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History of a folk song


Joan Baez At SummerStage

Joan Baez recorded a famous version of "Guantanamera" and regularly performs it during her concerts.

Jack Vartoogian/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Originally written in 1929 as a patriotic song about Cuba, the rhyme scheme and structure of "Guantanamera" (purchase/download) has always lent itself easily to evolution and adaptation - both things necessary for any good protest song. The tune has been evolved through the years and used in struggles for peace and justice across Latin America and the US, and has been recorded by a remarkably long and diverse list of artists, including Joan Baez, the Fugees, Jimmy Buffett, Jose Feliciano, Julio Iglesias, Los Lobos, Pete Seeger, and numerous others. It's been recorded in Spanish, Italian, French, Welsh, English, and Dutch. One artist named Roland Alphonso even recorded a ska version.

So, what is it about this Cuban patriotic folk song which has become so universal and pervasive across the world?

The lyrics to "Guantanamera"

Originally, the lyrics to "Guantanamera" had a romantic spin. It was a song about a love affair gone awry - a story of a woman who gets fed up and leaves her man after being mistreated, possibly in the form of infidelity. Those lyrics quickly fell by the wayside as the song evolved to one about national pride. After all, the first verse of the song was taken from a poem by Cuban freedom activist Jose Marti, an adaptation which cemented it for future use among freedom activists and others struggling for some kind of justice.

Those lines which open the song translate roughly to English as:

I am a truthful man from this land of palm trees
Before dying I want to share these poems of my soul

Later, there's a verse which speaks of choosing to cast one's lot with the poor people of the land. No doubt, it's this verse which catapulted the song from being one about Cuba (where the palm trees grow) to a more universal song about class equality and freedom for the poor - whether economic freedom or social freedom, or both.

"Guantanamera" used in the US

The United States has long maintained a military base at Guantanamo in Cuba, making US adaptation of the song a multi-layer statement, as it's usually sung by freedom activists who would like to see that military base close for good, though they don't usually employ the song to that end.

In America, "Guantanamera" has been used during anti-war demonstrations, union strikes, marches for an overhaul of the US immigration system and civil rights for immigrants, and even in more recent demonstrations at Wall Street and around the country where folks are commenting on the balance of wealth.

When employed in the United States, the verses sung tend to remain concise - sticking to the verse about being an honest man, a verse which states "My verses flow green and red" (referencing blood on the land - an allusion to revolution, though it's pretty much never used to incite violence in the US), and the final verse about casting one's lot with the poor.

The chorus, "Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera" simply refers to singing a song about Guantanamo (Guantanamera being the feminized version of that same word).

Spanish lyrics to the song

For those looking to sing the Spanish verses, they are as follows:

Yo soy un hombre sincero,
De donde crece la palma,
Yo soy un hombre sincero,
De donde crece la palma,
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma

Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

Mi verso es de un verde claro,
Y de un carmin encenidido,
Mi verso es de un verde claro,
Y de un carmin encenidido,
Mi verso es un cierro herido
Que busca en el monte amparo.

Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

Con los pobres de la tierra,
Quiero yo mi suerte echar,
Con los pobres de la tierra,
Quiero yo mi suerte echar,
El arroyo de la sierra,
Me complace mas que el mar.

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