La Guitarra Poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, set to music by Steve Gillette
I mentioned in an earlier article that having a paid position as a staff-writer with a music publishing company gave me the freedom to concentrate on my songwriting. Along with working to educate myself in music and spending time to promote my songs and myself, it also afforded me a chance to work at personal enlightenment.
As a lapsed English major, I began to take up the poets again. I found some beautiful poems to set to music, but I also encountered some challenging ideas. William Butler Yeats offered to reconcile my early curiosity with the ancient ballads with a timeless poetic mastery. I had already set to music a translation of Goethe's "Erlkönig" and Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death."
Some of the poets were adept at 'startling' the reader into a moment of realization. I'm thinking of William Carlos Williams' "So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens." Gertrude Stein offered some verbal tricks that caught my attention. In a series of lectures given at Harvard she coined the glib couplet which has stuck with me, "And that is what a masterpiece is not. And that is why there are so few of them."
There were poets like Gary Snyder and Robert Bly who led me to the Eastern philosophers and the study of meditation. My friend Dan Paik gave me Chögyam Trungpa's book The Myth of Freedom, and eventually I also read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Thích Nhất Hạnh, Paramahansa Yogananda, Krishnamurti, and many of my friends influenced my progress.
There were others in the music community of Los Angeles at that time, the seventies and eighties, who were way ahead of me in their evolution toward world citizenship, and some of them had the resources to make a difference. There were groups that focused on ecology long before climate change or global warming were identified on a large scale.
Many were working to save the oceans; the whales and all marine life threatened by pollution and over-fishing as well as nuclear proliferation. "Ban the Bomb" had been a cry among activists going back to the atomic detonations of the mid-forties, and had already acquired the belittling mantle of the bearded, cartoon figures carrying signs that said "The End Is Near." But yes, it did seem that an apocalypse was close at hand, and frankly, it still does.
Among these concerns we began to hear of the activities in Central America which eventually became known as Iran-Contra. Secret American intelligence operatives were carrying out a campaign of terror in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. This was a wave of murders, corruption of officials, destruction of public works and of de-stabilization.
How far does the songwriter, or any artist, have to go into the dark side of the human condition? Is there a safe path for an exploration of man's excesses, his rapacious endeavors? Are there times when we must take this up? Is this one of those times?
Can we make a careful study of history and confront our own prejudices, our confirmation bias, the need to be right, and the naive hope of simple answers that can induce us to cling to the wrong solutions? I've been saying lately that I don't want to show up at the wrong castle with my pitchfork.
In his book The Phoenix Program, Douglas Valentine writes that "In the darkest days of the Vietnam War, America's Central Intelligence Agency secretly initiated a sweeping program of kidnap, torture, and assassination devised to destabilize the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam, commonly known as the Viet Cong." Many of the men who had experience with this program were involved in the application of its principles in Central America.
In May of 1980 the Salvadorean priest Óscar Romero was shot to death as he conducted Mass in his church in El Salvador. This event brought me into a circle of musicians and activists in Los Angeles. Artists, songwriters and session singers, many of whose voices can be heard on familiar recordings of that time, formed a choir and my song was included in a celebration of the life of Father Romero.
Suspected of the crime, but never convicted were members of a Salvadorean death squad, the Arena party whose leader was Roberto D'Aubuisson. He was a graduate of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Many who were trained there went on to take roles in the repressive regimes of these Central American countries.
In November 1993, documents by the State Department, Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency were released after pressure by Congress. The 12,000 documents revealed that the administrations of President Reagan and President Bush knew of the assassinations conducted by Roberto D'Aubuisson, including that of Oscar Romero, and still worked with him despite this.
When congress refused to support these programs, a convoluted scheme of funding was created in which the Contras were supplied with the proceeds from the trafficking in weapons and drugs.
On October 5, 1986, Eugene Hasenfus, a former Marine hired by the CIA, was aboard a Fairchild C-123 cargo plane, N4410F, when it was shot down over Nicaragua by the Sandinista government forces. The plane had been flying weapons to the Contras. Planes would fly into jungle bases in Central America delivering weapons and returning much of the time with drugs. Hasenfus admitted that he had taken part in such flights.
