The Singing Ronstadts and Canciones de mi Padre

Fred Ronstadt & Luisa Espinel
Fred Ronstadt & Luisa Espinel

A Musical Family
by James S. Griffith

Federico José María Ronstadt, better known in his later years as Fred Ronstadt, was born in 1868 on the Hacienda Las Delicias near Cananea, Sonora. He spent his childhood in Sonora, moving to Tucson at the age of fourteen to learn the wagon-making trade. In addition to an intelligent, curious, retentive mind and a capacity for hard work, he brought with him a love of all sorts of music. Music seems to have been a feature of the Ronstadt household from the beginning. His daughter Luisa (of whom more later) remembered her father sitting under the grape arbor in the yard on summer evenings, playing his guitar and singing old songs from Sonora. Those songs are part of the family heritage to this day.

Fred Ronstadt's musicianship was not limited to a family context. Around 1899 he and a group of his friends formed the Club Filarmónico de Tucson, one of the city's earliest orchestral groups. Many of the original musical arrangements for the group were written by Fred Ronstadt. Even when the press of business forced him to resign from the orchestra, he found time to play with different groups of friends, and he remained an active and enthusiastic musician to the end of his life.

It is not surprising that this talent and enthusiasm continued as a family tradition. Fred Ronstadt's daughter, Luisa, became an internationally known interpreter of Spanish song and dance in the 1930s, under the name of Luisa Espinel. His sons William, Alfred, Gilbert and Edward made singing a part of their family activities, and in their turn raised another generation of singing Ronstadts. The most famous of these is Linda, Gilbert's daughter, but her siblings and cousins in Tucson have performed in private and public for years, putting polished harmonies to a wonderful mixture of folk and popular songs, Mexican and American, old and new. Their children - Fred's great-grandchildren - are now continuing the tradition. In 1994 the Ronstadt family was awarded a Copper Letter from the City of Tucson for keeping the air of our town beautiful with song for well over a hundred years. It isn't often that a city government gets its values that straight.

Canciones de mi Padre

In January, 1946, the University of Arizona published its General Bulletin No. 10, a slim volume by Luisa Espinel entitled Canciones de mi Padre - "My Father's Songs." Ms. Espinel's father was Fred Ronstadt, and the songs she had learned, transcribed and published were some of the ones he had brought with him from Sonora. This little book, long out of print, is our baseline for information concerning what people were singing in Sonora in the mid-19th Century. It is our window into a long-vanished world, a way in which we can reach out and touch a past that is relatively close, yet gone forever. Many of the songs still live in the repertoire of Fred Ronstadt's descendants, and I count it a rare privilege and joy to have joined with his son Edward in singing La Ciriaca. It is no wonder that when Fred's granddaughter Linda Ronstadt put out a record [album cover] of some of the favorites she had learned from her father Gilbert, she called her collection by the same name as this booklet.

Here, then, is a unique family and regional heritage of songs that were sung in the Sonoran desert well over a hundred years ago. Thanks to the Ronstadts for preserving them and for sharing them with us all.

More information and access to a facsimile of the original Canciones de mi Padre book.