Monday, September 10, 2012

In Sixty-Four Bars

I live in Washington, DC where, for many years, the local public radio station WAMU has dedicated a few hours every Sunday night to a program called The Big Broadcast which features "old time" radio shows.  While the first few hours feature old radio dramas like Johnny Dollar, Dragnet, and Gunsmoke, the later hours usually include some excruciatingly unfunny old comedy programs like Jack Benny, Fibber McGeeOur Miss Brooks (which is particularly painful as Eve Arden was such an amazing actress).

Anyway, on a recent broadcast they featured an old episode of the Jack Benny Show.  It was recorded at an Army base in Arizona and there were jokes about tans and desert heat.  Then the band and the show's resident singer (whose name I didn't catch) began to sing a tune I later learned was called "Conchita Marquita Lolita Pepita Rosita Juanita Lopez." 

I've never heard this one but it certainly makes for an interesting piece of  Pop Latino history.  I'm not sure how popular the song was at the time but it certainly was successful enough to be recorded by a number of very well known performers (more on that later).

This novelty song was written by the iconic songwriter Jule Styne and the lyricist Herbert Magidsen (who won the first Oscar for Best Original Song in 1934 for the "The Continental").  

"Conchita Marquita Lolita Pepita Rosita Juanita Lopez"'s gimmick is right there in the title:  Conchita's rather long Spanish name.  (One imagines that Conchita at some point, like many Latinas -- my mother included-- had to shorten her name to the American three-name practice). But what's striking is that this song tells a pretty straight-forward story of a cross-cultural love affair: the tale of an "Irish lad" serving in the Army along the Mexican border who falls in love with the "Rose of Juarez."   Mutual love ensues and they soon find themselves living in Hoboken, New Jersey with an ever expanding brood of children with Spanish and Irish names.

The versions I've heard online seem to all trade equally in both Mexican and Irish linguistic and musical stereotypes (and New Jersey stereotypes in the Bing Crosby version above).  But aside from Conchita's long name and the "ethnic" names of their children, the song is very matter-of-fact.  This was certainly born out in the Jack Benny live broadcast where I first discovered the song.  After the band and crooner finished, the crowd erupted in cheers.  And that was it. There were no comments or patter about the song's themes (and the Jack Benny show was nothing if filled with groan-worthy patter).

The Glenn Miller  version features vocals by Tex Beineke and the Modernaires in a pretty swingin' and broguing version of the song.  I was also able to find a version by Dinah Shore that's worth a listen.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Monday, September 3, 2012

On Spanish Naval Heroes

There are many ways that the history of Spanish speaking people disappears from American history. One of the ways is by mispronunciation and respelling.  The names are changed in ways that separate a place or a marker or even a person from it's Spanish source.  Like how the city of Galveston loses it's "z" and it's connection to Bernardo de Galvez, (the forgotten hero of the American Revolutionary War without whose contributions the American rebel colonies would've fallen to the British. More on him some other time, I promise).

Today I'd like to talk about the Spanish-American naval hero David Farragut.  He's one of the navy's greatest figures and perhaps the greatest naval figure of 19th century America -- famous for his (probably apocryphal) command during the Battle of Mobile, "Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!"  I live in Washington, DC and most Washingtonians don't realize that Farragut Square, or the metro stops at Farragut (East and West) are named for a Spanish-American naval hero.  In fact the other day as a friend and I were walking by the square I mentioned his Spanish roots and she replied with some surprise, "Farragut?  That's a Spanish name?"

Well, actually it's a Catalan name.  Not that you'd know it from the way we pronounce it in this country.  His father George Farragut was a navy man too. "George" was born Jordi Farragut in Minorca Spain, son of Antoni Farragut and Joana Mesquida. He changed his name to "George" after he gave up his commission as a Captain in the Spanish Merchant Marines to fight on the American side during the Revolutionary War. He gave up being a Captain to be a Lieutenant in South Carolina's Navy and perhaps Anglicizing his name was the price he had to pay for fitting in.  Although it may have been the exasperation of repeated mispronunciations.  We will never know.  He fought against the British at Savannah and did some cavalry service as well.  After the war he married Elizabeth Stine, settled down and raised a family.

Jordi's son David is the more famous Farragut and his distinguished naval career in the War of 1812 and the American Civil War's the reason so many things bear that name across the United States.  There are monuments to him all over the country.  There are a number of schools from Massachusetts to Puerto Rico named after him.  There's a Farragut, Tennessee, a Farragut, Iowa, and a neighborhood in Brooklyn.   There's even a Starship named after Farragut in the fictional Star Trek universe. But Farragut as a name has become so incorporated into Americana that it's lost any of its Catalan roots.  Any way you slice it, you can't talk about American Navy history without talking about the son of a Spanish immigrant who changed his name to fit into the United States.