Ronstadt and
The Search for Roots

    The air in Centennial Hall was tense with expectation; a current of restlessness swept back and forth among the well-dressed Mexican Americans who were at least half the audience. But it was not an anxious electricity nor an angry one. On the contrary, the anticipation of Los Tucsonenses was joyous. One of their own was coming back to perform in the University's hall- not only a third-generation Tucsonan who had made good in the big world but now someone to sing their own songs, the songs her father taught her.

     And she was to sing their songs in the heart of a University that, for all its recent good will and honest effort, has never been able to relate to the Mexican-American middle class that has been in Tucson much longer than the century-old University.

     Then the show began, "a romantic evening in Old Mexico" with the Mariachi Vargas; the Ballet Folklorico de la Fonda; and their darling, Linda Ronstadt, a shy, almost frail woman with an enormous voice. Los Tucsonenses cheered wildly after each number. When her father, Gilbert Ronstadt, walking with the help of a cane, joined her on the stage, they all rose in respect to one of their heroes. So did the rest of us.

     We Anglos (an appellation bitterly resented by the Celt in me, but, for the moment, let it pass) cheered with them, profoundly moved by the music and by the enthusiam of the Mexican Americans. It was a special night for Tucson and perhaps for the whole country. Linda Ronstadt's search for her roots had offered to the rest of the country a slice of the wonders of Mexican-American culture. The success of her tour and her record "Canciones de mi Padre" indicated that the rest of the country was interested. Mexican Americans were no longer perceived merely as a social problem; they were now seen as what every ethnic group in fact is: a cultural resource.

     Frederico Ronstadt, son of a German engineer who had migrated to Mexico, came to Tucson in the eighteen eighties. A successful businessman, he was involved in both politics and music. He and his brother founded the Club Filharmonico- which Tucsonenses will tell you was the first symphony orchestra in the city. His daughter Luisa was a popular singer in the Mexican-American community. The family has kept the traditions alive. His grandson Pete is the chief of police, and his granddaughter is probably the most successful and certainly the most durable and most gifted woman Rock singer of her era.

     To reach that success, however, she had to leave behind Tucson and her Mexican-American heritage (though, be it noted, never in opposition to her family, who always supported her). Moreover, as one pieces together from interviews and profiles the story of her life during the two decades after she left Tucson, one is appalled at the physical and emotional toll the Rock music circuit takes from the lives of its celebrities, especially if they are women. Must a person go through such alienation and privation to be a success in American popular music? Is it necessary to leave home?

     For Linda Ronstadt it surely was. There was no room for her in the Tucson of twenty years ago. Even though she attended SS. Peter and Paul grade school and her family was close to Bishop Francis Green (to whom Fred Ronstadt left his flute), sixteen-year-old Linda was expelled by the pastor of her parish from a parish high club dance for playing Rock music. It was pagan, evil music, he told her. Once again the Church missed a chance to embrace one of its gifted children.

     Is it possible to "go home again"? John Cougar Mellencamp (about whom more shortly) argues that it is. When asked why he lives in Indiana near his home town of Seymour, he replies that he doesn't want to live anywhere else.

     For Linda Ronstadt, a permanent return to the Tucson of her youth may be impossible, in part because that Tucson has been overwhelmed by waves of Anglo immigrants and doesn't exist anymore. But in Canciones, she does return to her musical roots and shares them with the rest of the country. At the level of symbol and story, if not of literal history, she has already gone home again.

     Theologically, Canciones imposes on us two subjects for reflection- the celebratory nature of the Mexican-American world view and the inescapable importance of roots in our life. I shall atten to the first here and postpone the second until after a consideration of the Hoosier music of John Mellencamp.

     Ask a literate Tucsonensis about Mexican-American religion and s/he will tell you about festivals- birthdays, baptisms, name days, rites of passage. The calendar, you will learn, is very important because you need to have available a list of which saints are being honored every week so that you can send presents to those who bear the names of the saints. Press a Mexican American about what all this means and you are likely to hear about yet more festivals and parties. Indeed, you will probably have to ask three or four times before it dawns on your respondent that you are interested in content and not form.

     One of my graduate students gave the perfect answer: "Well, I suppose it means that we believed that God is part of our family and that he comes and joins us in all our festivals and celebrates with us like a member of the family."

     Then she added, "Of course we don't know all the rules like you Irish do. That's why my children are in Peter and Paul school, so they can learn the rules and grow up to be good American Catholics just like the Irish children."

     SS. Peter and Paul, you will remember, is the parish that ejected Linda Ronstadt for playing Rock music. At the time my student spoke those words, the same man was pastor.

     I did not plead that there was a time when the Irish knew how to celebrate too. I merely said that the exchange ought to be in both directions and that the Irish could learn from the Tucsonenses the festivity of the Catholic tradition.

     I did not even add, for which I expect points from the recording angel, that the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul might especially benefit from a little joy and celebration in his rigid, punitive, shanty-Irish life.

