April 22, 2018 posted by James Parten

Disney Goes Latin

With Europe at war, it was hard for America not to have war jitters.

After all, some of the countries that had fallen under the National Socialist yoke had colonies in the Caribbean, and on the South American continent. No telling what might happen in Martinique or in Dutch Guiana! Our Government tried to send some goodwill ambassadors into South America, hoping to blunt any influence Hitler and/or Mussolini might have in this continental mass.

Enter Walt Disney.

We all know what happened, as it has been the subject of recent scholarly research. Walt took a group of trusted employees–along with some wives of same–on a whirlwind journey through Mexico, Central America and South America.

We know, from Mary Blair’s watercolors–as if we could not figure it out from the finished results of this expedition, Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944)–that everybody on the trip kept their eyes open.

It’s obvious that Walt–and perhaps others on the trip–kept their ears open, too. After all, Walt’s people found enough music on the trip to fill up both pictures. with hummable tunes, even if the lyrics were in a language that some did not understnd.

Not that we Americans were ignorant of the musical bounties of Mexico, or of South America. We had been exposed to the Tango from Argentina as far back as 1912, which was followed by an attempt to popularize the Maxixe from Brazil a couple of years later. And, as has been written here before, we got into various Cuban rhythms as far back as 1930–to the point where rumbas were a necessary part of the repertoire of any dance band worth its salt.

American publishers were discovering that Mexican composers such as Maria Grever, Agustin Lara and Abel Dominguez had a gift for melody that would appeal to Americans, especially when fitted with an English lyric.

And Carmen Miranda had been waging a campaign to introduce North America to the rhythms and melody of her country, Brazil. She was already the superstar of Brazilian entertainment when she came North to appear on Broadway in “Streets of Paris” (1939), This continued when she settled in Hollywood, brought her sister Aurora and her accompanying “conjuncto”, the Bando da Lus, up with her, and signed to be the added spice in a series of Fox musicals.

Both Saludos Amigos and The Three Cabelleros are full to the gills with Brazilian and Mexican tunes. And it may be that the only reason that there were not more American covers of these songs at the time, was the strike called by the American Federation of Musicians against the record companies, effective August 1st, 1942.

Employing 20/20 hindsight, it could be argued that Walt Disney and the congregation that accompanied him on his goodwill tour did not need to stop in Mexico to pick up on Mexican music.

Of course, it wasn’t just music that Walt was seeking. He wanted “the whole enchilada” of Mexican culture–both musical and visual. And there is plentiful evidence that he got just what he wanted.

It didn’t manifest itself fully until The Three Caballeros. But Walt picked up a bounty of different types of Mexican music–and from several disparate parts of the country, at that!

From the nightclubs of Mexico City, he picked up a popular bolero, “Solamente Une Vez”–which was kitted out with an English language lyric as “You Belong To My Heart”.

Manuela Arriola recorded this bolero in 1941, and hers might not be the only version from the period of this song’s popularity in Mexico. Here is clip of the song, from the Argentine musical Melodias de América (1942), sung by Ana María González and José Mojica:

When it hit here, it joined a parade of Mexican pop songs that had gained popularity in this country–and around the world. These songs included “Frenesi”, “Perfidia”, and “Besame Mucho”–all of which were allowed to keep their Spanish titles even when given English lyrics. (There had been another lyric written for “Perfidia”, as “Tonight”–but it didn’t achieve the popularity of the more-familiar English lyric.)

Among the artists who recorded “You Belong To My Heart”, the most prominent was the superstar of American entertainment–Bing Crosby. Bing’s version was accompanied by a moonligting Xavier Cugat, who was usually on Columbia records, but who showed up on Bing’s Decca record.

Representing the tradition of “mariachis” and of “ranchera” music is the film’s title song, an English lyric to the 1941 hit “Ay, Jalisco, No Te Rajes”. This song had been introduced that year in a Mexican film of that title, featuring a new star on the Mexican horizon; Jorge Negrete. In Mexico, this song is an “evegreen”, and has been revived over and over again.

With its English lyric, “The Three Caballeros” was recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, with the Sistters’ usual bandleader Vic Schoen giving a spirited accompaniment that matches their spirited vocal to the proverbial “T”.

Interestingly, both “You Belong To My Heart” and “The Three Caballeros” exist with alternate takes where the artists muff the performances, with both ending in knowing laughter from the artistes involved.

From the northern state of Coahuila comes “Jarabe Paten~o”, a traditional folk dance in that state.

Another tune from the North of Mexico is “Jesusita en Chihuahua”, which is known not only throughout northern Mexico, but in many parts of Texas as well. In Texas, it’s often called “Jessie Polks”, probably due to Anglo ideas about naming boys “Jesus” or girls “Jesusita”. Even in Anglo versions, it’s traditional to have the main melody played by pizzicato (plucked) violins.

Heading down the Gulf Cost, this folk music tour sops in Veracrus, for “El LIlongo”, an example of “jarocho:” music,which features a small harp as its lead instrument, with guitars in support. The best-known tune from the “jarocho” repertoire would surely be “La Bamba”–nearly everybody knows that one by now!

And from way down in southern Mexico–down Oaxaca way–comes the marimba sounds heard in “La Zandunga”. These sounds came up form neighboring Guatemala, and can be traced back to instruments used by native tribes before the coming of the Spanish.

Much of the Mexican music in “The Three Caballeros” is from the various traditions that Mexicans today call “folklorico”. We will see that is not the case with the Brazilian music that Disney picked up on his journeys.


  • I always thought the English lyrics for “Three Caballeros” were written for the movie.

  • “You Belong to My Heart” was also covered by Charlie Spivak and His Orchestra on Victor 20-1663, and by Frances Langford on ARA RM-120A.

  • The Disney crew were flying in the face of contemporary — and current — prejudice about Mexico. They deserve praise, even if they hadn’t made the movie.

  • Perhaps to disguise its origin, Artie Shaw used to joke that “Frenesi” should be pronounced “Free ‘n’ Easy.”

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