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José Alfredo Jiménez and the Canción Ranchera

Originally published in the MENC February and May 2008 Mariachi Newsletters. Reprinted by permission.

This article is excerpted from its full version, which was originally published in the Volume 2, 1983 issue of Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. Reprinted with permission.

William Gradante has taught mariachi and classic guitar since 1980 in Fort Worth, Texas. He is a scholar in the field of Colombian regional folk music and mariachi history.

When the aficionado of Mexican music thinks of the canción ranchera (ranch song), he thinks of singers like Pedro Infante, Lucha Reyes, Javier Solís, Miguel Aceves Mejía, Amalia Mendoza, Jorge Negrete, Lucha Villa, José Alfredo Jiménez, and others. But when he thinks of the authors of such songs, the name of José Alfredo stands out as probably the greatest of all composers of canciones rancheras.

The wealth of his songs appearing in Mexican cancioneros (song books) and the number of artists who have not only made hit recordings of his songs but have dedicated entire LPs and concerts to his music attest to his importance in the history of Mexican popular music since 1946.

Early Years

José Alfredo Jiménez Sandoval was born on January 19, 1926, in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, the site of the 1810 insurrection of Father Miguel Hidalgo and the local Indian peons against the Spanish rulers. At one time, José Alfredo's parents entertained hopes that he would eventually study to become a doctor, but his disinterest in his schoolwork and his passion for composing verses about the heroic deeds of his hometown quickly put an end to such thinking. Jiménez had to struggle every inch of the way down the long, hard road to recognition.

His father, Agustín, who owned and operated a small drugstore, died in 1936, leaving the family nearly destitute and forcing them to sell the store and search for other means of sustenance. This soon proved futile and José Alfredo's mother, Carmelita Sandoval, moved with her four children to Mexico City in 1939.

Having completed his elementary education, José Alfredo began to take on any and all jobs he could find, hoping to help support the family. Heriberto Molina, violinist and vocal soloist of the world famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, was a close friend of José Alfredo for many years and regarded him as something of a hero, not only in his role as a well known singer-composer, but as a man who had to struggle every inch of the way down the long, hard road to acceptance and ultimate recognition.

During the early years of his career, José Alfredo worked as a shoeshine boy, truck loader, busboy, and waiter. In his early teens, he peddled ladies' footwear throughout the Santa María la Ribera section of Mexico City, and in his free afternoons sang with a trio known as Los Rebeldes. This trio became quite popular on a local level after having the opportunity to perform on the radio station XEL. The young composer, however, was not entirely satisfied with local recognition or with the idea of having to limit his musical life to after hours work in the cantinas of his barrio.

Roadblocks

Juan S. Garrido describes the decade 1931-1941 as “La Edad de Oro da le Canción Popular” (The Golden Age of the Popular Canción) in Mexico, an era in which an enormous number of beautiful canciones were written. It was also a time when the increasing importance of the recording industry and the popularity of radio made it extremely difficult for a newcomer to make a name for himself in the steadily more competitive musical arena. Thus, for ten years, José Alfredo was forced to resign himself to his new life in the capital city accompanied by his old acquaintances, poverty, and anonymity.

In 1946 José Alfredo Jiménez participated in Radio XEW's "Hora del Aficionado" (Amateur Hour), singing songs written by other composers. He himself recalled the experience, saying "me tocaron la campana y el público chifló. Ahora me río pero en aquella ocasión creo que hasta salí llorando" ("They rang the bell on me, and the audience hissed. Now I can laugh about it, but I believe that, that night, I even left in tears").

He possessed an elusive quality that led him to be considered an "angel" by some of his contemporaries. Clearly, José Alfredo Jiménez was not what the Mexican of his day envisioned as a popular singer. Rosmel comments that, although José Alfredo sang nearly all his life, his voice was never that of a singer. Both Heriberto Molina and Pepe Martínez and other members of the Mariachi Vargas agreed that a beautiful voice was not one of José Alfredo's gifts-an opinion shared by several other lesser-known musicians I have interviewed on this topic.