In November 1989, Salvadoran Army soldiers killed six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter at the priests' residence on the campus of Jos Simen Caas Central American University. When The New York Times described the murdered priests as "leftist intellectuals" in March 1991, Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco objected to the use of that characterization "without qualification or nuance." He offered the paper the words of Archbishop Helder Camara: "When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a Communist."
My high school Spanish was not great. Growing up in Southern California one hears the language a lot and sees it written, but I needed a Spanish/English dictionary to read the poems of Pablo Neruda, Victor Jara, Roque Dalton and Federico Garcia Lorca.
When I discovered Lorca's poem about the guitar, (and here I'm trying to avoid words like 'resonated' or 'struck a chord') it took me by surprise. So much of what it had to say was relevant to my own seeking to play and write with more authenticity, as well as giving comfort from the fearful churning of a distant war, a brutal and shameful war, mostly hidden from the public.
The poem talks about the hot sand of the south, the 'arena' as in the bull ring, thirsting for the white Camellia, a symbol of peace. Lorca couldn't have known about the Arena Party but it seemed prescient. The 'arrow shot wide of the mark,' hints at the slaughter of innocents that was actually happening daily in Central America. The 'growing darkness without the promise of the morning,' and the 'first bird to fall from the branch,' signaling the descent into more cruel conflict.
Lorca had written this poem during the Spanish Civil War in the mid-thirties. Hemingway (another student of Gertrude Stein) wrote of this conflict in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and many Americans went to the aid of the anti-fascist side forming the legendary Fifth Brigade, La Quince Brigada. Franco prevailed in the bitter war with the help of the German Wehrmacht and their modern weaponry, being tested in Spain in the run-up to World War II.
I found so many analogues in the poem with what was happening in my time in the countries to our south. There was the same organized carnage that Picasso had depicted in his famous 1937 painting of the slaughter at Guernica. This was a cherished town, never a military asset, destroyed as a brutal statement. Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, when one German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, "Did you do that?" Picasso responded, "No, you did."
As has been the case in so many places, any expression of the desire for self-determination is seen as threatening the established order, and the response can be Draconian. Dissidents are often labeled communists, a convenient way of discrediting and undermining the dignity of legitimate resistance. It's for each songwriter to work out how he would prefer to have people interact, but it can be clearly seen that aggression, and the collusion with aggression, doesn't make for an authentic creative consciousness.
Major General Smedley Butler was, at the time of his death, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. During his 34-year career, he participated in military actions in the Philippines, China, in Central America and the Caribbean. He was an outspoken critic of the policies of the corporate elite. In 1935, he wrote the book War Is a Racket, where he described and criticized the workings of the United States in its foreign actions and wars, such as those in which he had been involved. He famously said:
"I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 19021912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903."
Europe's first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, took the name of his party from the Latin word fasces, which referred to a bundle of elm or birch rods (usually containing an ax) used as a symbol of penal authority in ancient Rome. Just to show how complex this exploration can be, that same bundle of sticks is seen on the reverse of the U.S. Mercury dime beginning in 1916, but it would be wrong to suggest that the same meaning is intended.
Although fascist parties and movements differed significantly from one another, they had many characteristics in common, including extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in a natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites.
According to Britannica.com: "Fascists believe that liberal democracy is obsolete and regard the complete mobilization of society under a totalitarian one-party state as necessary to prepare a nation for armed conflict and to respond effectively to economic difficulties. Such a state is led by a strong leader - such as a dictator and a martial government composed of the members of the governing fascist party - to forge national unity and maintain a stable and orderly society. Fascism rejects assertions that violence is automatically negative in nature and views political violence, war, and imperialism as means that can achieve national rejuvenation."
So what is the opposite of Fascism? Some would say Communism, and would assert that the exercise of harsh repression is needed to preserve the vitality of a nation. This seems to me to reduce citizenship to a binary over-simplification. Somewhere in the middle there has to be room for a compassionate, progressive society. I think Fascism's opposite is probably representative democracy. With all its faults, as Churchill said, it's the worst, except for everything else.
