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El Ciego Melquiades

El Ciego Melquiades


El Ciego Melquíades, also known as “The Blind Fiddler,” represents a bygone era in Tex-Mex music when small orquestas típicas and rural string bands were still popular. Though little is known about the life of Melquíades Rodríguez, his recording career spanned the 1930s and ’40s and even continued into the postwar era when the fiddle had already given way to the accordion as the centerpiece of Mexican American popular music. He recorded both vocal and instrumental numbers, some at mobile studios set up by labels at hotels in the San Antonio area. At the peak of his career, he was much in-demand at dances, bullfights, and other festive occasions in the area around San Antonio.

Melquíades Rodríguez began his recording career in the early 1930s when he made several records as a singer and guitarist with various partners. By this time, however, the era of the string bands and small orquestas típicas, which flourished at the turn of the century and into the 1920s, was fading rapidly from the pop music scene among Mexican Americans in south Texas. The instrumental ensembles were replaced by vocal duets with guitars, which became the popular sound on records, radio, and jukeboxes. At the same time, the accordion was replacing the violin at dances – especially in the country where full orchestras were an extravagance few could afford. Despite these changes in musical tastes, Rodríguez’s talents caught the attention of a recording director who made room for tracks that spotlighted the musician’s fiddle work. During the latter part of a recording session in 1935, Rodríguez laid down four tracks, two polkas and two waltzes, with his fiddle front and center. A pattern of recording some vocal selections along with several fiddle tunes then persisted through early 1937. By September of that year, the label officially billed Rodríguez by his handicap as El Ciego Melquíades, or The Blind Fiddler. Apparently the fiddle solos were successful enough to warrant El Ciego to be asked back into the studio several more times before the record company ceased its regional recording activities in San Antonio in late 1938.

During World War II, most recordings of regional and vernacular music ceased due to a shortage of shellac. By the late 1940s, however, a host of small local labels sprang up all over the country trying to fill the demand from jukebox operators. By then, the music which Rodríguez played on the fiddle, once so common on both sides of the border, was a fading tradition, rapidly replaced by the much louder and sturdier accordion. Still, El Ciego Melquíades stands out among his Depression-era peers as the most popular and enduring exponent of that bygone violin tradition.

“I think he played in a more fluent and rural style while the others were perhaps better trained musicians,” writes producer Chris Strachwitz in the liner notes to San Antonio House Party (Arhoolie 7045), a compilation of El Ciego’s recordings. “He was also apparently a very well-liked man who appeared at many house parties, restaurants, bars, and on the streets of San Antonio.”

Years after his music faded, fans from San Antonio continued to remember El Ciego’s legendary performances at house parties where he would play all night long. Conjunto star Fred Zimmerle of Trio San Antonio recalled that his brother Henry used to play guitar with El Ciego during the 1940s. Though they knew little about his background or private life, fans had fond memories of the man and his music.

Mexican writer Hermann Bellinghausen identifies disparate musical strains that influenced El Ciego’s lively playing style – from the fiddlework native to the huasteca region of southern Mexico, to the square dance sounds of Tennessee and Texas, and even the more refined violin tradition of Mexico’s Juventino Rosas, a 19th century composer and violinist. Rodríguez’s style is showcased on some four dozen 78-rpm recordings included in the Frontera Collection. Selections on the aforementioned Arhoolie compilation, released in 2002, come mostly from the artist‘s heyday in the 1930s. The 20-track disc features polkas, waltzes, fox-trots and mazurkas, with El Ciego’s violin backed by guitar, violoncello, and string bass accompaniment. The last two selections are taken from 78s on the Corpus Christi-based AERO label from the late 1940s, which are apparently the last sides El Ciego made on fiddle. He did record once more for IDEAL but again as a singer and guitarist.

“It’s sentimental, good-time Texas Mexican-American music with some bright humor,” wrote pop music critic Richie Unterberger in an online review of the Arhoolie compilation 

El Ciego’s work has also been documented in a book of original transcriptions and arrangements of 34 songs from his repertoire, written by Vykki Mende Gray, artistic director of Los californios, a project of the non-profit organization San Diego Friends of Old-Time Music. “These transcriptions finally make this music accessible and available,” states the project website, urging music lovers “to discover … the delights of this piece of Mexican and tejano heritage.”

                                                                                --Agustín Gurza


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