Jorge Luís Ríos of the popular music magazine La Canción Mexicana (The Mexican Song) points out that the mass public audience is most easily impressed by a singer who not only has a beautiful voice, but is physically attractive as well. The validity of the statement becomes increasingly obvious when one considers that some of the most successful performers of the era were Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Miguel Aceves Mejía, and Pedro Vargas, all of whom, in addition to being popular singers, were top movie box office attractions.

Ríos adds that, although José Alfredo Jiménez, in his opinion, was blessed with neither good looks nor a beautiful voice, he did possess another, more elusive quality that led him to be considered an "angel" by some of his contemporaries. The most important aspect of this unique quality was his ability to bring to each performance the same level of emotional involvement that he experienced at the moment in which he composed the song.

According to all of my informants there was indeed "something different" about José Alfredo Jiménez. José Hernández Díaz, the owner of the internationally famous Tenampa restaurant and bar in Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi, fondly remembered him as a humble and very friendly man who was always more at home in the casual working class atmosphere of a cantina than in the company of Mexico City's wealthier citizenry, whose economic status he eventually attained and surpassed.

Rise to Fame

The first of José Alfredo's songs to be recorded was the canción ranchera entitled "Yo." It was first recorded by the Trio de los Hermanos Samperio and later gained more popularity with the recording of Elpidio Ramírez and Los Huastecos. Finally Mariano Rivera Conde of Radio XEQ recorded it with the Conjunto Los Costeños of Andrés Huesca and it became one of the best selling records of 1950 and remained in the Top Ten list from August 1950 through February 1951. The success of "Yo" prepared Mexico for "Ella."

The success of "Ella" opened the doors to fame for Jiménez. José Alfredo Jiménez had written "Ella" at the age of 18 as a consequence of his first experience of love and deception, and it remained one of his personal favorites for many years. This song was the first of his compositions to be performed in the Mexican cinema, sung by Pedro Infante in El Gavilán Pollero (The Chicken Hawk), and while it was his second major success in Mexico, it was the first to gain widespread popularity in the United States. It was also the first to receive negative comments from the Mexican music critics. It was demasiado cruda (too crude), muy directa (too direct), and poco romántica (not romantic enough).

Heriberto Molina was quite emphatic in his statement that it was the success of "Ella" that definitively "opened the doors to fame" for Jiménez. "Ella" remained among the top ten songs in Mexico from November 1950 until August 1951, when it momentarily slipped off the list, only to reappear in September. As Ayala's "Desfile de Éxitos" illustrates, during the first six months after its release, it dominated the top two rankings.

Throughout the 1950s, the music of José Alfredo Jiménez maintained a position of dominance in the Mexican popular music scene, with such hit recordings as "La Que Se Fue" (She Who Went Away), "Cuando el Destino" (When Destiny Calls), "Tu Recuerdo y Yo" (Your Memory and I), "El Jinete" (The Horseman), "Serenata Huasteca" (Huastecan Serenade), "Camino de Guanajuato" (Road through Guanajuato), and "Un Mundo Raro" (A Strange World). From 1950 to his death in 1973, he wrote between 400 and 500 songs, over 300 of which were published.
Stay tuned to future newsletters for more historical information about mariachi greats such as Jiménez and the evolution of mariachi genres such as the canción ranchera.

A Mariachi Trilogy

The Mexican variant of our own "Gold Record" award was established in 1950, but it actually more closely resembles our Grammy Awards. José Alfredo Jiménez received the award for Best Composer for the years 1950–51, 1951–52, 1954–55, and his huapango "El Jinete" won the Best Song award for 1953–54. At that time José Alfredo figured primarily as a composer, while movie stars with almost operatic singing voices won the awards for Male Vocalist, though simultaneously making his music famous. The three most important of those were Pedro Vargas, Pedro Infante, and in particular, Miguel Aceves Mejía. Following their example, singers such as Amalia Mendoza, Lucha Villa, El Trío Los Panchos, and Lola Beltrán-as well as internationally known non-Mexican artists such as Paul Anka, Camilo Sesto, Julio Iglesias, Raphael, Vikki Carr, and Eydie Gorme-have recorded José Alfredo Jiménez’s music. Heriberto Molina, longtime vocalist for Mariachi Vargas, explained that