     Linda Ronstadt's Canciones are almost all love songs, many of them, Tucsonenses will tell you, sad and melancholy songs. But the Mexican-American culture resolutely refuses to permit melancholy to triumph. With the Mariachi Vargas playing enthusiastically in the background, joy exorcises the melancholy themes every time. Joy- and faith- are victorious even in the beautiful and poignant Dos Arbolitos in which the singer observes sadly that the two trees are inseperable companions but that s/he has no companion. Sitting under the tree at the end of a tiring day, the singer is going to ask God, who makes companions even for the trees, to send a human companion.

     It is the resolute joy of her songs, rather than explicit reference to God, which makes them theologically important. In a fascinating interview reported in American Airlines in-flight magazine, however, she shows that she is quite self conscious about the religious function of her music:

     "But joy," said Linda Ronstadt, is a combination of
   despair, fatalism, anger, triumph- it's all those things. 
   You know Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With a Thousand Faces?
   He was a very good friend of mine, the neatest man I've
   ever known.  He said to me once, 'Life is basically intolerable.'
   He said music is the only way we have of dealing with and
   music is myth.  Music is oral dream.  It's a way of triumphing
   over despair.  The Catholics [she is one] say, 'life is a vale
   of tears. Help me here in this vale of tears.'  It's a myth.
   The metaphor of life is the vale of tears. So. . ."

     She broke into a glorious grin.  ". . . if you can triumph
   over it, that's cause for joy.  This music has got that in it.
   It's mythology. It's a triumph over a situation that is
   basically intolerable."

     Even at their most melancholy, they are joyous. For the Celts, the opposite might be true: even at our most joyous we sound melancholy.

     Those priest and religious who are engaged in "Hispanic work" are often immune to this rich dimension of Mexican-American culture. Indeed the "Hispanic Caucus" of clergy and religious that has appeared in many large dioceses (made up almost entirely, be it noted, of people with Celtic and not Hispanic names) often are the most joyless collection of celebrants that one could possibly imagine. They have "identified" with the Mexican Americans often to impose on them their own political agenda and are outside redeemers who have come to save and not to listen and learn.

     They should be made to listen to Linda Ronstadt's Canciones every day and thus perhaps to come to understand that festival and celebration are essential to the Catholic tradition. The Mexican Americans have it and we don't. We must learn joy from them, much more than they must learn political strategy (not to say "liberation") from us.

     I'm not saying that the cause of political and social justice is invalid. On the contrary, Mexican Americans have been cheated and continue to be cheated. I am saying, rather, that those who align themselves with La Raza will only be exploiters and manipulators themselves (no better in their own way than the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul) until they are ready to learn as well as teach.

     You won't find much joy in John (Cougar) Mellencamp and his return to his small-town, Hoosier roots. You encounter, rather, in his most recent music, especially the two albums Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee, resignation and acceptance. If Linda Ronstadt represents the Catholic imagination (that which David Tracy calls "analogical," the awareness of God everywhere), John Mellencamp represents the Protestant imagination (the dialectical imagination in Tracy's terms which emphasizes the emptiness of creation). While he may not yet attend the Church of the Nazarene regularly as his family did, Mellencamp's search for roots- or more precisely his acceptance of the roots he never really left- requires the absorption of the the stern Protestant theology of his own tradition.

     His return also involves the rediscovery of such traditional Hoosier instruments as the penny whistle, the mandolin, the banjo, and the dulcimer- to his work what the mariachi are to Linda Ronstadt.

     His acceptance of the "dialectical imagination" is never more clearly stated than in the quote from Ecclesiastes on the jacket of Scarecrow:

     There is nothing more sad or glorious than generations
   changing hands.  Generations come and go but it makes no
   difference.  Everything is unutterably weary and tiresome.
   No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied... So I
   saw that there is nothing better for men than that they
   should be happy in their work for that is what they are
   here for, and no one can bring them back to life to enjoy
   what will be in the future, so let them enjoy it now.

     What must one do in the face of that grim news? How does one cope with the sad truth that like "Jack and Diane" most of us are doomed to loss and frustration?

     "You realize that this is pretty boring shit here. This is what we all do. So once you realize that life is boring, then you can really deal with it, and you can make the best of it."

     You live with the truth that "family and friends are the best things I've known"; you celebrate the small town in which you and your wife and kids live, the memories of the simple years of your teens (and a dance hall called the Cherry Bomb), and the ordinary events and responsibilities of life which provide us humans with dignity and honor. You realize that life is like "paper in the fire," doomed to turn brown and blow away, but still you also understand that, just as at a fast-food joint you can choose between "hotdogs and hamburgers," you have a choice in life between "right and wrong," between "giving in or holding on."

     And make no mistake about it, "holding on" is a difficult task. The most you can hope for is that you do it more often than not.

     Like Bruce Springsteen, to whom he has often been compared, Mellencamp is painfully aware of human sinfulness. He also is much less hopeful about our capacity to overcome it.

