What do the Lyrics to La Bamba by Ritchie Valens Mean?

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Song: La Bamba (1958)

Artist: Ritchie Valens

Writer: Traditional Mexican Folk Song, rock arrangement by Ritchie Valens

Label: Del-Fi

Although his biggest hit was Donna, Richie Valens will forever be most recognized for his enduring Latino rock song La Bamba. In fact, I think it is safe to say that he single-handedly brought “Laino rock” into the mainstream. He was certainly not the first person to record the song. It is, in fact, a traditional Mexican folk song. He simply gave it a rock rhythm and rock flair, and to great effect. It peaked at no. 22 on the charts on February 2, 1959.

As a matter of fact, if you want to get me into a rant, tell me that Carlos Santana made a bigger contribution to “Latino rock” than Ritchie Valens. Yes, most of his songs were straight rock and he really only had one song, La Bamba, that was Mexican-themed. However, this one song had a tremendous impact on popular culture.

It is often claimed that Valens had avoided doing such hybrids because his Mexican heritage meant so much to him and he did not want to disrespect it or insult it. And, since La Bamba was a Mexican folk song in the public domain, he hesitated to use it commercially. None of this can be corroborated, but there may be a more practical reason for his hesitation to do the song. Whatever the case, he made history by doing it but didn’t have a chance to do other such recordings because of his unfortunate death in a plane crash (the day the music died, along with Buddy Holly). As for Santana, history is connected, and we must question whether Santana would have enjoyed such mainstream success with recordings like “Oye Como Va” or “Flor de Luna” had it not been for Valens paving the way.

What you may not know, however, is that although Richie Valens was of Mexican heritage, he did not speak Spanish, a fact that was made obvious in the biopic movie of his life starring Lou Diamond Phillips and appropriately titled La Bamba. Much has been said about the music, but what of the lyrics? Let’s go over a bit of the history of the song itself. I had a good time researching this one!

As said, “La Bamba” is a traditional Mexican folk song. As with any folk song, there are many accounts of its origin, but the one thing that is for certain is that La Bamba was a traditional Mexican dance, especially in the Veracruz region. It was done in a style known as huapango, which is part of a larger style called Son Jarocho. Son Jarocho alternates between double and triple meter to create a complex rhythm.

The meaning and origin of the term “La Bamba” itself is hard to pin down. According to the book Celebrating Latino Folklore, it has been suggested that it is a Mexican word for a “hanging swing” or that it derived from the Spanish word bambolear, which means to shake or tilt.

Other suggestions point to an African origin. Bamba might be an African word for “wood” or perhaps even the name of an African tribe. Indeed, huapango music comes from Spanish, Indian, and African influences, making it a kind of mestizo.

The La Bamba dance is often performed at weddings by the bride and groom to represent their union. As part of the dance, the groom wraps a six-foot sash around his waist. The bride unwinds the sash and the couple places it on the floor. The couple then ties the sash into a bow using their feet. You can watch the dance being performed in the video below.

Even before Ritchie Valens popularized it, it had begun to make inroads into America. Even Arthur Murray had begun teaching the dance in America, by 1945. it never took off like the mambo or the tango, though.

The song has a rich history and like all folk songs, there are many, many versions.

But when Valens translated the more traditional versions into a rock version, he had a problem: He didn’t know or understand the words. In the film, Valens “discovers” the song being performed in a Tijuana brothel and was taken by it. This is pure fiction. In reality, he had been hearing the song at family gatherings since his childhood, and his friend Richard “Dickie” Cota, as early as junior-high school, had taught him how to play it on guitar.

But Ritchie never spoke Spanish and when he did, he spoke it with an accent. When he was singing La Bamba, he didn’t really know what he was singing. He learned the lyrics phonetically and since he slowed them down by doing them to a rock rhythm, he actually ended up making the song easier for Americans to sing.

So, what do the Lyrics mean?

Let’s start with a traditional rendition of the lyrics, which are in the public domain:

Traditional La Bamba Lyrics

1st Verse

Para bailar la Bamba,
para bailar la Bamba,
Se necesita una poca de gracia,
Una poca de gracia y otra cosita.
Ay arriba y arriba,
ay arriba, ay arriba y arrbia iré
Yo no soy marrinero,
Yo no soy marrinero,
Por ti seré, por tí seré.

