Sunday, September 01, 2019

La Valenciana

A lot happened fifty years ago. Much of it bad. The late sixties were a period of tumult and change. They were the defining time of my generation. I’ve written about the early years of my marriage in Los Angeles and a career just starting to blossom, of watching Bobby Kennedy speak at the Hollywood Bowl the night before he was assassinated and of picking up the LA Times the next morning to see a picture from the Ambassador Hotel of Rosie Grier, the Rams lineman, holding RFK’s head in his huge hands. And being in Chicago during the riots at the Democratic Convention stays with me. Innocence was gone. A pointless war continued and the nation came apart.

But on a trivial note as I was running Thursday morning, it dawned on me that the La Valenciana guitar I bought in Tijuana was fifty years old. Realizations happen a lot when I run. And since I run at the speed of walk, I have time for unimportant thoughts. It’s a good thing the old axe came to mind since I had no idea what to write about this week. Felíz Cumpleaños, mi guitarra.

Mi guitarra que tiene 50 anos.
El logo de 1969

One weekend in 1969 we drove from our house in Van Nuys to Tijuana. Buying the guitar is all that I remember of the trip. Avenida Revolución was chock-a-block with shops selling the likes of switch blade knives, cheap pottery and Oso Negro vodka. But there was one reputable guitar store amidst the tchotchkes. I know that because it’s where I spent the entire afternoon playing classical guitars, the ones with nylon strings. I may have been too enthusiastic because I popped the bridge on guitar numero seis while playing La Bamba. Understandably the proprietor was not pleased when I broke the guitar, but he still let me play guitarra after guitarra till the La Valenciana stole my heart like a ten-dollar hooker. I’m guessing it cost $35. 

Today Paracho guitars run from $100 to $10,000 as the small city evolves from making low-end consumer instruments to world-class guitars handmade by one of its the 2,000 luthiers. Reportedly half of Paracho's economy comes from guitar making. High end custom guitars can take more than 75 hours to complete. Many craftsmen are fourth and fifth generation guitar makers who oddly enough don’t play. In fact, there is no significant music culture in the town. Which is strange.

I knew a little about Paracho’s fabled guitars when I bought the La Valenciana. In 1960 during my ill-fated attempt to play in folk music’s big arena I ran into singer and guitarist Travis Edmundson on the Sunset Strip. Travis, of the recently disbanded folk duo Bud and Travis, told me that he had all his guitars made in Paracho and that he had his favorite luthier there copy the legendary Ramirez guitar from Spain using the same Alp Spruce for the top and Honduran Mahogany for the sides and bottom. He claimed the Mexican version was the equal of the Ramirez and was a quarter of the price. That may still be the case today.

John Ellsworth, my singing partner for six years, and I covered all of Bud and Travis’s songs and had opened for Travis in Phoenix after he went solo. Many of his sets included Mexican songs he had learned across the border from his hometown of Nogales, Arizona. Among them was Malaguena Salerosa that he called the most beautiful love song in the world. Naturally, it became part of my act when I still had a falsetto. Like John and me Travis had attended the University of Arizona though a decade earlier. His kind of playing required a classical guitar a nylon string guitar for its percussive tone and easy action. Hence my Goya G-7 which was stolen from Lynn Quayle’s Triumph Spitfire in 1965 and the La Valenciana that I bought in Tijuana in 1969.

Inspired by these memories I picked up the guitar Friday. Even played a little. It was the first time in years. I often joke that, “I play once a decade whether I need to or not.” I was more than rusty and the little guitar showed its age. It was tinny sounding and had an annoying buzz on the A string at the second fret. I’ll restring the guitar and see if that helps. I have two unopened packs of strings that could be twenty years old themselves. One set, the one I’ll probably use, are La Bella Folk Singers which were always my favorite for their ring and brightness.

La guitarra ahora
El logo hoy

Then I Googled Paracho and La Valenciana and to my amazement the guitar maker is alive and well. Little has changed. The picture of one of their guitars on their website is very similar. The logotype is unchanged though the owner today is Casa La Valenciana and it was La Casa Veerkamp half a century ago.

I think I’ll start playing again. Maybe reconstruct my ten song set from 1962. That material is so old it'll be new. It’s been on my mind for years. I’m feeling the need for a pursuit that stirs my soul. Change it up. I'd even consider a trip to the Mothership but Paracho's in the heart of cartel country and the police department is known to be complicit at best.


Blacks Crossing said...

It was a time, wasn't it? And guitars, somehow, filled a void for many in the 1960s, when life was full of uncertainty. Your blog and photographs yank at the heart strings. Sounds as if you have known John Ellsworth (photographer John, now?) for a long time, making good memories. What a wonderful thing to still have La Valenciana, complete with fifty years of character. I look forward to your first home performance, once the new strings are attached. Great blog, Amigo!

Steve Immel said...

The times they were a changing. John Ellsworth then Acuff was the lead guitarist in our duo and much the better songwriter. He has kept playing and is an accomplished classical player. He is not, however a photographer, but a novelist who writes a book every 40 days for a total of 25 more in the last five years. He was a lawyer which he hated, We haven't seen each other in over 50 years.

The guitar may be crap but it doesn't matter. I'll do my first recital after my voice transplant.