Siempre han habido trilogías dentro del ambiente artístico. Le voy a enumerar algunas: Sale Jorge Negrete como cantante, entonces sale Ernesto Cortázar y Manuel Esperón como compositores y como arreglista sale Manuel Esperón. Viene después José Alfredo Jiménez como compositor. Sale Miguel Aceves Mejía como interprete y Rubén Fuentes como arreglista.

(There have always been trilogies or threesomes in the artistic community. These include the following: Jorge Negrete emerged as a singer along with Ernesto Cortázar and Manuel Esperón as composers and Manuel Esperón as arranger. Later came José Alfredo Jiménez as composer, and along with him, Miguel Aceves Mejía as performer and Rubén Fuentes as arranger.)

The role of Rubén Fuentes as José Alfredo Jiménez’s arranger must not be underestimated. Molina explained how he and Juan Pinzón, another violinist of the Mariachi Vargas, frequented the modest apartment José Alfredo lived in even after having earned over a million pesos. In one room he maintained a small cantina which he affectionately and nostalgically referred to as "El Tenampa." Molina remembered how the bar and floor were scattered with torn pieces of paper on which José Alfredo had scribbled snatches of poetry to be utilized in future compositions.

José Alfredo never learned to read or write music, nor did Molina ever see him play any musical instrument. It was to Rubén Fuentes, the arranger of the music of the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, that José Alfredo Jiménez brought his fragmentary compositions for organization and notation. Often rhymes or even entire lines were missing or inadequate and had to be recomposed or rearranged until they made musical, metric, and poetic sense. As José Alfredo’s compadre, Rubén Fuentes was also a close personal friend and, according to Molina, "siempre fue un paño de lágrimas para José Alfredo Jiménez" ("he was always a sympathetic 'crying towel' for José Alfredo Jiménez").

It has already been noted that the voices of Pedro Vargas, Pedro Infante, and Miguel Aceves Mejía turned many of José Alfredo's compositions into successful recordings. Along with many other singers, they also sang his songs in numerous films throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Later, José Alfredo himself appeared in films making occasional "musical appearances" in which he himself sang, and eventually acting in what were apparently limited roles. In 1954, "Camino de Guanajuato" became the first of many of his songs to serve as the title of a movie in which he was the featured performer of several of his compositions.

Songs for the People

But let us return to that special "something" about José Alfredo Jiménez. All sources agree that he never had a beautiful voice, was no actor, and certainly was not good looking. It seems that it was precisely his "ordinary-ness" that made him the beloved poet and singer that he became, for it was for the Mexican masses, the "ordinary" people, that he composed and sang. Ríos notes that, "la música del compositor de Guanajuato es para el pueblo y es el pueblo mismo que lo tiene colocado en el lugar de los favoritos" ("the music of the composer from Guanajuato is for the common people and it is the common people's support which had made him a favorite"). In fact, Ríos also points out that José Alfredo Jiménez has enjoyed much greater royalty earnings than even the "immortal" Agustín Lara, who published more than twice as many songs.

That José Alfredo's music should have had such great appeal to the masses can be understood by examining the essential nature of the Mexican canción. Rubén Campos asserts that:
 La canción mexicana es breve: es una queja y un suspiro, y no puede menos que ser breve. Es un pensamiento expresado en una forma musical que solo tiene un ritornello. En la literatura musical es, sin duda, la composición más breve, y por tanto, requiere una intensidad mayor de expresión que cualquier otra composición musical. Debe decir lo que quiere decir. Debe expresar en una forma poética y concluyente, lo que un músico sabio diluiría en muchos compases artificiosamente recarnados con el primor de los procedimientos artísticos. En la canción, el músico no tiene más que la sentimentalidad concentrada en una forma clara y breve. Va al alma del pueblo, que no entiende de fugas sino cuando las propone a una novia, y no sabe de gramática sino conjugar el verbo amar. La canción, por lo tanto, debe ser sencilla y sincera. La falta de artificio queda compensada con la inspiración.