Bamba, bamba,
Bamba, bamba,
Bamba, bamba, bam.

2nd Verse

Para subir al cielo,
Para subir al cielo se necesita,
Una escalara grande,
Una escelara grandy y otra chiquita,
Ay arriba y arriba,
ay arriba y arriba, y arriba iré
Yo no soy marinero,
Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán,
soy capitán, soy capitán.

3rd Verse

Cuando canto la bamba,
Cuando canto la bamba yo estoy contento,
porque yo me accompaño,
porque yo me accompaño con mi instrumento,
ay arriba y arriba
ay arriba, y arriba iré,
Yo no soy marinero,
Yo no soy marinero por tí seré,
por tí seré, por tí seré.

4th Verse

Ay te pido cupido (or Ay te pido, to pido)
Ay te pido cupido de compasión,
Que se acabe “La Bamba”
Que se acabe “La Bamba” venga otro son
Ay arriba y arriba
ay arriba y arriba, y arriba iré,
o no soy marinero,
Yo no soy marinero por tí seré,
por tí seré, por tí seré.

Ritchie Valens sings the first verse, but instead of singing “una poca de gracia y otra cosita” he sings “una poca de gracia para mi, para it.” He then sings the last part of the 2nd verse, repeats part of the first verse, then the whole first verse.

La Bamba Lyrics in English

Keep in mind that some of the meaning is lost in translation, but the song is about the dance, along with a lot of flirtations and double entendres. Here is the first verse translated:

To dance the La Bamba,
To dance the La Bamba,
You need a little bit of grace,
A little bit of grace and a little something else,
Oh Up and Up I go,
Oh Up and Up I go,
I am not a sailor,
I am not a sailor, but for you I will be,
for you I will be, for you I will be

In Ritchie’s version “a little something else” becomes something more like “for you, for me.”

Here are the remaining verses translated:

2nd Verse in English

To go up to heaven,
To go up to heaven you need a big ladder,
A big ladder and another smaller one,
Oh Up and Up I go,
Oh Up and Up I go,
I am not a sailor,
I am not a sailor, I am a captain,
I am a captain, I am a captain.

(I am a captain? Yeah, I don’t get it either but who wouldn’t rather be a captain?)

Third Verse in English

When I sing the La Bamba,
When I sing the La Bamba I am happy,
Because I accompany myself with my instrument,
Because I accompany myself with my instrument,
Oh Up and Up I go,
Oh Up and Up I go,
I am not a sailor,
I am not a sailor but for you I will be, etc…

Fourth Verse In English

Oh, I ask you Cupid (or, Oh, I ask, I ask..)
Oh, I ask you Cupid out of compassion,
That La Bamba should end,
That La Bamba should and another song will be played.

There are other verses that may be found. As to what it all means, it is difficult to say. Many suggest sexual references and double entendres. I can imagine that “and a little something else” could be sexual, as well as “I am not a sailor, but for you’ll I’ll be one.” The talk of sailors and captains maybe be connected to another story, detailed here, This one says that the lyrics are a reference to a fluke pirate attack on Veracruz, the events surrounding it, and the subsequent efforts at civil defense which the townsfolk found silly. This leads to yet another suggestion to the origin of the word la bamba: That it comes from bambarria, which refers to efforts to prevent something from happening after it has already happened. This pirate story has a lot of legs, but nobody seems to want to bother how such a song and dance could have become a wedding tradition. Ultimately, we can’t be certain about the true origins and meaning of the lyrics.

Many artists have recorded a version of La Bamba, such as Harry Bellafonte, Joan Baez, and the Kingston Trio. Even Buddy Holly’s band The Crickets did a ‘version’ of the song after Holly’s death, although this version is a ridiculous attempt at a beach-rock song that has nothing much to do with the Ritchie Valen’s version or the traditional song except for the melody and basic music. La Bamba becomes the name of a girl at the beach. Los Lobos’ brilliant rendition for the soundtrack of the movie was the first big hit since Valens’ recording, and, by some measures, it was an even bigger hit, as it reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as being a number one hit in many other countries. The soundtrack entire album was a huge success.