Although famously in touch with my feelings, and something of an easy crier, there are not too many songs that have conjured forth tears on a regular basis. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Tin Angel’ was one notable exception; and ‘The Living Years’ (Paul Carrack) for different reasons; but this song got me ‘welling up’ (as they say) regularly, when I was first acquainted with it.
I had known of Victor Jara by name in the 1980s – growing up as a miner’s son in a socialist family it might be strange if I hadn’t – as someone who had been a popular theatre director and (more importantly for me) ‘people’s folk singer’ in Chile establishing a burgeoning ‘nueva cancion’ movement in Allende’s brief administration.; and ‘martyred’ under Pinochet’s brutal reactionary regime. In several of my teaching years (both before and after South America) I championed the inclusion of James Watson’s teenage fiction novel ‘Talking in Whispers’ as a studiable text for Key Stage 3: it looked at Chile’s recent (then) turbulent history and had a character based upon Jara.
So, when, living in South America, we holidayed in Chile at the end of 1990/beginning of 91, I made sure I bought some music cassettes in the streets of Vina del Mar, of both the wonderful Violeta Parra (‘Gracias a la Vida’) and also, obviously, of Victor Jara. Then, back in Asuncion, got to listening to them more closely.
Jara’s tape was a ‘Best of’, I think – with the moving ‘Plegaria a un Laborador’ and the wonderful ‘Te Recuerdo Amanda’ which later I heard sung by Joan Baez. But it was this song, ‘El Lazo’, which got to me most. I can’t say I understood all the lyrics. Even apart from the less comprehensible Chileanisms, my Spanish was still pretty basic, and I eventually got a more experienced colleague in the staff (thanks Pat Baldock) to transcribe the lyrics for me. But the bits I could understand (and several I couldn’t) touched me deeply. ‘Cuando el sol se inclinaba/Lo encontré…’ – there is something so deliciously lugubrious about the sound of this and the idea of the sun ‘inclining itself’ adds so fittingly to the melancholy, as does the almost onomatopoeic ‘sombrío’ describing the dark ranch, this ‘rancho de pobre’ where the poor ranchero lives, twisting and twining his lasso rope. So begins and ends the song, with this deeply moving slow,minor key evocation of a poor tired man at sunset (his own life’s sunset?). In between are seven pacier verses sketching out the man’s work and life (inseparable) – the strength but skillful deftness of his lasso-making dexterity; the solitary, unaffirmed and unrelenting nature of his work (‘nadie ha dicho;’Es bueno/Ya no debes trabajar..’); a sense of his growing tiredness; while the ‘lazo’ becomes a metaphor for his own weary life ‘laceando’ by the countryside and the need to labour.
You could see this as merely romantic, perhaps, the noble poverty-enslaved agricultural artisan; you could see it all as socialist propaganda; but I don’t cry any more when I listen to it. Beyond the merely emotive appeal, the song has a value and performs the function of the best of true ‘folk’ song: and it seems to me a beautiful and necessary thing to do, to celebrate the dignity and worth of old, honest workers. Whatever one’s level of Spanish fluency, I think you can still get a sense of that in this gorgeous song.