Feb 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Tamales and the blues: Latino links to Black American music and cuisine

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Legend has it that Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for supernatural guitar talent. He went on to record songs in the 1930s about cars, the crossroads — and tamales.

The big picture: Johnson's famous homage to tamales in "They're Red Hot" points to regularly neglected Latino connections to Black American music and cuisine scholars are just now working to uncover.

Details: Johnson recorded "They're Red Hot" in an improvised San Antonio, Texas, studio in 1936 while the state celebrated its 100th year of independence from Mexico.

  • Between recording sessions, the bluesman took note of the Mexican American women selling tamales during the fiesta, according to "Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson" by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow.
  • The lyrics describe vendors trying to draw attention to their red hot tamales while Johnson's guitar invites listeners to dance.
  • They were recorded in the same studio as Tex-Mex performers Andres Berlanga and Francisco Montalvo, who were considered the Mexican equivalent of Southern bluesmen with their song "Corridos de los Bootleggers." Berlanga, Montalvo and Johnson listened to each other.

Yes, but: Even before Johnson went to San Antonio, the tamale was also a common food in the Mississippi Delta and parts of Tennessee where a southern version of the dish had evolved, music historian Elijah Wald told Axios Latino.

  • "There were tamales all over the Black South. I would be interested to go back and look at pictures of tamale vendors back in those days."
  • Tamales first appear in high numbers along the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century, according to Melissa Booth Hall, interim co-director of the Oxford, Mississippi-based Southern Foodways Alliance.

Mississippi Delta tamales are diverse and can be made of cornmeal or masa, with pork, turkey or greens and can be wrapped in corn shucks or parchment paper.

  • It is such a staple that Mississippi has its own tamales festival and a Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail where visitors can see famous and historic tamale sites.
  • "There was a catfish tamale. There was a tamale that had greens in it. All of them were good," Hall said.

But, but, but: How did the tamale get there?

  • Some believe Mexican migrants who helped clear the Delta at the turn of the century introduced the tamale to the region, Hall said.
  • Others theorize U.S. soldiers from Mississippi brought back tamale recipes from the U.S.-Mexico War while some argue that the Southern tamale is a product from Indigenous tribes from the region, though little evidence is available.

The intrigue: Despite those connections, Wald said he doesn't see that much Latino influence in what today we call the Delta blues.

  • However, Wald said blues from Texas and Louisiana appear to have Hispanic influences with claves and vocal tricks.
  • "The Jimmy Rogers yodel, which then becomes the Tommy Johnson falsetto and then the Howlin Wolf falsetto...I think, it is not a yodel. I think it's a Mexican thing."

Don't forget: Johnson died at 27 after drinking a poisonous bottle of whiskey at a juke joint.

  • He would be forgotten until a collection of his songs were re-released in the 1960s, influencing a new generation of musicians from Keith Richards to the Beatles to Carlos Santana.
  • His "They're Red Hot" has since been covered by Eric Clapton and the Red Hot Chili Peppers

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