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 Elijah Wald

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Photo Credit:
Theo Pelletier, 2001

Your Questions   1 | 2 6 Questions

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Question: I read in your bio that you're working on a book about Robert Johnson. Do you think he really made a deal with the devil? And if so, what were the terms?

Elijah: Myths are marvelous things, the keys to understanding a culture. For forty years, white folks have had this myth about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil, and that says a great deal about white fantasies of blackness and its links to mysterious, sexy, forbidden powers.

Back in 1936, black folks in the Delta had a different blues myth. It was that any guy who got good enough on guitar and learned how to play the latest hip sounds could get the hell out of the cotton fields and make enough money to move to Chicago, wear sharp new suits, and drive a Terraplane.

Question: I haven't read your book, but from reading your answers here, I'm interested. Are the Narcocorrido songs similar to America's Gangsta rap? Is there any outcry against them in Mexico because of the fact that they are about drug smuggling or do people really admire drug smugglers?

Elijah: Hey, read my book! Sorry... Narcocorridos are similar to gangsta rap, in that they have an overlapping audience, they are a musical newspaper of the street, they document and celebrate the crime world, and a lot of people are trying to ban them. (They are banned from radio play all over Northwestern Mexico.)

Narcocorridos are completely unlike gangsta rap, in that they are self-consciously old-fashioned, they celebrate traditional values, they are played on acoustic instruments, by bands that do live shows.

As for the morality of the subject matter: Some people admire drug smugglers, just as some people admire imperialist, warmongering presidents. The world is full of people with twisted values.

Question: How have corridos "covered" the subject of recent world events, ie: terrorism?

Elijah: All the corridos I have found on this subject are posted, with translations, on my website, at www.elijahwald.com/corridowatch.html. If anyone out there has heard any others, please let me know.

Question: In writing 'Narcocorrido' what was your 'm.o' for covering the worlds and 'subjects' in your book? Do you feel a sense of responsibility to the people in the work? Did you feel as a journalist it was important to try to keep a distance from them professionally or did you find the line between reporting and friendship blurring?

Elijah: I hitch-hiked around, listening to whatever the truck drivers were playing, and hung out with as many corridistas as possible. I think the corridistas are among the most important and influential writers in North America, but have never been respected, and my aim was to get their words down on paper, so people could know who they were, where their songs came from, and what they thought about the world.

I wanted to give an accurate picture of their views, and it was important to me that they feel that I had represented them correctly, so I had no interest in keeping a distance from them. Still, in most cases I would not consider them my friends. Hell, I usually only talked with them for an hour or two. There are a couple I would consider friends, and I have gone back and hung out with them since, and others whom I have very little respect for. Some of that probably comes through in my book, but I think they all feel they got a fair shake.

I think objectivity is highly over-rated. I would rather know what side a writer is on, so I can know how to judge what she is saying. Like, the fact that one has to have many millions of dollars to own a major newspaper, radio station or television network is going to affect the news we receive, and we need to be aware of that. Being friendly with a few corridistas may blur my views on occasion, but not the way it will blur your views if the outcome of the next election determines whether or not you will be able to save a few million on your tax bill, or a war with Iraq could triple the value of your oil company holdings...

Question: You mentioned the work of "Lupillo or Jenni Rivera, who are making Mexican ranchera music about life on the streets of LA." How can music with a rural sensibility speak to urban life?

Elijah: Elvis, anyone?

What's "rural" about accordions? They sure aren't being made in the Mexican sierras. What's "rural" about brass bands?

Rap can be traced back to old African American "toasts," which folklorists collected in the rural South in the 1930s. Ballet can be traced back to European folk dances. Corridos can be traced back to Medieval ballads.

Jenni sings about how when she turned 15 she was given a cell phone and a beeper. Lupillo has written corridos about dealing crack. Today, kids all over Mexico and the Southwestern US are buying their records as the sound of LA. And that's right. They are the sound of LA. Sure, a few years ago Las Voces del Rancho were doing their photo shoots with bales of hay to make them seem like country guys, but those days are over. Now, Lupillo wears sharp suits, Jenni wears cornrow braids, and El Original wears hip-hop gear. It's urban music, from the biggest Mexican City outside Mexico City.

Want to read more? Check out Elijah's answers to P.O.V.'s 6 questions, the same 6 we asked all of the featured guests.

about Elijah Wald


Elijah Wald was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1959. Originally planning to make his living as a folk-blues guitarist, he went off to Europe as a traveling minstrel at age 18, and spent most of the next dozen years wandering around the world.


Find out more about Elijah Wald at his website: www.elijahwald.com