(The Mexican canción is brief: it is a moan and a sigh, and can be nothing but brief. It is a thought expressed in a musical form that has only a ritornello. In musical literature it is, without a doubt, the briefest form of composition and as such, requires a greater intensity of expression than any other compositional form. It must say precisely what it means. It must express in a poetic and conclusive manner that which a cultivated musician would dilute through several measures skillfully embroidered with the elegance of the artistic processes. In the canción, the musician has nothing more than sentimentality concentrated in a clear and brief manner. It goes to the soul of the common people, people who only understand fugues (fugas in Spanish) when they propose elopement (also fugas in Spanish) to their girlfriend, and who understand nothing of grammar beyond the conjugation of the verb "to love." The canción, thus, must be simple and sincere. The lack of artifice is compensated for by inspiration.)

Inspiration and intensity, simplicity and sincerity, were probably José Alfredo Jiménez's greatest attributes. Even casual listening to his singing style impresses one with these qualities, particularly when compared with other singers of his day.

Discussing her feelings about the cancíon ranchera, singer Amalia Mendoza emphasizes the intense personal involvement required of the performer:
 Lo importante es que uno viva lo que está cantando, para que los que escuchan reciban en realidad el mensaje y se identifiquen con él … la canción ranchera expresa el sentir del pueblo y llega al pueblo: de ahí su popularidad. En cualquier pequeña población, y aún en las comunidades rurales de nuestra provincia, se oye música ranchera y los artistas toman ante nuestras gentes una imagen muy importante, porque hablan de sus problemas, sus alegrías, sus anhelos y tristezas … se puede decir que la canción ranchera refleja la personalidad del pueblo, porque expresa alguna vivencia que todos tenemos en común. ¿Quién no ha sufrido desengaños amorosos? ¿Quién no ha sentido pasión por su patria? Por eso el pueblo adjudica las canciones, las hace suyas.

(The important thing is that one lives what one is singing, so that the listeners in reality receive the message and identify with it … the canción ranchera expresses the sensibility of the masses and reaches them: thus, its popularity. In any small town and even in the rural communities of our countryside, ranchera music is heard and the artists maintain a very important image before our people because they speak of their problems, their joys, their desires and sorrows … one might say that the cancíon ranchera reflects the personality of the masses because it expresses something vital that we all have in common. Who has not suffered the disappointments of love? Who has not felt passion for his homeland? For this reason, the common people appropriate the canciones, they make them their own.)
Her words immediately bring to mind José Alfredo’s rhetorical questions in his canción ranchera entitled "Tu recuerdo y yo" (1952):
¿Quién no sabe en esta vida
 la traición tan conocida
 que nos deja un mal amor?
 ¿Quién no llega a la cantina
 exigiendo su tequila
 y exigiendo su canción?

(Who in this world has not known
the well-known feeling of betrayal
that an untrue lover leaves?
Who has not arrived at a bar
demanding his tequila
and demanding his canción?)
Whereas Mendoza emphasizes "la importancia del yo" ("the importance of 'I'") in the cancíon ranchera, Heriberto Molina insisted that José Alfredo Jiménez’s purpose was not to sing about himself as much as he used his singing voice to evoke in his listeners memories of similar sentiments and experiences in their own lives. He explained that, "Aunque era muy rico, el seguía siendo pobre; seguía viviendo en el pueblo y supo captar la filosofía del pueblo" ("Although he became very wealthy, he continued being a poor man; he continued to live among the common people and knew how to capture their philosophy").

One of the more significant characteristics of the heroic corrido (ballad) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that it served as a vehicle for the recounting of actual events or the retelling of stories of real heroes in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In neither his corridos nor his canciones was José Alfredo Jiménez primarily concerned with the historical authenticity of the events or personages described. The people of whom he sang were not heroes in the sense that the historical figures of the corrido, such as Gregorio Cortez, Benjamín Argumedo, Felipe Ángeles, or Pancho Villa were-individuals whose deeds had a major impact on the lives of a great many people. Rather, the deeds of his characters are heroic only in the sense that each endeavor in the everyday life of a poor man is part of a lifelong struggle for economic security, social acceptance, and personal happiness.