     Mellencamp's return to Hoosier, Protestant roots came quickly. His anarchist period of rebellion did not last long. While he still swaggers and still revels in foul language and still sounds angry some of the time, his world view has shifted to that of a small town, German Hoosier Protestant- which is what he always was, just as Springsteen always was an Italian Catholic from Jersey and Ronstadt a Mexican-American Tucsonan (with German roots on her father's side and Dutch and Irish on her mother's).

     All three have come, each in their own way, to appreciate both the value of roots and their inescapability. Ronstadt laments publicly that when she was growing up, bilingual education was unthinkable, so she never really learned the language of her father's songs. Mellencamp likes the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but what really matters are the family and friends, the people with whom he grew up in Hoosierland. Springsteen laments for the lost communities of the past (more poignantly than the other two) and agonizes over the new communities he is trying to build.

     Mellencamp's Hoosier world may not be yours. (It surely isn't mine!) Ronstadt's Tucsonan world may be one you find attractive. (I certainly do!) Springsteen's Jersey may remind you of folks down the street in the neighborhood in which you grew up. (It does so remind me.) The point to be learned from their return to roots is not that one should want the world that they seek, each in their own way, to re-create. Rather, the lesson of their most recent music is that whether you can go home again is hardly the question.

     The issue, rather, is whether you can ever really escape from the culture that formed you and indeed whether you should even try. If Rock singers, among the most alienated people in America because of the nature of their lives and work, are forced in the middle years of their life to make peace with their past, then who can escape that difficult, poignant, pleasurable, and agonizing peace initiative?

     Elite American culture assumes that roots are not really important (for all the hoopla about the black quest for roots). The universities and the national media both take for granted the necessity and the virtue of alienation. Indeed elite university faculty members often assume that one of their sacred roles is to wrench young people out of their roots, to deracinate them and alienate them from their families, their local communities, and their heritages.

     (They usually don't succeed but not for want of trying.)

     The Catholic Church, which because of its sacramental sensibility has a vested interest in localism and sacred places, is so preoccupied with distant and mostly empty concerns about which it can do very little (the "third world") that it does not celebrate anymore its neighborhoods, local communities, and ethic roots (I was the only cleric at the Ronstadt concert in Centennial Hall). Rather, it agrees with the assumption of the cultural elites that the human person is infinitely mobile and can be picked up and placed anywhere in the world with little pain or cost.

     Physically, we can be moved anywhere (though the rhythms of our many body clocks will protest). Psychologically and religiously, however, mobility extorts an enormous price on the personality and its relationships. It is possible but not good for humans to live at great spatial distances from their origins.

     For many of those who have left home, it is impossible to go back, if only because home might not be there anymore (destroyed by expressways, urban renewal, housing projects, or resegregation). But it is adolescent to remain fixated in rebellion against the energies and perspectives which have shaped you. To go home again emotionally and spiritually is essential for adult maturity. One must make peace with one's origins, one's family, one's culture, one's religious imagery. To a very considerable extent, what one is has resulted from these dynamisms. To make peace with them is to make peace with the self.

     By making peace, I do not mean an uncritical acceptance of the childhood and adolescent influences in one's life. Rather, I mean that the adult comes to terms with both the good and the bad, both the right and the wrong, both the limiting and the liberating aspects of one's origins- and hence of one's self.

     You might bitterly resent the fact that you have been shaped by West Side Chicago Irish Catholicism (in which case you would be a fool, but for the sake of the argument I yield the right to such resentment). But for weal or woe, that's what you are and always will be. In Paul Ricoeur's word, the second naivete is a critical acceptance of what is both good and bad in that heritage, a rueful acknowledgement of what might be bad and a celebration of what is good.

     That's what adults do.

     The elite society thinks that such critical but sympathetic reexamination of one's origins is both unnecessary and wrong (unless perchance you are a member of one of the fashionable social groups- which middle-class Mexican Americans, German Hoosiers, Italians from Jersey, and West Side Irish Catholics are certainly not). Elite society is wrong. The music of Ronstadt, Springsteen, and Mellencamp tells us how wrong.

     Popular culture both shapes society and is shaped by it. The roots-seeking Rock musicians are reflecting a broad cultural discontent as well as articulating and shaping it. If one reads the literature and listens to the music of the two singers discussed in this chapter (and Springsteen), one is almost overwhelmed by their passion for roots. They express one of the most desperate yearnings of modern humankind, a religious and human need which cannot long be denied.

     One puts aside the tapes and the compact disks, the articles and the interviews, and wonders how long elite society can continue to pretend that such needs do not exist or are "conservative" and hence can be safely ignored or dismissed as "nostalgia."

     And one also wonders how long the Catholic Church and its official theologians (of the right or the left) can continue to be indifferent to the hungers of humankind for responses that it is uniquely equipped to offer.

     Probably for a long, long time.

The writer of this article, Andrew M. Greeley, is a Roman Catholic priest, author and sociologist. He teaches at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona. His column on political, church and social issues appears each Sunday in the Daily Southtown. Father Greeley's e-mail address is Agreel@aol.com and his home page, which includes homilies for every Sunday, is www.agreeley.com.

Thanks to Lauren Macchia for locating this article.