Folklorist offers musical ballad


Dr. John McDowell, professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University, presented several traditional songs of the Costa Chica region of Mexico Nov. 8. McDowell focused primarily on the corrido, a popular form of ballad.

Scott Hasty

In the southern most reaches of Mexico, lies Costa Chica, an area dominated by a little-known ballad tradition known as the corrido.

John McDowell, a professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at Indian University, has studied the popular Mexican ballad for more than 25 years. He paid a visit to Missouri Southern on Nov. 8 in order to educate students on the many different subjects portrayed in corrido.

“A corrido is a ballad,” McDowell said. “It’s a song that tells a story. The culture in Mexico is as such, that a lot of modern Mexican history has been recorded using corridos.”

McDowell went on to say that corridos are not written by professional historians, but by regular folk poets. The Costa Chica brings conflicting subjects together in a form of music called the corrido.

“The corrido covers a lot,” McDowell said. “For example, there are corridos for when the government comes in and makes trouble for the people, and for when the people rise up against the government. The corridos are there to help people deal with that kind of violence.

“But, I think the corridos also serve as a reminder of the cost of violence. It reminds the listener that once violence begins, it is very difficult to stop. So I feel the corrido also serves to be a morale reminder to the listener. Another thing I’ve found is that corridos also serve as a way to heal from a tragic loss or event.”

McDowell instructed the audience, not only through lecture, but also through song. McDowell involved the audience by encouraging them to clap along with the many corridos he sang. Some students even had the chance to play instruments alongside McDowell.

“I found it interesting that there were so many kinds of music in the same basic style its played in,” Amber Simpson, freshman undecided major. “I also thought it was a great idea for [McDowell] to get the audience involved. It was better for students to actually play or clap with the music because when you keep the audience interested, they learn more about the culture.”

Through McDowell’s travels of Mexico, he wrote a book titled Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico’s Costa Chica. The book is based on his studies done in the villages, homes, churches, and plazas on three continents where the corrido tradition continues to flourish.

“I think that the seminar really did open up a little known subject up to students,” Simpson said. “I think it’s really great that students get to see, hear, and actually feel this cultural difference.”