The anonymous folk verse sung by street singers, usually with guitar accompaniment, and known, particularly in Mexico, as corridos, is a direct descendant of the troubador ballads that flourished in Europe during the late Middle Ages. In Spain it assumed the garb of the romances which the Conquistadors brought to the New World where, like so many other Hispanic traditions, they have persisted in modified form to the present. Widespread illiteracy caused these popular verses to serve as a kind of musical press for the masses. Public events and the exploits of heroes, highwaymen, and other folkloric elements, suitably seasoned to the humble tastes of the listeners, were thus communicated in a rude, oral journalism. The Revolution of 1910 revitalized this popular expression in Mexico and the innumerable corridos inspired by that violent episode often have documentary value in providing a “worm’s eye” view of events and the “underdog’s” interpretation of the personalities of that social upheaval. Scholars, notably Vicente T. Mendoza of Mexico City and Merle E. Simmons of Indiana University, have made large collections and important studies of these folk ballads. To these Professor Tinker’s slim volume, in large format with facsimile reproductions of eleven examples printed on pages colored to simulate the broadsheets by which the text of the corridos was often circulated, offers an elaborate and appealing footnote.

Along with a general introduction each selection is presented with a brief discussion, and especial attention is given to a type called calaveras, a word with the double meaning of “skull” and “scatterbrain.” Garnished by drawings of skeletons performing varied antics the macabre imagination, sardonic wit, and nonchalance of the Indian with respect to death are expressed without a trace of morbidity and often with grotesque humor. These calaveras supply an outlet for a strong satirical tendency, shared by Indian and Creole alike, and so they have created a peculiar form of “comics” combining the talents of the cartoonist and the versifier. The nineteenth-century José Guadalupe Posada won renown as a social critic by his searing verses and caricatures set forth in the form of calaveras, and he appears to have strongly influenced the great muralist, Diego Rivera who, as a small boy, often came to his studio.

In the appendix Américo Paredes has performed the exacting feat of transforming the difficult colloquialisms of the original corridos and calaveras into adequate English. All told this large sized, thin volume is a kind of handsome book dividend designed to amuse a casual reader, but it also provides a more serious observer with a realistic exhibit of an engaging Mexican folk art.