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Guantanamera – a song of liberty and love

Updated on May 21, 2015

With the poor people of the earth

With the poor people of the earth
I want to share my fate
The brook of the mountains
Gives me more pleasure than the sea

One of my all-time favourite songs is "Guantanamera" because it is an almost ideal combination of real poetry with a great piece of music. The music is melodically beautiful and rhythmically exciting. It has a really interesting Latin feel, appropriate since it comes from Cuba, home of so much great music.

The music, often erroneously called “traditional” was in fact composed by one Joseíto Fernández (1908 to 1979), who used it on his radio show, improvising comments on daily events in the song, the structure of which lent itself to such a use.

Originally the lyrics written to the music by Fernández referred to a young woman (guajira) from Guantanamo, with whom he either had or wanted to have a relationship. The history is a little vague on this.

What is not vague is that Cuban composer Julián Orbón (1925 to 1991), who studied under Aaron Copeland at Tanglewood in 1946, adapted words from the first poem, "Yo soy un hombre sincero", in the 1899 collection Versos Sencillos by famed Cuban poet José Julián Martí Pérez (usually known simply as José Martí) into the song.

It was these words which captured the ear of Pete Seeger who, with his group the Weavers, turned the song into a world-wide hit.

The usic for Guantanamera
The usic for Guantanamera
A
Guantanamo:
Guantanamo, Cuba

get directions

The song refers to a young woman from Guantanamo, Cuba.

The Song

The words of the chorus, "Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera", were written by Herminio "El Diablo" García Wilson, who is also often credited with the whole song. In fact a case was brought to the Supreme Court of Cuba to challenge the attribution of the song to Fernández, but the Court in 1993 found in favour of Fernández rather than García. The story of García's involvement with the song is that he was on a street corner with some friends when he made a pass at an attractive young woman walking past, who happened to be from Guantánamo. The woman reacted angrily and García, in the face of some ribbing from his mates, could not get the woman off his mind. He sat down at a piano later and wrote the melody and words of the chorus.

Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera

I am a sincere man
From where the palm tree grows
And before dying I want
To share the verses of my soul.

Mi verso es de un verde claro
Y de un carmín encendido
Mi verso es de un ciervo herido
Que busca en el monte amparo
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera

My verse is light green
And it is flaming crimson
My verse is a wounded deer
Who seeks refuge on the mountain (or in the woods).

This third verse of "Versos Sencillos" is usually not part of the song

Cultivo una rosa blanca
En julio como en enero
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

I cultivate a white rose
In July as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his honest hand.

This fourth verse is translated during the song as sung by Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie

Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazon con que vivo
Cardo ni ortiga cultivo
Cultivo la rosa blanca
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

And for the cruel one
who would tear out this heart with which I live
I do not cultivate nettles nor thistles
I cultivate a white rose

Final verse of song, as published:

Con los pobres de la tierra
Quiero yo mi suerte echar
El arroyo de la sierra
Me complace más que el mar
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

With the poor people of the earth
I want to share my fate
The brook of the mountains
Gives me more pleasure than the sea

The melody according to songwriter Kenny Grant of the pop group The Songlines, is in the G Myxolydian mode, which is similar to the G Major scale, but with the seventh note lowered by a semitone, i.e. from F sharp to F natural.

The rhythm of the song is a popular Cuban rhythm called the "guajira", which has added to the many ambiguities of the song. Song people believe that the chorus refers to a guajira from Guantánamo.

Jose Marti
Jose Marti

Jose Marti

Marti himself is also an ambiguous figure, being claimed by both the Cuban right wing and the communists as their champion. For me, I see him as maybe not a communist but also definitely not right wing - he identifies so much "With the poor people of the earth" ("Con los pobres de la tierra") which is not a position usually associated with the right.

I particularly love the lines "I do not cultivate nettles nor thistles / I cultivate a white rose" ("Cardo ni ortiga cultivo / Cultivo la rosa blanca") and perhaps in them we can see where his sympathies lie, neither with right nor left but for the people.

Maybe the following quote exemplifies his position and his greatness: "We are free, but not to be evil, not to be indifferent to human suffering, not to profit from the people, from the work created and sustained through their spirit of political association, while refusing to contribute to the political state that we profit from. We must say no once more. Man is not free to watch impassively the enslavement and dishonour of men, nor their struggles for liberty and honour."

Comments

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    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Sally - thanks so much for the super comment. Glad you enjoyed this one. I love this song and have done for many years.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 

      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Thank you for this beautifully enlightening look into the history and poetry of one of those songs that etched itself into my mind so many years ago. Your words led me to a very pleasant YouTube hour listening to many of the versions that were recorded through the years. Up and awesome.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Maxine - glad you enjoyed it, my friend.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • jandee profile image

      jandee 

      7 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

      Hello Tony,

      lovely write and showing vid. of great Pete Seeger,m

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Peggy - it is a wonderful song, isn't it? Glad you enjoyed this one.

      Thanks for the comment and the rating.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I loved this song! Sang along with it when I was young but probably murdered some of the Spanish words. I sang them as they sounded to my ear. Nice to read some of the background of this creation and also to have the translated words of Guantanamera. Nice job, Tony! Up, useful and beautiful ratings from me.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Micky - I love your comment, my brotherman - we cannot sit idly by. You are so right!

      Thanks for coming by.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Rich - thanks for the comment!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      7 years ago

      I love you Tony! God bless you! This hub should have comments to infinity! You are a pillar of humanity. We need you to write a hub like Guantanamera. I have listened to this song so much and never knew. Joan Baez does a wonderful version. And - God bless Jose Marti and his beautiful words of truth: "Man is not free to watch impassively the enslavement and dishonour of men, nor their struggles for liberty and honour."

      "enslavement and dishonour of men" - We cannot sit idly by. God bless my BrotherMan Tony!

    • profile image

      Rich Johnson 

      7 years ago

      Everything about the song is absoultely stellar in my opinion.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Habee - thanks for dropping by and commenting. Hope the reminder of the "ex" is not painful?

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      8 years ago from Georgia

      My ex loved this song!

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 

      9 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      Never knew any of this! Will listen to the song with new ears - thanks for something interesting and original (like all your hubs).

    • Charia Samher profile image

      Charia Samher 

      9 years ago

      Wow I remember my father singing this when I was small. Mostly the "guantamera" part, maybe because it's kinda hard to memorize. =)

    • Dink96 profile image

      Dink96 

      9 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      This is a wonderful hub. One of my favorite songs. But by far, my favorite singer has to be Celia Cruz!

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbpHwgCjsHg

    • profile image

      Jmell 

      9 years ago

      Stirred memories for me. Cuban music is so emotionally stirring - and the words reach down inside me.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      9 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Thanks, Tony. Enjoyed this hub. Lots of interesting bits of info. I know the song well. I speak the language, so it was fun singing along with Pete Seeger, who was one of my favorite folk singers.

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