American folklorist Pete Seeger (1919) lives on an old boat high up the Hudson River.
Maybe many years ago when he was navigating this river, he didn’t know that José Martí had once sung to its waters, on the death of his friend Juán J. Peoli: “He died like evenings on the Hudson, which he watched fade away sitting on the rustic bench of his ancestral apple tree, over the hills of darkness and gold where the majestic river runs down.”
In these ecological times, the Hudson River is one of the world’s most contaminated, and for sure, few people in the vicinity of the Big Apple know that once a Cuban poet enjoyed its clean waters.
The Catskill Mountains are located west of the Hudson River, where in late 1880, Martí embarked on the adventure of the Twilight Club, looking there for equilibrium in the world. On the same site, almost 100 years later, Pete Seeger heard “Guantanamera” sung with the poet’s verses, for the first time, in July 1961.
Héctor Angulo, a young Cuban composer (Villa Clara, 1932), who was working at a children’s summer camp to earn money to support himself while studying at a U.S. music school, was the person in charge of that children’s choir.
Seeger liked the music and inquired about the song, which Angulo said belonged to the popular folklore of his homeland.
A big concert with a packed audience took place at New York’s Carnegie Hall June 8, 1963. Pete Seeger sang 40 songs, among them “Who Killed Norma Jean,” an analysis of the death of Marilyn Monroe, and “Who Killed Davey Moore,” about the professional boxer who fell dead after a wallop by Cuban world champion Ultiminio Ramos.
He also sang the battle hymn “We Shall Overcome” and wound up the concert with “Guantanamera.”
In the introduction, he spoke in his deep voice about the author of the verses and about Cuba’s struggle for independence.
The show turned out to be a huge event and “Guantanamera” started to be sung the world over and appeared on all hit lists.
Trini López’ version of “Guantanamera” was acclaimed in Great Britain, Joe Dassin sang it in French, and for the Sandpipers in 1966, it became the hit of their life climbing to 83rd on the charts, in front The Beatles and behind “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, in a fantastic year of quality music.
Below is López’ English version:
I'm a sincere man from the land of the palm trees
But before dying I wish to pour forth the poems of my soul
My verses are soft, soft green but also a flaming red
My verses are like wounded fawns seeking refuge in the forest
I want to share my faith with the world’s humble
A little mountain stream pleases me more, more than the ocean.
Clearly, the English version is very much like the original.
As expected, the success was followed by a commotion over authors’ rights, because Spanish-Cuban musician, Julián Orbón was claiming his part as author of the idea for using Martí’s Simple Verses as lyrics to the music of “Guantanamera,” which was true and confirmed by Cintio Vitier in his De lo cubano en la poesía.
Orbón himself relates it in his essay “José Martí: poetry and reality:”
“I have sung the poem in question (“For Aragón in Spain,” the 7th of Simple Verses) to the tune of “Guantanamera,” clearly, it’s a great combination. One day, however, I noticed that something was missing, because the music could not be identified with the verses. The strange and delightful coincidence - uniting the American tune with the remoteness of the verse - also occurs if we sing any romance, “Fontefrida,” “Count Arnaldos,” etc. with that same “Guantanamera,” but still, something was missing.”
He further maintains: “I was even more amazed (amazement is something Martí generates in endless tides) when I realized that in the verses that indeed “go” and can’t go with anything else than “Guantanamera,” the language, soft, remains in the American verses, it’s an insular language, increasingly invaded by the s’s found in the Ibero-American pronunciation.”
Si ves un monte espumas,
Es mi verso lo que ves:
Mi verso es un monte, y es
Un abanico de plumas
(If you see a foamy mountain,
It’s my verses you see:
My verse is mountain, and also
A fan of feathers.)
“On the contrary, with “For Aragón in Spain,” the honest peninsular z’s gallantly close up on us: corazón, cazurro, Lanuza, calza, azuloso”, he concluded.
There’s an important factor in the litigation: Héctor Angulo, Julián Orbón’s former student, admits that his teacher was the first person to set Martí verses to music using “Guantanamera.” However, the verses that appear in the successful version by Pete Seeger and Trini López are other verses he selected, and Seeger confirmed this before the judges and also left written proof in a letter Angulo still has.
Another interesting explanation that sheds light on the matter was given by Eduardo Teddy Bautista, president of Sociedad General de Autores (SGAE), at a Cubadisco Fair in the 1990s: “The SGAE in New York, and here is our representative there, Emilio García, has fought for the musical rights of Joseíto Fernandez’ family to “Guantanamera.”
The money remains in the United States.
Who is Joseíto Fernández? A Cuban singer born in 1908 in Los Sitios neighborhood, in Centro Habana, who died in 1979.
From the 1940s, Joseíto appeared on a radio program called El suceso del día, in which he narrated bloodthirsty events.
Following the presentation of the radio story, “Guantanamera,” whose octosyllabic verse structure allowed improvising, would close the program.
The song’s piano version was done by a Los Sitios neighbor of his named José ‘Pepecito’ Reyes, who was born in 1916, and performed with Fajardo y sus Estrellas, Benny Moré and Cab Caloway, passing away on February 4, 2011.
It has to be said the strength of “Guantanamera” is its chorus. A joyful, very hummable authentic Latin American elegance, pure and simple, just as the author who invariably dressed in white, defined himself.
Many singers have imposed other lyrics thanks to the composition’s versatility; however the feat belongs entirely to Joseíto Fernández.
It’s said that Punk democratized Rock in the face of the virtuosity of Yes, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, who generated a sort of exclusive club of artful virtuosos from the rhythm of Berry and Presley.
“Guantanamera” is a democratic song, anyone can sing it without needing a broad register or vocal range, or a symphony.
This piece fulfills in Joseíto Fernández as in Martí’s credo: “I know disappearance, but what will not disappear is my thought,” the Apostle said.
Joseíto died in 1979 and “Guantanamera” is still being heard.
*Translated by: Gilda Gil
* Revised by: CF Ray