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Lydia Motion

Strachwitz recorded Lydia in concert in 1982 and released the results as Live! (Arhoolie CD 490). Lydia's in great form here, her voice throaty and sensual while the guitar playing just rips - chopped chords, fluid melodic lines, fabulous runs on the bass strings and taut, snarling leads. Lydia's one tough guitarist and, I'd wager, could outplay any female guitarist (give or take Memphis Minnie) going. I'd hesitate to pick who might have won a duel between those two. Damn, even in her mid-sixties (when Live! was recorded) she could still kick most male guitarists where it hurt too.

Chris reflects on just how gifted Lydia was. "Lydia was still a fine performer when we did Chulas Fronteras and she was keen to co-operate in any way. I just wish I had better recording equipment in those days of filming! I wish I had been able to do more for her but, yes, she did festivals and other appearances - due to her role in Chulas and the LPs. The Live! CD is a great document of how she performed in concert. After Chulas, Chicano organisations began to honour her as well as folk festivals all around the US."

"Lydia recorded for many labels into the 1960s and they all show her still singing well, if somewhat lower than in her prime as a young girl. The restaurant where we filmed Lydia was in Galveston, Texas, where she was hired to play at this birthday celebration when they hit the pinata (a ceramic pot stuffed with sweets and money and hung from the ceiling) with sticks! We also filmed at a restaurant in Houston and at her home. I am not sure, but I believe she quit playing when she had the stroke. She tried to keep on singing but never found a guitarist who could do her justice."

Lydia predates the craze for conjunto accordeon, the sound largely defining Tex-Mex music today. Where does Strachwitz see her fitting in the canon of 20th century Mexican music? "Lydia's totally unique. She's from the early era of recording and was the first and only real star of that era. She sang all types of songs and never stopped by limiting herself to any one genre as did, say, Chelo Silva, who only sang boleros in the early '50s. But that was the happening genre by then and catered to a better class, kind of like Bessie Smith versus Billie Holiday. Conjunto accordeon music came to the fore in the early 1950s with musicians like Flaco, Santiago, Trio San Antonio, that's really after Lydia's era. Lydia has recorded with accordeons, orchestras, mariachis, every kind of Mexican music backing. That said, she never fed into the tejano orchestra sound that was to become very popular."

Lydia Mendoza
Photos courtesy of the Arhoolie Foundation

This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005


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