-type tangos”), that song’s double “Angelina” (“Tell me, tall men, where would you like to be overthrown, / In Jerusalem or Argentina?”), and “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (“She could be respectably married / Or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires”).

Across the Atlantic, Spain features in the Dylan song canon via “Boots of Spanish Leather,” with its “mountains of Madrid” and “coasts of Barcelona”: those boots originally walked out of the folksong “Black Jack Davey,” with its gypsy theme, which Dylan covered years later on Good As I Been To You. “Cross the Green Mountain,” his song of the American Civil War from 2003, has the lines “Heaven blazin’ in my head / I dreamt a monstrous dream,” which recall Francisco Goya’s famous etching “El sueño de la razón engendra monstruos” (“The sleep of reason produces monsters”). Elsewhere, “Spanish” appears as an adjective, whether pointing to Spain as such or things Hispanophone in general, as in the Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ “Spanish manners.” Dylan even sings a few words in Spanish on two recordings––the already-mentioned “Romance in Durango” (“No llores, mi querida / Dios nos vigila . . . / Agárrame, mi vida”––“Don’t cry, my darling / God protects us . . . / Hold on tight, love of my life”), and the traditional “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” set in Sonora, Mexico (“Mi amor, mi corazón”––“My love, my heart”). It may not, then, come as a total surprise to learn that in the late 70s/early 80s there were rumours of Dylan making an entire album of songs in Spanish. This album, which would have had official release only in the Spanish-speaking world, would have consisted of Dylan classics, translated into the “loving tongue” and performed by the master himself. There was even talk of the songs being rendered into Spanish by none other than Robert Graves, a long-term resident of Majorca whom Dylan, in Chronicles Volume One, recalls meeting once. The project, however, was foreclosed by Graves’ death in 1978.

Dylan originally recorded "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue" for his 1973 album of covers simply titled Dylan. The album itself did not fare well with the critics but I had a copy back then and enjoyed his renditions of Big Yellow Taxi, Mr. Bojangles and Lily of the West. The simpler version of "Loving Tongue" evokes a much more emotional response for me than the over-produced version that came out on the record.

The song is based on a 1907 poem by Charles Badger Clark, a cowboy poet who later became the Poet Laureate of South Dakota. Set t music in 1925 it has been recorded by many other well-known artists including Judy Collins, Marianne Faithful, Tom Paxton and Emmylou Harris.

What prompted me to share this today was the discovery that Dylan performed this song in concert only once, in San Antonio on May 11, 1976. (39 years ago tomorrow.) This goes out to all my San Antonio friends and memorias de Mexico.

Spanish Is The Loving Tongue

Broke my heart, lost my soul
Adios, mi corazon
Spanish is the loving tongue
Soft as music, light as spring
It was a girl I learned it from
Living down Sonora way
Well, I don't look much like a lover
Still I say her love words over
Mostly when I'm all alone
Mi amor, mi cora sole.

Haven't seen her since that night
I can't cross the line you know
They want me for a gamblin' fight
Like as not it's better so
Still I always kind of missed her
Since that last sad night I kissed her
Broke her heart, lost my own
Adios, mi cora sole
Broke her heart, lost my own
Adios, mi cora sole
Adios, mi cora sole
Adios, mi cora sole.

Photos here taken in Mexico with a Minolta SLR using Ektachrome 400 in 1980-81, Cuernavaca and Monterrey

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