From the Ridge
was an Argentinian folksinger who took a Native American name as a way of championing Native American rights. His songs create their own austere landscape, though he died in exile in Paris.
I came to know these songs, listening to them on a tape in my friend's car as we drove through the Andes, and I have never seen a printed text. I worked from the images they left in my mind and anyone who knows the original songs will see that I have completely remade them, but in homage to Atahualpa Yupanqui, apprenticing myself to his spirit.
One phrase, I have to confess, I misunderstood. I took huella
to mean hoofprint, which seems natural enough in the song about a man riding away on horseback. But when I came to perform my version with two Colombian guitarists, they told me of another sense of huella
, which is not in the dictionary, and possibly unknown outside Argentina, except to musicians. The huella
is the path across the pampas - a track worn long before Colombus came- and a song-form in Argentinian music, the song you make as you ride along the path. The song I have translated is itself a huella
This was such a profound and lovely meaning that I was left in a real quandary. I wanted to incorporate it - who wouldn't? - but that would mean losing
little hoofprints of my pride
which was, I suspected, the very line that made my version work. I did start to dismantle it and try out new choruses,
Ancient path, beaten path, path
of my song..
until the poet Jackie Levitas, who had been at the performance, told me to leave well alone. There is such a thing, she pointed out as a lucky mistake.
The image of the huella stayed in my mind, though, and when the Poetry Society commission gave me the chance to go back to this material and see what I could make of it, there it was, seven years later, waiting to be used in the last lines of the poem.
Chavela Vargas is a Mexican folksinger who has written some of the most erotic songs one woman has ever addressed to another. Paloma Negra, her most famous song,manages to be humorous and heartbreaking, tender in one breath and fierce in the next.
Bola de Nieve ("Snowball") was a Cuban cabaret singer and pianist, admired by Hemingway and by many writers and artists of that generation. Like Billy Strayhorn, he had to live out a double minority, being black and gay.