An Austin arts group is exposing the roots of Texas music to a younger audience.
Folk music entered the mainstream for good in the sixties, and Texas’ best-known singers—such as Nanci Griffith and David Rodriguez—appeal mostly to middle-aged, well-educated Anglos. But for the past three years Texas Folklife Resources (TFR) has been trying to reverse the tide. Through a remarkable series of concerts and tours, the Austin-based nonprofit organization has been taking traditional fiddle, blues, and conjunto music to younger audiences around the state.
TFR’s most recent and most ambitious project, an October tour called Canciones y Corridos de la Frontera (“Songs and Ballads of the Borderlands”), played schools and public concerts in ten South Texas towns, including Brownsville, Roma, Del Rio, and Uvalde. Headlining the tour were Tish Hinojosa, an Austin folk singer frequently compared to Joan Baez, and Santiago Jimenez, Jr., the San Antonio accordionist who plays more of a roots-oriented conjunto sound than his brother Flaco. For both of these artists, the TFR-sponsored concert series was an opportunity to perform in a part of Texas they had rarely toured before. For the people they played to, the performances were an affirmation of the rich musical heritage they grew up with along the border.
I caught up with the tour in the gymnasium of Zapata High School, where Hinojosa and Jimenez played an hour-long set for a thousand or so middle and high school students after lunch. The show began with Jimenez’s rendition of “Viva Seguin,” a punchy polka instrumental written by his father almost fifty years ago. From the roar that greeted the first notes out of Jimenez’s squeezebox, it was obvious that the music still had currency on the border, no matter how old it was or how young the listeners were.
The enthusiasm remained high through Hinojosa’s set. The girls squealed at her retelling of a century-old feminist’s lament, “Malhaya la Cocina” (“Curses on the Kitchen”), and her performance of “La Llorona”—a ballad based on the Mexican legend of a crying woman who searches the river bottom at night for the children she drowned—brought wild cheers. When Jimenez joined Hinojosa for the finale, the kids were on their feet and the gym was, well, rocking—two middle school boys were even head-banging along with the music, as if this were a Pantera concert. The reaction was typical of that of audiences throughout the tour. The youngsters in the border towns may listen mostly to English-language pop music or modern tejano, but the traditional polkas, waltzes, and corridos (story songs based on true events) of their elders are clearly a source of pride.
Hinojosa knows a thing or two about that cultural duality. “In elementary school in San Antonio, kids called me a Mexican, but whenever my family went to Mexico on vacation I was an americano,” she recalled after the Zapata concert. Growing up, she said, her major musical influences were the Beatles and Agustín Lara. Traditional Spanish songs are part of Hinojosa’s usual repertoire, but she is not a purist—as is evidenced by her two recording contracts. Destiny’s Gate, her debut for the Nashville division of Warner Bros., is a straightforward pop and country album. She is also signed to Rounder, which in February will release Frontéjas, a collection of border songs.
Despite her eagerness to take part in the Texas Folklife Resources tour and her interest in her heritage, Hinojosa makes it clear where her artistic priorities ultimately reside: “For me, this tour was important because I want the approval of my culture, especially when I’m working in other directions. But what I don’t want to be is an American artist who gets so deep into her roots that I become a Hispanic artist. I don’t want to get stuck in the Latin music section of the record store.”
After the Zapata show, a long line of students and teachers waited to get her autograph. Ricky Martinez, the girls’ basketball coach, thanked her for performing “Chanate,” a ballad about a real-life cowboy of the same name. “I worked with him when I was a boy,” Martinez told her. “He taught me everything I know about cattle. Everyone knew him as a drunk, but he was the best—the real South Texas vaquero. I’m glad you’re giving him what he deserves.” Which is precisely the response that validates the work of Hinojosa, Jimenez, and the dedicated preservationists at Texas Folklife Resources.