On The Border With Maybelle Carter And Lydia Mendoza
Imagine, if you will, being a listener to a radio station on the U.S.-Mexico border in 1939. You would likely be listening to XERA, a radio station broadcast from Cuidad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas. You might hear a song like "La Pollita," performed by Lydia Mendoza. When you think of the U.S.-Mexico border, music and great women singers you are most likely to think of Mendoza: As one of the earliest Mexican Americans to record, Mendoza had arguably one of the most extensive performance careers for Mexican American women singers and an immense recording archive — not to mention the tremendous popularity she enjoyed, especially among Mexican and Mexican-American working classes during the early to mid-20th century.
"La Pollita" narrates the sexuality of a single girl:
"Yo tengo para hacer crías una una pollita en mi casa
Cantando, cantando nomas lo pasa y no pone todavia
Un día, se me escapo sin que nadie lo supiera
Y llegó con sus pollitos siendo una polla soltera."
(For raising chicks I have a hen in my house
but she spends her time singing and has yet to lay an egg
one day she escaped without anyone knowing
and she returned with her chicks even though she was an unmarried hen.)
In her essay, "Domestic Dramas: Mexican American Music as Archive of Immigrant Women's Experiences, 1920s-1950s," Magdalena Barrera argues that the lyrics convey a unique commentary about reproduction and marriage for their time, where a girl "freely enacts her sexuality" thereby becoming a single mother.
Radio was one of the most powerful ways of spreading music across the borderlands in the 1930s, and it brought Mendoza's songs into contact with another great woman musician of the era: Maybelle Carter. Listening to XERA on a typical day, you might have heard the song "Single Girl, Married Girl" recorded by Maybelle and her sister Sara Carter. In "Single Girl," the lyrics envision varied notions of freedom and access to resources based on a young woman's status as married or single: "Single girl, single girl / She goes to store and buys / Oh, she goes to store and buys / Married girl, married girl / She rocks the cradle and cries / Oh, she rocks the cradle and cries."
Both of these songs, played on the radio in the same years, convey themes related to a young woman's morality, social class and sexuality. And while Maybelle Carter and Lydia Mendoza are highly recognized names in American music history, they are rarely placed in conversation with each other, despite having so many commonalities. Carter and Mendoza were born only seven years apart, in Scott County, Va. in 1909 and Houston, Texas in 1916, respectively. Each were outstanding guitar players and lead vocalists in woman-dominated family bands that traveled extensively. They each produced some of the most significant archives in United States recording history, collected songs from their communities and were prominent female voices in early radio. In Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography, Chris Strachwitz reminds us that both families similarly came to commercial recording by responding to English- and Spanish-language newspaper advertisements inviting local singers to record: The Carters initially recorded with Victor Phonograph Co.in Bristol, Tenn., and the Mendozas with Okeh Record Co. in San Antonio, Texas.
In the late 1930s to early 1940s, the Carter family was contracted by Consolidated Oil Company to sing live and also record music to be played on XERA, originally set up in Cuidad Acuña, Coahuila to circumvent U.S. broadcasting laws. Eventually, the family's recording transcriptions would be broadcast from other Mexican based stations, including XET in Monterrey, Mexico. During those years, the family lived in Del Rio, Texas – just miles across the border from where XERA was located — and San Antonio, Texas for six months at a time playing live and recording those transcriptions. This era of performing live and recording for border stations was a major force in establishing the group's widespread popularity, exemplified by the thousands of fan letters the family received monthly. A typical show on XET would begin with this bilingual greeting:
"Estación XET Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. In other words this is station XET Monterrey down Mexico way. Now here's that well-known and better loved family of radio the Carter Family: A.P., Sara, Maybelle, Jeanette, Helen, June and Anita. And it looks like we're on the sunny side."
According to Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, authors of Border Radio, stations like XERA were referred to as "border blasters" because of their super wattage, sometimes nearing 250,000 watts, "beaming their colorful programming from coast to coast, border to border and beyond." The broadcast strength of "border blasters" meant the music of A.P., Sara and Maybelle could be heard throughout the United States and significant parts of northern Mexico.
To be sure, XERA listeners were not just U.S. English-language listening audiences; XERA not only broadcast music north of the U.S.-Mexico border but also south into Mexico, and radio listening became very popular among Mexicans thanks to the huge influx of radio sets imported from the U.S. beginning in the late 1920s. "Even the poorest Mexican had the opportunity to listen to the radio," Fowler and Crawford say. Moreover, XERA gave listeners access to sets of programming that played Spanish-language and English-language music, albeit during different time slots. This meant Spanish-language listeners could became familiar with what we now call country music; one example is corrido folklorist Americo Paredes who, according to border radio historian Gene Fowler, once recalled being introduced to "hillbilly and western swing sounds" on border radio in the early 1940s. Even Lydia Mendoza was unaware of how far her music circulated in Mexico, once expressing her surprise that interior parts of Mexico recognized her and knew her music.
