My passport ran out of juice last year, just when the Mexican government was deciding it wanted to see official papers as foreigners headed south.
That’s the only reason I didn’t hear, until the other day, that El Charro Güero, the Blond Cowboy, had passed on to music heaven. Last September. In Tijuana.
We’re talking about Willy Clauson, one of the greatest U.S. folk singers you never heard of. Friend of Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Gregory Peck, Carl Sandburg, a high flyer who turned into one of those “Only In Tijuana” characters.
Don’t recognize the name? Think “La Bamba.” Willy’s song! He brought it up from Veracruz, slowed it down, simplified it, gave it to Ritchie Valens, and took a bite from Valens’s check every time that boy sang it. “La Bamba” was what kept Willy alive down Tijuana way for the last 20 years.
And does anyone remember “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands?” Willy Clauson picked that up in Leesville, Louisiana, turned it into a mega-hit.
But by the time I got to meet Willy, he was King of, well, the Foreign Club, a sort of curiosity himself. You’d go in through the Pasaje Rodriguez to this beautifully shambolic combination of office, performance space, display of bric-a-brac, and old TJ photos, all for sale. And Willy, this guy in a sombrero wearing a sheriff’s badge and a cigar would thrust a guitar in your hand and say, “What song can you sing me?”
And Thursday nights — or was it Fridays? — Tijuana’s musical wannabes, has-beens, and true aficionados of the Mexican songbook would turn up to sing and play.
“I have loved Tijuana since I was ten years old,” Willy told me. “My parents brought me here in 1940. They had the mariachis play to us. I fell in love with this society right then, and it has never gone away.”
So even though he’d performed 50 concerts a year at the height of his fame, including at Carnegie Hall, recorded 60 LPs (two gold), he came back to TJ. For love, I’m sure. But on each of my cross-border visits, things had become unaccountably shabbier. Even though he was still writing and recording songs, and he had a summer gig every year as troubadour in a “Wild West” dude ranch in Sweden, all that and the “La Bamba” checks weren’t enough.
And for all the friends and admirers he had down there, the Charro Güero seemed to me to be still an outsider.
And yet he was at the heart of the eccentric TJ I love. An original who had touched greatness, including bringing that song into our lives. It’s the one thing on his wall he would not sell: a confirmation from the copyright office of the Library of Congress in Washington DC that this song was his.
“William Clauson, April 21st, 1958, La Bamba, EU521350.”