The Poetry of Son Jarocho and the Appalachian Ballad

One of the goals in this project was to analyze the song form of both the Appalachian ballad and Son Jarocho verses, to see if there is a common structure, or themes, or history. And indeed, there seems to be a lot of common threads that connect the two styles of music. They are both rooted in medieval European epic poetry, which was generally an oral tradition, with verses sung or dramatically presented. Son Jarocho verses are descended from Spanish Romances, which are shorter poems, based on popular themes, like romance, nature, betrayal, longing. Appalachian ballads are often derivative of English and Scotch-Irish murder ballads, which are often dark stories of tragedy. So it is not altogether surprising that two styles, both rooted in Medieval European storytelling, would manifest themselves in the New World in similar ways.

Son Jarocho verses appear in a variety of patterns, with four, five, six, and ten line verses, which are called decimas.

Se acabaron las pitayas
Ahora si que comeras
pobrecita guacamaya
ay que lastima me das

Vuela, vuela, vuela
Vuela bailadora
En el mar de la tarima
Navegas inspiradora

One of the most traditional poetic forms in Son Jarocho is a four line stanza, with each line of eight syllables.

The rhyme scheme is sometimes a strong consonant rhyme, and sometimes it’s mainly a vowel rhyme, known as assonance. Sometimes the rhyme scheme is ABBA and sometimes ABAB. You can see that in these two stanzas from La Guacamaya:


si en la mar se escuchan voces
son voces de la sirena 
y solo las reconoce
quien de amores tiene pena

como la luna de llena
muestras todo su esplendor
a si preciosa morena 
yo te mostrado mi amor

Notice a similar dynamic in La Morena:


She dressed herself in scarlet red
All alone and lonely-o
And wished to God she'd better been dead
Down by the greenwood sidey-o

She leaned her breast against a thorn
All alone and lonely-o
And there she had two pretty babes born
Down by the greenwood sidey-o

There is a similar dynamic in the Scottish-English ballad Greenwood Sidey-O, also known as The Cruel Mother, which also has a similar octosyllabic rhythm with four line stanzas


The old ship is fast approaching
The captain is calling my name
I'm looking for my dear savior
Who promised to take me in

Sometimes I'm tossed and driven
And know not where to roam
I heard of a city called Heaven
I hope to make Heaven my home

In the gospel ballad Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow, there is also a similar structure.


In all of these forms, the rules are not absolutely strict, and variations in the sung melody can affect the octosyllabic rhythm in ways not apparent in the written verse.

It is striking that at the core of many ballads, whether from England, Scotland, Ireland, or Appalachia, and in the core of traditional son jarocho verse, there is a similar narrative structure, across continents, languages, and centuries.


The Mexilachian Son


In new arrangements, of both La Guacamaya and Las Poblanas, Lua Project decided to write the English language verses by focusing on this same octosyllabic quartet stanza form for the new verses, as exemplified below.

Soaring high on the wings of a bird
Tipping and gliding and passing
On and over the rivers and valleys
Under bridges we are splashing

The warbler and the sparrow, 
Meet guacamaya en Mexico…
Flying high on wings of barrow 
Fat on ortiga y romero

First, this is a passage from the new arrangement of La Guacamaya, with a mostly ABAB rhyme scheme:


Las Poblanas exemplifies a similar structure.

Raph is on the rooftop shingling homes
Betty’s whipping butter for bakin’
Lupe’s on a tile job, sandin’ stones
Eri blessed beds she’s makin’

Las Poblanas begins with an “English Ballad” intro:


Examples of quartets from the son jarocho portion of the song:


siglos pasaron y pasan
misma historia, mismas penas
un paraiso de arenas
arenas que nos abrazan

diariamente nos disfrazan
nuestros senderos globales
habitamos arenales
muchas espinas, terror

twas a mirage in the desert
deceitful illusion of green
sold our souls to plant a dream
mistaking roots for your treasure

bouquet of roses sweet and fragrant
lay in a box with it’s thorns
the unjust object of scorn
it has no lover to claim it


In this passage, Zenen and Estela are singing back and forth, in Spanish and English, but following the same basic octosyllabic quartet with an ABBA rhyme scheme. This work of writing verses was extremely challenging, probably the most difficult piece of the project, as even though the two languages both allow for this shared poetic form, the vagaries of translating the English language into the son jarocho rhythmic feel, and vice versa, proved quite challenging. It is clear that both styles of music, son jarocho and the Appalachian ballad, evolved organically over a long period of time, and the feel of the poetic verses and the musical environment in which they developed, are totally integrated and very distinct.