A peso and photo of the Redfield family in Mexico, August 1929, on top of a map of Mexico indicating the location of Tepoztlán. (Robert Redfield Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Torch songs

Sung from street corners a century ago, Mexican folk ballads offered “a valuable index to popular thought,” wrote UChicago anthropologist Robert Redfield, whose work is part of a Special Collections exhibit on Mexico.

In the early 20th century, music in Mexico traveled through folk ballads known as corridos. Singers and guitarists played them at social gatherings and on street corners to transmit news and gossip. Corrido lyrics—printed on colorful, tissue-thin paper and sold for pennies in the market—also told stories of love and war.

UChicago anthropologist Robert Redfield, LAB 1915, PhB’20, JD’21, PhD’28, collected dozens of broadsheets with corrido lyrics on research trips to Mexico from 1926 to 1930. He saw the ballads as folk literature—“a valuable index,” he wrote, “to popular thought.”

Researching Mexico, focusing on UChicago scholars who did fieldwork in Mexico—Redfield; historian Friedrich Katz; anthropologist Sol Tax, PhD’35; and others—runs through October 4 in the University Library’s Special Collections Research Center. The exhibition, presented in conjunction with the Katz Center for Mexican Studies, includes correspondence, photographs, recordings, and objects from Special Collections holdings.

This 24-verse broadsheet recounts the 1919 assassination of revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and laments the perfidy of his enemies and his own failure to improve the lot of ordinary Mexicans.

When Redfield was a PhD student, he did research in Tepoztlán, a town in the south-central state of Morelos. The conflicts that had sparked the revolution still smoldered and, for Redfield, corridos contained the embers. “These songs are the real history-books of Tepoztlán,” he wrote, “the cherry tree of their George Washington, and their Paul Revere’s ride.”