The first stamp in the new Music Icons series honors Lydia Mendoza, one of the first and greatest stars of Tejano music. To find out what makes Mendoza a true musical icon, we talked with Chris Strachwitz, founder and president of Arhoolie Records. (Arhoolie is credited with helping preserve and promote American roots music—and the label counts Bob Dylan and Ry Cooder among its many prominent fans.)
Q: You had the privilege of recording Lydia Mendoza several times. What was it like working with her?
A: She was an extraordinary woman, a very professional woman. She knew hundreds and hundreds of songs, and they come to her almost instantaneously. She played her 12-string guitar, which was a heavy-duty thing, and she still had that powerful voice.
I went to a concert she gave in Texas, and after she had sung for about an hour, I could tell she was just getting warmed up! So I asked if she was staying in town that night, and she said, “I’m staying with my daughter, why don’t you come over with your recorder.” We sat down in the kitchen and she sang one song after another. She had a perfect command of everything, and we made a whole album right there in the kitchen. It’s an Arhoolie album called La Gloria de Texas.
Q: What makes her a musical pioneer?
A: She was really the first queen of Tejano. Her music circulated widely in Mexico, South America, and Central America, really the whole western hemisphere.
Q: How did your company first get involved with Mendoza’s music?
A: When I did the film Chulas Fronteras with Les Blank back in the 70s, I knew I had to have her in this documentary on Mexican American border music. She was the female figure in Tejano all the way back to the 1930s. Her big hit in 1934 was “Mal Hombre”—it’s a really powerful anti-male song. We don’t know exactly who wrote it, but since it’s in a tango rhythm, we’re thinking it could be from the red light district of Argentina. Lydia Mendoza first heard it at a theater show when she was a youngster, but she knew the lyrics from a gum wrapper. I don’t know why the lyrics were printed on a gum wrapper, since the song had no known publisher or composer!
Q: How do you feel about honoring Lydia Mendoza on a stamp?
A: I feel very good about it. She really had the whole history of her culture in her head, everything from ancient ballads from Spain that came to Mexico, like the song “Delgadina.” And the variety of songs she did was amazing, and they were such gorgeous songs.
Q: If someone would like to find out what Lydia Mendoza sounds like, would you recommend any of her recordings in particular?
A: Her initial hit that’s on our first volume of her early recordings that we put out, called “Mal Hombre.”
Q: Do you have any plans for the new Lydia Mendoza stamp?
A: I’m going to use it on all my correspondence. I’m planning to buy 200 of them!
The Lydia Mendoza Forever® stamp, which was released Wednesday, May 15, at a ceremony in San Antonio, Texas, is available now.