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Article Spanish American Song

Emilio De Gogorza
Operatic concert performer Emilio De Gogorza. [n.d.] Bain News Service, Publisher. George Grantham Bain Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-06434.

Spain was the first European power to establish an empire in the New World. This had an impact on the regions that later became part of the United States, as Spain established colonies and laid claim to much of the land west of the Mississippi River, along with Florida and Puerto Rico. Spanish settlement of North America began in the sixteenth century and immigration to areas that became the United States steadily grew. However, the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Spanish citizens directly to the United States since the early nineteenth century [1] has largely gone unnoticed.

The greatest proportion of Spanish immigrants to the United States hailed from the Canary Islands, Galicia, Asturias, Catalonia, the Basque provinces,[2] New Castile and Andalucia. Rural poverty was a major factor for the exodus across the Atlantic, as was war. Spanish statistics show significant spikes in emigration levels following conflicts such as the Carlist Wars (1833-1876), World War I (1914-1918), and the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).

A large wave of affluent, skilled and educated Spanish immigrants arrived in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century, settling in such states as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan, Illinois and West Virginia. Florida, Louisiana, Hawai'i and California historically have been significant destinations for Spanish immigrants.

In New Mexico and California, Spanish missionaries of the colonial era introduced sacred and secular Spanish and Mexican musical forms and styles, and also drew inspiration from the music of the Native American peoples they encountered. Little is known about the secular music of the period. Documentation from the missions shows that plainchant and polyphonic choral music were used as tools to convert the Indians to Christianity. An example is this recording of an old mission hymn, "Alabado," performed by the Choristers of St. Anthony's Seminary. It was recorded in 1938 in Santa Barbara, California, by the ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell.

While the Spanish colonies in California maintained a strong connection with Mexico through its ports, the settlers of the colony of "New Mexico," an area that is now in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, were more isolated from Mexico and maintained ties more directly to Spain through priests sent to serve their communities. These priests left after the Mexican Revolution in1821, further isolating these settlers. So, although they were politically considered part of Mexico until they became part of the United States in 1848, people in this region call them selves Spanish, and have a distinct culture, as reflected in their music. After the priests left, the people kept their religion alive through their own musical and liturgical practices. Folklorist Juan B. Rael, who was born into this culture, documented songs of religious holidays, religious plays, and secular songs as performed by members of the community in 1940. For example, "Dios te salve, bella aurora," performed by Luis Montoya and Ricardo Archuleta in 1940 is a song sung after a wake for the dead when dawn comes.

Operatic singers of Spanish heritage have also made their mark in the United States. For example, Emilio de Gogorza (1874-1949), an operatic baritone born in New York of Spanish parents, became a sought-after talent for recitals and concerts. Unable to perform on the opera stage because of extremely poor eyesight, he nevertheless became a popular artist of his day. Select this link to listen to his performance of "La Golondrina," recorded by Victor in 1906.

Emilio De Gogorza
Flory Jagoda and Friends performed songs from the Sephardi diaspora at the Library of Congress, March 21, 2007. Left to right: Susan Feltman-Gaeta, Flory Jagoda, Howard Bass, and Tina Chancey.

In more recent times, Spanish vocal music culture in the United States has been regularly included in public presentations of Latino culture. Flamenco, a genre of Spanish music, song and dance from Andalucia that includes cante (singing) toque (guitar playing), baile (dance) and palmas (handclaps), is at the heart of these activities. Acclaimed flamenco guitarists and cantaores (singers), such as Pepe Culata, a fifth-generation cante jondo (deep, serious song) vocalist, live in the United States.

The music of Spanish, or Sephardic, Jews of the Iberian Peninsula has also found a place in the United States. They were expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century, and subsequently migrated to many other countries including the Dutch colony that would become New York. The historic language of Sephardic Jews is a dialect of Spanish called Ladino, but they adopted the language of the countries they emigrated to after the diaspora. United States-based ensembles such as Al Andalus of Seattle perform such song types as the cantiga (Medieval monophonic song) and muwashshah (secular song with Arabic roots). Spanish immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula also brought with them additional vocal music forms like the villancico (a type of popular song sung in the vernacular and frequently associated with rustic themes) and genres that blended music and spoken drama such as the zarzuela, a lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular song, as well as dance. In 2007 the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress sponsored "Flory Jagoda and Friends," a concert of songs from the Sephardic diaspora. In 2012, the African and Middle Eastern Section of the Library of Congress sponsored "A Concert of Ladino Music," a concert of Sephardic songs in Ladino performed by Flory Jagoda, Tiffani Ferrantelli and Zhenya Tochenaya.


  1. See page 948 in Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups p948-950. According to the Encyclopedia, some 250,000 Spaniards emigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1980, the time of publication.[back to article]
  2. The songs of Basque Americans, an ethnic group from the border of Spain and France, are also available in this collection, see the article, "Basque American Song." [back to article]


  • "The Chicano Civil Rights Movement" (Songs of America)
  • The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) Section on Puerto Rican music pp. 731 to 732, 754 to 759, and 847 to 849. Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups, pp. 948 to 950. (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981)
  • Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande: The Juan B. Rael Collection is an online presentation documenting religious and secular music of Spanish-speaking residents of rural Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. In 1940, folklorist Juan Bautista Rael, a native of Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, documented alabados (hymns), folk drama, wedding songs, and dance tunes. The recordings included in the Archive of Folk Culture collection were made in Alamosa, Manassa, and Antonito, Colorado, and in Cerro and Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. In addition to these recordings, the collection includes manuscript materials and publications authored by Rael that provide insight into the rich musical heritage and cultural traditions of this region.
  • The ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell collected Spanish songs in California in the late 1930s. Select this link for the American Memory presentation California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties.
  • "Mexican American Song" (Songs of America)
  • "Puerto Rican Song" (Songs of America)
  • See more articles about Ethnic Song in America

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  • Spanish American Song


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  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
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