The corrido in its usual form is a ballad of eight-syllable, four-line stanzas sung to a simple tune in fast waltz time, now often in polka rhythm. Corridos have traditionally been men's songs. They have been sung at home, on horseback, in town plazas by traveling troubadours, in cantinas by blind guitarreros (guitarists), on campaigns during the Mexican Revolution (1910–30), and on migrant workers' journeys north to the fields. Now they are heard frequently on recordings and over the radio.
These ballads are generally in major keys and have tunes with a short—less than an octave—range. Américo Paredes, the preeminent scholar of the corrido of the lower Rio Grande border area, remarked: "The short range allows the corrido to be sung at the top of the singer's voice, an essential part of the corrido style." In Texas this singing has traditionally been accompanied by a guitar or bajo sexto, a type of twelve-string guitar popular in Texas and northern Mexico.
In its literary form the corrido seems to be a direct descendent of the romance, a Spanish ballad form that developed in the Middle Ages, became a traditional form, and was brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors. Like the romance, the corrido employs a four-line stanza form with an abcd rhyme pattern. Paredes surmised that corrido is ultimately derived from the Andalusian phrase romance corrido, which denoted a refrainless, rapidly sung romance. With the noun dropped, the participle corrido, from a verb meaning "to run," itself became a noun.
The corrido, like the romance, relates a story or event of local or national interest—a hero's deeds, a bandit's exploits, a barroom shootout, or a natural disaster, for instance. It has long been observed, however, that songs with little or no narration are still called corridos if they adhere to the corrido's usual literary and musical form.
Besides its music, versification, and subject matter, the corrido also employs certain formal ballad conventions. In La lírica narrativa de México, Vicente Mendoza gives six primary formal characteristics or conventions of the corrido. They are: (1) the initial call of the corridista, or balladeer, to the public, sometimes called the formal opening; (2) the stating of the place, time, and name of the protagonist of the ballad; (3) the arguments of the protagonist; (4) the message; (5) the farewell of the protagonist; and (6) the farewell of the corridista. These elements, however, vary in importance from region to region in Mexico and the Southwest, and it is sometimes difficult to find a ballad that employs all of them. In Texas and the border region, the formal opening of the corrido is not as vital as the balladeer's despedida (farewell) or formal close. Often the singer will start the corrido with the action of the story to get the interest of the audience, thus skipping the introduction, but the despedida in one form or another is almost never dropped. The phrase Ya con esta me despido ("With this I take my leave") or Vuela, vuela, palomita ("Fly, fly, little dove") often signals the despedida on the first line of the penultimate or ultimate stanza of the song.
In the middle to late 1800s several ballad forms—the romance, décima, and copla—existed side by side in Mexico and in the Southwest, and at this time the corrido seems to have had its genesis. By 1848, however, the remote outposts of northern Mexico already belonged to the United States as a result of the Texas Revolution, the Mexican War, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The romance tradition in California dwindled with the Anglo-American migration and takeover, and a native balladry did not develop there until the corrido form was imported by Mexican immigrants in this century. New Mexico, on the other hand, remained somewhat isolated from modern Mexican and Anglo-American currents and retained much of its archaic Spanish tradition.
The border area of the lower Rio Grande and South Texas, however, was different. There the corrido seems to have had a separate and perhaps earlier development than elsewhere. Events in Texas between 1836 and 1848 resulted in the colonization of the lower Rio Grande area by white empresarios (see EMPRESARIO). The gradual displacement or subjugation of the Mexican people there provided the basis for more than a century of border conflict between the Anglos and the Mexicans. During the struggle against the Anglos, the corrido form developed in the area and became extremely popular. In Paredes's words, the borderers' "slow, dogged struggle against economic enslavement and the loss of their own identity was the most important factor in the development of a distinct local balladry."