Roger Griffin described the Fascist ideology as having three core components: "the rebirth myth, populist ultra-nationalism, and the myth of decadence." I hesitate to take a cheap shot at our present situation, only to raise the question in the mind of the serious reader. They say that truth is the first casualty of war, and where there is a constant state of war, seeking truth must be like Orwell's 'act of rebellion.'
Cas Mudde and Cristbal Rovira Kaltwasser have argued that although Fascism "flirted with populism . . . in an attempt to generate mass support," it is better seen as an elitist ideology. They cite in particular its exaltation of the Leader, the race, and the state, rather than the people. Here, again it's clear that representative democracy is at odds with Fascism.
Spain's fascist movement, the Falange or "Phalanx;" founded in 1933 by Jos Antonio Primo de Rivera, never came to power, but many of its members were absorbed into the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which itself displayed many fascist characteristics. The 'Escuadras Negras' or 'Black Squads' of the Falangistas took the life of the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca in August of 1936.
The one thing about Lorca's beautiful poem that absolutely compelled me to make it a part of my own work, was the idea that the guitar has its own voice, a voice that cannot help but reflect the truth of what is happening around it. The instrument is incapable of duplicity, guile, falsehood or shading of that truth. Its voice is the undeniable expression of pure musical-emotional and worldly understanding.
Hemingway had his BS detector, but I think he was relying on experience, a good ear for the implications of language, and a reverence for his own hard-won wisdom. A song always seems to make more sense, deeper sense, when I have a guitar in my hands and can feel that that truth of the song is reinforced by the music, at least to the extent that I am able to bring it to life. In that sense, maybe the guitar is a sort of six-string polygraph.
I knew there wasn't much I could do about the murderous events in Nicaragua, but I burned to understand that vibrational language. Spanish had brought me to the poem, but the language I longed to understand is universal. In Hispanic culture many talk about the tradition of Duende, deep truth. Duplicitousness, as Gertrude Stein might say, is what it is not.
Here is my video of the song using the recording we made with Jim Rooney in Nashville on my The Ways of the World CD, which is available for purchase here, on CD or as an MP3 album.
"La Guitarra" recording from The Ways of the World. Video by Steve
My brother Jeff and I perform "La Guitarra" on a live TV program taped in 1985:
Jeff and Steve Gillette in a live version of "La Guitarra" (1985)
Here's a version of the song by Sue Young and Rusty Nelson:
Sue Young and Rusty Nelson perform "La Guitarra"
Here are the lyrics:
Empieza el llanto de la guitarra, se rompen las copas de la madrugada.
Empieza el llanto de la guitarra, es intil callarla, es imposible callarla.
Begins the crying of the guitar, it rends the chords of the sunrise
When the crying of the guitar begins, it is useless to hush it, it is impossible to hush it up.
Lorra montona, como llora el agua, como llora el viento sobre la nevada.
Es imposible callarla, llora por cosas lejanas.
It cries ceaselessly like the crying of water, the way the wind weeps over the snow.
It is impossible to silence it, it cries for distant things.
Arena del sur calliente que pide camelias blancas,
Llora flecha sin blanco la tarde sin maana.
The hot sand of the south, thirsty for the white camelia (peace)
The arrow shot wide of the target (war) and the darkening of the hour without the promise of morning
Y el primer pjaro muerto sobre la rama, guitarra,
Corazn malherido por cinco espadas.
And the first dead bird, fallen from the branch.
Oh, guitar, your heart cruelly wounded by the five sharp swords.
(the fingers of the guitarist)
When the guitar begins to cry, struggling like sunrise into dawn,
It's useless to try to force the silence. Impossible not to go on.
Crying like the water. The way the wind weeps over the fallen snow.
Soft tones of sadness, over distant things.
© 2000 Compass Rose Music. BMI
Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, 1937. Above is Picasso's The Old Guitarist, 1903.