To Jack Loeffler, music is so much more than entertainment.
In decades of venturing into people’s homes and rural communities as a sort of Alan Lomax of the Southwest, recording the folk songs of Hispanos and Native Americans, he has developed a vision of how these indigenous melodies are deeply rooted in culture, history and land.
Especially the land.
This aural historian, author, environmentalist and glorious troublemaker is being honored tonight at the 15th annual Nuestra Música, a concert of traditional northern New Mexico music presented by the Lensic and the Spanish Colonial Arts Society.
“Jack has been the driving force behind Nuestra Música since 2001 and it’s only natural we celebrate him, along with the musicians, on this fifteenth anniversary year,” said Bob Martin, executive and artistic director of the Lensic. “We’re honoring him not only for his dedication to this event, but also for his decades-long efforts to preserve and promote the music and culture of northern New Mexico.”
A Santa Fe resident since 1962 – at least in between travels undertaken on a host of projects – Loeffler has been responsible (along with Enrique Lamadrid, who has taught at Northern New Mexico Community College and the University of New Mexico) for recruiting musicians to take the stage at the event since its inception.
“It brings the whole community together,” Loeffler said.
He had co-produced four similar folk music concerts at the Museum of International Folk Art in the 1980s with Lamadrid, Roberto Mondragón and Cipriano Vigil, he said. “Most of them are gone now,” he said of musicians featured in those concerts.
Both Vigil and Mondragón are still around, however, and will play music with some family members at this year’s Nuestra Música. They will be joined by Frank McCulloch y Sus Amigos, El Trio Jalapeño con Antonia Apodaca, David F. Garcia and Brenda Romero.
Old and new at once
In Loeffler’s view, traditional music can be both old and new. It could be recently written, but adhering to traditions that stretch back centuries.
He traces corridos to the 12th and 13th centuries in Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. These ballads often describe events that are particular to a time and place. About the time the Spanish started coming to the New World in the 16th century, the focus of the songs was changing from the gentry to everyday people, Loeffler said.
“It’s a terrific means of understanding the history of a culture and place,” he said. It’s been said that you could trace the entire history of the Mexican revolution through that country’s corridos, he added.
In more recent years, New Mexico’s Roberto Martinez composed corridos about the deadly riot at the prison outside Santa Fe and about a soldier in the Vietnam War, he said.
Loeffler is fascinated by the concept of “the commons” as it has been central to many indigenous cultures and expressed in some of the music. It refers to the earth and its resources, at community level, being held in common by the residents.
Rather than being seen as private land owned by individuals, forests were places where local people could cut wood and pastures were places where they all could graze their animals. There was a sharing – and hopefully protection – of these shared resources.
One of his favorite songs, Cipriano Vigil’s “Se Ve Triste el Hombre” (How Sad the Man), follows in the steps of the nueva canción style thought to come from Chile in the 1960s – essentially a protest set to music. That song talks about how privatization of resources after the influx of Anglos disrupted the cultural practices based on shared land and water, Loeffler said.
“That song is really rooted in the New Mexico homeland,” he added.
Perhaps the strongest link of song and place can be found among the Seri Indians in Mexico, according to Loeffler. A series of seven songs, sung by boatmen in a shamanic trance, guide them through whirlpools and eddies on a specific stretch of water.
Jesus Montaño, in singing a song about a leaf-cutter ant, virtually transformed his body into the creature while he was singing its song, Loeffler said.
“There is a spiritual perspective to what the commons is to (indigenous) people,” he said. “It’s an enormous concept to try to restore to our consciousness.”
Loeffler’s love for the land and rebellion against consumer culture has been expressed in various forms through his life.
He fought against the coal mining operations and use of water on Black Mesa affecting Navajo and Hopi lands in the 1960s. That operation was tied into producing energy to pump water from the Colorado River to the Central Arizona Project, which helped support the expansion of Tucson and Phoenix, he said.
In that fight, he teamed up with renowned environmentalist and author Edward Abbey. “We were camping buddies,” Loeffler said. Though Abbey was a somewhat reticent man, “Ed and I early on discovered we could sit up all night and shoot the breeze,” he said.
Loeffler, who wrote a biography of Abbey, said his old friend still comes to him weekly in his dreams to continue their conversations.
Living at North Beach and Sausalito in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Loeffler said he got involved in the Beat scene, played jazz and listened to poetry. He became friends with poet Gary Snyder, with whom he currently is working on a project about the counter-culture, interviewing some of the major figures in that scene.
Through various grants, he has recorded some 3,000 to 4,000 folk songs and identified about 50 musical forms, he said. Both those songs and interviews, along with ambient sounds of the environment, have been used in a number of radio programs he produced over the years, some of which are available through the website for Lore of the Land, a nonprofit that he says he “inherited” from Lee Udall (loreoftheland.org).
With others, he put together a documentary of Hispanic folk dances in northern New Mexico, “Los Alegres,” and radio programs, a documentary film, a book and a three-CD set of folk songs, all titled “La Música de los Viejitos.”
His most recent book, written with daughter Celestia Loeffler, is “Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West.”
At “almost 79,” he is working on another book centered on the concept of the commons, and continues to work on podcasts from his collection of interviews and songs that will be posted on the Lore of the Land website for download.
Loeffler said he is in the process of arranging the donation of his archives to the New Mexico History Museum.