How did Ritchie Valens meld traditional Mexican music and Rock and Roll?
Ritchie Valens has become one of the most celebrated Rock and Roll musicians of the 1950s. His recording career lasted less than a year, cut short in February 1959, when he was killed in the same plane crash that took the lives of Rock and Roll star Buddy Holly and disc jockey/musician J.P. Richardson (better known as “The Big Bopper”).
Valens released only two singles during his lifetime. The second, featuring the love ballad “Donna,” soared to No. 2 on the Billboard Pop singles chart and established Valens as a rising star. Newspaper accounts of his death referred to him as “a young sensation… rapidly becoming one of the hottest singing talents in the country,” and even “the next Elvis Presley.”
But it was the B-side of that single, featuring the traditional Mexican wedding song “La Bamba,” that secured Valens’ legacy. The lyrics of the song were entirely in Spanish, sung over a tune that would have been immediately recognizable to most Mexican-Americans. Born Richard Valenzuela to a Mexican family in Southern California, Valens had played the song growing up and with various bands at school. His biographer reports that he may have been reluctant to record a Rock and Roll version of the song, both because he thought it might be disrespectful to the original and because he didn’t speak Spanish very well. But his recording, driven by Latin percussion, enjoyed commercial success — particularly for a single’s B-side – cracking the Top 40 and peaking at no. 22.
In this lesson, students will compare Valens’ version of “La Bamba” to a traditional version of the song, and examine how Valens was able to successfully incorporate a Latin feel into a mainstream Rock and Roll recording. They will further evaluate why the song became influential, paving the way for later artists, and how it illustrates Rock and Roll’s capacity to absorb multiple influences and redefine itself.
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- Know (knowledge):
- Ritchie Valens’ role as a Rock and Roll pioneer
- The origins of Valens’ “La Bamba” as a traditional Mexican folk-dance song or huapango
- Highlights of the brief career of Valens, who died at age 17 in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, in 1959
- The use of a timeline to show events in the order that they occurred
- Mastery Objective:
- Students will be able to explain Ritchie Valens’ contribution to Rock and Roll by comparing the traditional Mexican song “La Bamba” to Valens’ Rock and Roll version.
- Tell students that they will be watching a short video featuring three musicians of Native American heritage. Play clip, Fitting In. Ask students:
- What role did each musicians’ ancestral heritage play in their work as a musician? Did it play different roles or the same role?
- How did the each musician describe the impact of their heritage on their musical career? Which of them described their Native American heritage as a motivation for their music?
- Is there another artist you know of who you feel was inspired by their heritage? How do you know? (For example, students might name Bruno Mars, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, or Bob Marley).
- Optional: If the teacher feels comfortable, they can share the ways their own heritage might have shaped them, and ask students volunteers to discuss their heritage.
- Pass out and go over with students Handout 1 – Introducing Vocabulary. Have them create a quick sketch for each term on the handout.
- Divide students into pairs. Distribute Handout 2 – Ritchie Valens Biography to each pair. Instruct pairs to read the handout aloud to each other, alternating by paragraph. Each student should follow along as his/her partner reads, underlining key words and phrases. Alternatively, the teacher can read the handout aloud to students.
- After all pairs have finished reading the passage, ask students:
- At the time of his death, what kind of music was Valens best known for? Who was interested in his music?
- Why do you think he recorded under the name “Valens” rather than “Valenzuela”?
- Play the excerpt from the song “Donna.” Briefly discuss:
- How would you describe the style of the song?
- Who do you think the song might have been most popular with? (Refer students back to the reading and the fact that “Donna” was Valens’ biggest chart hit.)
- Distribute Handout 3 – “La Bamba” Listening Template to students. Explain that you will play two song clips, and that as they listen they should fill in as many parts of the listening template as they can.
- Play the short video excerpt of the traditional version of “La Bamba.”
- Ask for volunteers to share what they wrote on the template with a partner, particularly about instrumentation, vocal style, lyrics, language, tempo, and mood.
- Distribute Handout 4 – “La Bamba” to each pair. Have students read it to each other as they did with the first handout. Alternatively, the teacher can read the handout aloud or summarize for students.
- After all groups have finished reading the passage, discuss the following:
- What kind of song is “La Bamba”? Where was it traditionally performed?
- What do the lyrics of the song suggest about its purpose?
- Where might Ritchie Valens have heard this song?
- Why do you think Ritchie Valens started playing this song as a teenager?
- Based on what you know about Valens, are you surprised that he decided to record a version of this song? Why or why not?
- Why might Valens have been reluctant to record the song? Why might he have wanted to record the song?
- Play the Valens version of “La Bamba”
- Ask students to record their observations on the listening template.
- Is the song recognizable as the same song played in the traditional version? Why or why not? What about the two versions is similar?
- What are the major differences between Valens’ version and the traditional version? (Be sure to emphasize the guitar line and the strong beat.)
- Would you describe Valens’ version as a Rock and Roll record? Why or why not?
- How does the song combine elements of a traditional Latin song with Rock and Roll?
- What do you think Valens was trying to express when he recorded this song?
- Divide students into small groups. show Image 1, Ritchie Valens Discussion Questions, and assign groups different questions from the handout.
- Ask student groups present what they discussed.
- Student Voice and Choice Activity: Ask students to complete a visual timeline of Ritchie Valens’ life or create an infographic highlighting important facts about this Rock and Roll Legend, using the following materials:
- Writing Prompt: Imagine that you are Ritchie Valens, and that you have been able to read about the success of your recording of “La Bamba” and its influence on Rock and Roll. Write a journal entry in which you describe your reaction to the success of the song. Are you surprised? Is this something you set out to do? How do you feel about being thought of in this way? Be sure to make specific reference to sources discussed in this lesson.
- Listening Activity: The band Los Lobos covered “La Bamba” for the 1987 biopic about Ritchie Valens, also entitled La Bamba. Their version reached no. 1 on the Pop Chart in the United States. Ask students to compare Los Lobos’ version both to the traditional version and to Valens’ version.
Common Core State Standards
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards
- Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
- Reading 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
- Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
- Craft and Structure 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
- Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
- Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards (Extension Activities Only)
- Text Types and Purposes 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.
- Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language
- Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.
- Vocabulary Acquisition and Use 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening
- Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
- Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)
- Theme 1: Culture
- Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
- Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
- Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
National Standards for Music Education
Core Music Standard: Responding
- Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
- Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
- Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
- Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
- Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.
National Core Arts Standards
- Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
- Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
- Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.
- Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
- Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.
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