Musical Characters, Portraits, and Places in José Alfredo's Canciones and Rancheras

Doña Alicia Zárate Sandoval, resident of Dolores Hidalgo and longtime acquaintance of José Alfredo, explained that some of the characters of José Alfredo's songs were inspired by particular individuals living in his home town of Dolores Hidalgo. The canción entitled "Camino de Guanajuato" ("Road through Guanajuato"), for example, was an elegy to José Alfredo Jiménez's brother Ignacio who died in an accident at the oil refinery in Salamanca.

Thus, while the canción is, in one sense, a musical portrait of his beloved state of Guanajuato, in that it praises the beauties of León, San Miguel de Allende, San Felipe, Dolores Hidalgo, and the celebrated Cubilete Mountain, the overall mood is one of melancholy. This is aptly summed up in the opening lines:

 No vale nada la vida;
 la vida no vale nada.
 Comienza siempre llorando
 y así llorando se acaba.

(There is no value in life;
life is worth nothing.
It always begins with weeping
and with weeping it ends.)
Although this and a few other compositions were to some degree autobiographical, and a large percentage were written in first person, they do not represent the actual personal experiences of José Alfredo Jiménez as much as they deal with the kinds of experiences that are well known among the lower classes in Mexico.


Some of José Alfredo's better known "heroes" include: "Pedro el Herrero" ("Pedro the Blacksmith")-whose son laments his own illiteracy; "Jesus Maldonado"-a brokenhearted lover who wanders off alone to die in the desert; "Tu Enamorado" ("The One in Love with You")-an undaunted lover who endlessly serenades a woman who ignores him; "El Rey" ("The King")-a penniless, brokenhearted lover whose only possession, his indominitable spirit, allows him to remain master of his fate; "El Hijo del Pueblo" ("Son of the Poor People")-and unashamed; "El Jinete" ("The Horseman")-who begs God to take his life so he might be reunited in Heaven with his lost lover; "José Manuel, 'El Borrego'" ("José Manuel, 'The Sheep'")-who is killed by his lover for drunkenness and love affairs; and "El Cantinero" ("The Bartender")-who is confronted by his lover's husband, his best customer. No great events are commemorated; no heroic acts are performed. Rather, it is the glorification of the everyday life of the common man and the resultant heroification of the common man himself to which José Alfredo Jiménez owed his success as a composer.

Rosmel makes the statement that José Alfredo "no hizo sino contar su vida a trozos" ("did nothing but tell the story of his life, bit by bit"). What is important is that, beyond the scope of the small town of Dolores Hidalgo, his songs and especially his manner of performing them, provided his listeners with an experience that was both more emotional and personal than aesthetic. We listen to Javier Solís, Pedro Infante, or Miguel Aceves Mejía to enjoy a beautiful singing voice; we listen to José Alfredo Jiménez to rekindle old memories, to relive bygone days when our hearts were filled with happiness or broken by a lover's infidelity.

Heriberto Molina described José Alfredo Jiménez as "one hundred percent bohemian-he always sang of love." If he sang about Mexico, it was of his love for his homeland or of his appreciation and adoration for the various states and cities, as we note in compositions such as "El 15 de Septiembre" ("The 15th of September")-the eve of Mexican Independence Day; "Viva Chihuahua" ("Hurray for Chihuahua"); "Aguascalientes"-a city/state in Mexico; "De Puro Veracruz" ("Purely Veracruz"); and "El Corrido de Mazatlán" ("The Ballad of Mazatlán"). But while it was Pepe Guízar who became known as "El Pintor Musical de México" ("The Musical Painter of Mexico") for his many compositions honoring particular cities and geographical regions of Mexico, it was José Alfredo Jiménez who painted the musical portrait of Mexico's people.