The border corrido developed after 1848 and reached its peak at the height of cultural conflict between 1890 and 1910, at least ten years before the zenith of the Mexican corrido during the Mexican Revolution. The border corridos, in short, dramatic form, picture a heroic struggle against oppression and rival the Mexican corridos in quality, if not in quantity. Border heroes such as Ignacio and Jacinto Treviño and Aniceto Pizaña are depicted in corridos of this time defending their rights against the Americans. But the epitome of the border corrido hero was Gregorio Cortez. In With His Pistol in His Hand, Paredes discusses the legend, life, and corridos of Cortez. Despite Cortez's notoriety among South Texas Anglos, the ballads portray him as a peaceful Mexicano living in South Texas at the turn of the century. When Cortez's brother is shot, allegedly for no good reason, Cortez is pursued over South Texas by as many as 300 rinches, or Texas Rangers. Following the pattern, the corridos picture Cortez goaded into action, fighting against “outsiders” for his own and the people's independence.
The border ceased to be a distinct cultural area in the early 1900s. Improved communications and means of travel linked the south bank of the Rio Grande more with the interior of Mexico and the north bank more with Texas and the United States. The idea of a boundary caused the borderer to begin to see himself as a Mexican or American. Corridos in Mexico embodied epic characteristics during the revolutionary period. Although these corridos were known in Texas, few if any new corridos of border conflict were composed after about 1930. With the borderer's loss of identity went the corrido of border strife. The corrido tradition itself did not die in Texas, however; it merely changed during and after the 1930s.
At the same time that border strife was waning, labor demands of developing agribusiness in Texas were pulling more and more Texas-Mexican borderers into migrant farmwork. The decades of the 1920s through the 1950s were particularly frustrating for Texas Mexicans, who held the lowest status in the economy of South Texas. In these years hundreds of corridos were composed and sung about bad working conditions, poverty, and the hopelessness of the Texas-Mexican migrant agricultural worker.
In the late 1940s and in the 1950s, as Texas-Mexican music in general became commercialized, so did the corrido. With local guitarreros and conjuntos (musical groups), the new Texas-Mexican recording companies produced many corridos. These recorded songs, however, were usually about such sensational subjects as barroom shootings or drug smuggling. Corridos about migrant work were never recorded, for they were considered too politically inflammatory for fledgling recording companies and new radio stations.
Not until the Kennedy assassination did Texas-Mexican corridos have a subject that would reinvigorate the genre. During the months following John Kennedy's death, dozens of Kennedy corridos were composed, recorded, and broadcast on Spanish-language radio stations in Texas and across the Southwest. In contrast to the usual commercial corridos of the time, those about Kennedy often resembled the older, heroic corridos. The new ballads spoke for Mexican Americans who identified with what they saw as Kennedy's struggles and ideas. After the mid-1960s and the beginnings of the Chicano movement, corridos continued to thrive. Their subjects were Chicano leaders and ideals of economic justice and cultural pride.
From the 1970s and into the twenty-first century the biggest factor in corridos in Texas, across the southwestern United States and in northern Mexico was the rise of the genre of narcocorridos. Following the early-1970s release of Contrabando y traici ón by the popular group Los Tigres del Norte, the exploits and profits of drug smugglers such as Camelia “la tejana” were chronicled in hundreds of corridos, and this trend shows no signs of tapering off. In the 1980s and 1990s some corridos circulated about famous Texans—some promoted the political aspirations of Henry Cisneros, for instance—and there were outpourings of sadness in tragedias about the killing of the popular singer Selena. Disasters over the years such as the space shuttle Challenger explosion spawned a few corridos. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 received the greatest expression from corridistas; at least three corridos about the event circulated in San Antonio, and many more were composed and recorded throughout the Southwest on both sides of the border. In a new development, by the early twenty-first century some corridos were diffused through Internet sites. The Internet has less impact than recordings played on the radio, but also less censorship. See also MÚSICA NORTEÑA, TEXAS-MEXICAN FICTION, TEXAS-MEXICAN CONJUNTO.