Music as the Messenger

Throughout history music has been a major vehicle for the dissemination of information. In the XII century important stories of wars, intrigues and romance were spread by troubadours in France, establishing some the earliest examples of modern literature and poetry. One of the earliest was the Chanson de Roland depicting the Battle of Roncevaux Pass during the reign of Charlemagne. The tales of the Knights of the Round Table by Chrétien des Troyes, favorite poet of Marie de France, most notably the tales of Percival and Lancelot, as well as the song of the Cid were transmitted through music and recitation from town to town by troubadours from the City of Toulouse to Champagne. The presenter often utilized repetition of the same melody throughout the verses and would establish himself as the source of the information imparted. Singing was used as the voice carries better when singing or chanting.

In Mexico, especially around the time of the Revolution (early 20th century), the telegraph system was the main means of communication but was susceptible to damage from those wishing to keep news from spreading as well as from natural events. As the revolutionaries were unpopular with the powers at be, the almost underground method of oral transmission was the most reliable method of spreading accurate information to the people.

The music, called Corridos, told of real and important events and often delivered news faster than any other source, spreading it from person to person, village to village by means of song. The singer would begin his report by introducing himself and his credentials. He or she had probably been present to witness the event or been informed by someone who did. The background was filled in so listeners would understand the details and it was followed by a blow by blow description of the occurrences. At the end of the song, the listener would be reminded of the characters and their fate. Many of the messages contained moral lessons like “don’t take your gun to town son or dance with the tough guy’s girlfriend” but they were real stories conveying information about actual happenings in the area and involving people known to the listener.

Corridos you may be familiar with are La Cucaracha and Adelita. The stories of Heraclio Bernal ( and Valente Quintero ( are also frequently heard today in mariachi and ranchero music. The Battle of Celaya depicting the most decisive battle during the revolution caused a contemporary observer to report “…as verse after verse…took the same melodic pattern I suddenly realized that this was no ancient epic, but a freshly minted account of the battle of the day before…. It was a corrido – hot from the oven of their vivid memory of the struggle between Villa and Obregon – the first one I had ever heard.” (Corridos of the Mexican Revolution Part IV.)

Today’s music continues to speak of events important to people on both sides of the border. Music by Los Tigres del Norte, Cafe Tacvba and many others send messages of solidarity to those striving to overcome obstacles that often require facing danger from authority, gangs and the struggles of everyday existence. Mexican American singer Lila Downs just released a new CD filled with meaning and I am excited to have the privilege of seeing her in a couple of weeks while visiting San Francisco.

Expanding our knowledge of music in general adds so much to our actual enjoyment!

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