According to Fowler, the high-powered reach of border radio meant that just as Mexican music listeners had access to music by The Carter Family and others, so too did fans of Maybelle and The Carter Family also become familiar with Mexican musicians, including singers such as Lydia Mendoza and Rosa Dominguez. In my conversation with Fowler, he recalled a letter he once received from a "farm boy" who remembered listening to Mexican music on border radio on his farm in South Dakota.
Assumptions associated with geography, genre and gender impact the way we think about great women singers like Maybelle Carter and Lydia Mendoza; they standardize their music in ways that have discouraged listening to those "powerful minute anomalies" that, according to scholar Alexandra Vazquez in Listening in Detail, disturb what we think we know about music as well as its history. Music genres, like country or corridos, and their histories are usually formed based on assumptions, including assumptions about language and listening audience, that form rigid borders of inclusion and exclusion. For instance, the geographic associations of "country" or "hillbilly" music too often assumes a certain racialized population, cultural vernacular and social class. As well, narratives about Mexican women in music are often made through simplistic notions of "domestic work," "family" and "motherhood." Such limited notions of who is listening to certain music and where that music circulates misses out on other stories music and its history might tell, and reproduce simplified meanings of citizenship and culture.
When we follow the audible circuits of Carter and Mendoza on border radio and other high-powered Mexico City radio stations in the early decades of the 20th century, we are listening for those details that help us hear different stories conveyed by music as well as the artists themselves. These radio circuits contributed significantly to a musical sphere that traversed nation-state borders. The radio transmissions of recordings and live performances by singers like Lydia Mendoza were significant to generating what I have called a "borderlands sonic imaginary." When we reconsider the music of Maybelle Carter within such a borderless borderlands music imaginary, this opens up a different understanding of her foundational period of country music and moreover what "American" music means. For instance, while living on the border, "Maybelle loved Mexican guitar styles and incorporated them into her playing," as Liz Tracy writes for NPR Music. In other words, while Maybelle Carter's guitar playing styles and innovations are credited as forming the foundations of "American" country music, the very boundaries of this "American" construction are reshaped by these Mexican guitar playing styles.
Let us listen anew to Maybelle's music in the borderlands of border radio that took shape in late 1930s and early 1940s. Let us reimagine how far and wide her "Carter scratch" guitar playing style and vocals traveled — across from northern Mexico to northern regions of the United States— reaching Spanish-speaking and -listening people. For example, when we envision the borderlands sonically formed by Mendoza's remarkable recording, "Mal Hombre" ("Evil Man") – a song that included lyrics, translated here from Spanish to English, such as, "You treated me like all men of your kind treat women / You are an evil man" – and follow its rotation across border radio geographies in the late 1930s, we become open to similar theme-songs about unrequited love and women's broken hearts that formed the borderlands of XERA and XET radio.
In Maybelle's borderlands, "Mal Hombre" is a country kin to songs by The Carter Family, including "Broken Engagement" ("Oh, they say / You love another / That you never did love me. / Goodbye darling, I must leave you. / As she grasped those outstretched hands.")
Likewise, the bitterness of mistreatment by "bad men" in "Mal Hombre" has an emotional correlation with another Carter Family song, "You Denied Your Love," that warns women: "When you love a boy that don't love you / It'll break your heart / They'll leave you alone."
Reconsidering Maybelle Carter's years on border radio by way of Lydia Mendoza's corresponding radio popularity provides a richer and wider landscape for comprehending the significance of Maybelle's music. Their border radio appearances, we might say, unsettle the geographic borders of country music's history and circulation. Likewise, when we place Maybelle Carter's border blaster radio era in the borderlands imaginary cultivated by Mendoza, the borderland is filled out by different musical stories and sounds than those we have grown accustomed to. The notion of Maybelle's borderlands not only remaps her musical iconography along a unique sonic circuit that moved south of the U.S.-Mexico border, but also makes legible the Spanish-speaking and -listening people living north of that border who heard and felt her music. Maybelle's borderlands, I suggest, offers us different interpretations of the roots, or raices, her music planted in the history of country music.
Deborah R. Vargas is Associate Professor and Henry Rutgers Term Chair in Comparative Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Vargas is author of Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda and she is currently working on a book about singer Linda Ronstadt.
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