"Gracias A La Vida, que me ha dado tanto . . . "
In 1974, Joan Baez went into the studio to produce an album that would be a bit of a departure from her usual fare. The songs would be, with one exception, all in Spanish, and be taken from not only Mexico, but Latin America and Spain as well.
The result was Gracias A La Vida, and the album met with moderate success. The songs are an excellent mix of poems set to music, old legends, and a protest song or two (this is Joan Baez, after all). The arrangements are not typical Hollywood – Joan and her band went for a more traditional sound, calling in the group Mariachi Uclatan on many of the songs.
Joan dedicated the record “to my father, who gave me my Latin name and whatever optimism about life I may claim to have …”
I found this album while studying Spanish at San Jose State University in 1976, and it had quite an effect on me. I'd never really heard "real" Latin music (not much of that heard in Kentucky back then). It made the Spanish language just a bit more real, and sparked my interest in activism (that's another node someday!).
1. Gracias A La Vida (Thanks to Life) (3:34), written by the Chilean poet and activist Violeta Parra. I was told once that shortly after composing this wonderful song, full of joy about life and love, Parra committed suicide over a failed love affair. Nonetheless, this rendition is very up-tempo, with a very Andean flavor to the music. No matter what my mood, this song always brightens me up a bit.
2. Llegó Con Tres Heridas (Three Wounds) (2:11), written by Miguel Hernandez, a poet who fought in the Spanish Civil War and died in prison in 1942. It is a simple song, with a simple arrangement, and here it sounds almost like a dirge. The poet comes with just three wounds … one of life, one of love, and one of death.
3. La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) (3:38) is Joan’s version of the old Mexican folk legend. La Llorona was a woman named Maria who married a handsome rancher and bore him two children. The rancher grew tired of her and seemed to care only for the children. One day, Maria saw him in an elegant carriage with a wealthy lady. When he stopped and only spoke to the children, she was filled with uncontrollable rage. She swept up the children and threw them in a nearby river. Though she realized almost immediately what she’d done, it was too late. The children were swept away, even as she ran along the river, her arms held out as if to pull them back. To this day, she is said to wander the countryside by night, crying for her lost children.
The song itself is not about the legend. The singer, instead, tells La Llorona that he is just a shadow of his former self and that, though it cost him his life, he won’t stop loving her.
4. El Preso Número Nueve (Prisoner Number Nine) (3:22) is another song from México. It tells of a man who came home one night and found his woman in the arms of a “disloyal friend”. In prison, the man tells the priest that yes, he killed them. “And if I’m born again,” the man says, “I’ll find them again and I’ll kill them again.” Though the song was written for a male singer, Joan gives it all the emotional force it requires.
5. Guantanmera (3:50) is Joan’s version of this popular song that was a hit for The Sandpipers. It is an adaptation of the poem by the Cuban poet José Martí. Most recordings of this song are done ballad-style; here Joan does it up-tempo.
6. Te Recuerdo Amanda (I Remember You, Amanda) (2:31). The music and lyrics of this track were written by Victor Jara of Chile, who disappeared sometime in September 13 – 17, 1973, during the Salvador Allende turmoil. It’s a sad song about Amanda, for whom nothing matters but her Manuel. Each day at work, she lives only for the few minutes she can be with him. One day, though, he goes off to the mountains (presumably to fight), and in only five minutes is “cut to pieces”.
7. Dida (3:33). This track is just a simple vocal ballad, consisting of one lyric: “Dida”, almost like a vocalese. Joni Mitchell assists Joan with backing vocals. An alternate version of the song appears on Joan’s album Diamonds and Rust.
8. Cucurrucucu Paloma (4:29), by Tomas Mendez. This one is another “pop” song. The “cucurrucucu” is the sound the dove (paloma) makes as it sings to a man who is dying from a broken heart. The dove comes to him each day in his grief and may be his soul, hoping for the return of his love. It’s performed here in traditional mariachi style.
9. Paso Rio (I Pass a River) (0:56). Another simple folk song from Spain. The singer passes by rivers and fountains that remind him of one he always finds washing there. No one can drink of the fountains, though, because her eyes have poisoned them. Joan performs this one a cappella, and uses it as a lead-in to the next track.
10. El Rossinyol (The Nightingale) (3:01) is the only song on the album not in Spanish, but in Catalán. It is derived from the old (possibly 13th century) legend of la bella mal maridada, the beautiful girl badly married. The song is about a girl trapped in an unfortunate marriage to a shepherd. She tells the nightingale her story and asks it to remember her to her mother in France. The music has a courtly, old-world feel to it and the song was my introduction to the Catalán language and culture.
11. De Colores (In Colors) (2:26). There’s no way this song, the favorite folksong of the United Farmworkers Union, wouldn’t be included. Joan performs it in traditional cheery style
12. Las Madres Cansadas (The Weary Mothers) (2:55). This song is one of the two true “protest” songs on the album. This track speaks of weary mothers, laborers, who will at last rest; a farmer whose brow will be wet with the tears of businessmen “who see what they’ve done to him”; and soldiers who will lay down their arms and, as they burn their uniforms, ignore their generals.
A reading of the twelfth canto from Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Machu Picchu follows the song, and Joan reads it in clear, crisp Spanish. The recitation leads directly into the next track.
13. No Nos Moverán (We Shall Not Be Moved) (3:39), Joan’s translation of the old-time spiritual. She uses some reverb on the verse, which gives the track almost a live feel, as if it were being performed at a camp meeting.
14. Esquinazo del Guerrillero (The Guerilla’s Serenade) (2:42), a poem by Fernando Alegría and music by Rolando Alarcón of Chile. The guerilla is singing to his lover of a battle that he’s won. It’s an up-tempo song, almost a happy one.
Produced by Joan Baez and Henry Lewy for JCB Productions. Recorded by A & M Records, catalog number 828 393 614-2.
Gracias A La Vida, liner notes