ON HER WAY TO the hospital the day I was born, my mother wanted to stop and eat a hamburger. She was hungry, and maybe wanted to fortify herself against the brutally hard work of pushing out a baby, a task that lay immediately and ominously before her. It was raining hard, and the streets were badly flooded. My father, a prudent man, wanted to be sure I was born in the hospital and not in his car. He loved my mother tenderly and was unlikely to deny her anything within reason, but he denied her this, and so I was delivered safely from the watery world of her interior to the watery exterior world of the Arizona desert in a cloudburst.
In the desert, rain is always a cause for jubilation. July and August brought the ferocious seasonal rainstorms on which all life, including mine, depended.
I was brought home to a house my parents had built of adobe on the last ten acres of my grandfather Fred Ronstadt’s cattle ranch. He had sold it off in parcels during the dunning years of the Depression and relied on the thriving hardware business he had built in downtown Tucson at the end of the nineteenth century to supply a living for my grandmother and their four sons. It bore his name proudly as the F. Ronstadt Hardware Company and took up nearly a city block. I remember it as a wonderful place of heavily timbered floors and the pervasive smell of diesel oil. Inside it were tractors, bulldozers, pumps, windmills, bins of nails, camping supplies, high quality tools, and housewares.
My grandfather, having been born in Sonora, Mexico, did business with all the Mexican ranchers who were within a three or four days’ drive by car, a journey often made by my father. In those days, the border was a friendly place, and easy to cross. We knew many of the families in the north of Mexico, and we attended one another’s balls, picnics, weddings, and baptisms. My parents often drove us across the border into Nogales, which had wonderful stores where we would shop. After that, they would take us to the cool, plush recesses of the Cavern Café, and we would be served a delicious turtle soup.
I deeply miss those times when the border was a permeable line and the two cultures mixed in a natural and agreeable fashion. Lately, the border seems more like the Berlin Wall, and functions mainly to separate families and interfere with wildlife migration.
My father, in addition to working in the hardware store and going to the University of Arizona in Tucson, helped my grandfather on the ranches he owned.
My mother, who was called Ruth Mary, told us that the first time she saw my father, he was riding his horse up the stairs of her sorority house. He was pursuing someone who was not my mother, but his eye was soon drawn to her.
In 1934 she’d made the three-day journey by train from her home state of Michigan to the University of Arizona, where she was enrolled to study math and physics. She was passionate about math. When she was worried or couldn’t sleep, we would find her at three o’clock in the morning, sitting at the dining room table, working a problem in calculus.
Her father was Lloyd G. Copeman, a well-known inventor, with the electric toaster, electric stove, rubber ice cube tray, and pneumatic grease gun to his credit. He also operated an experimental dairy farm in the Michigan countryside and, early in the twentieth century, invented a milking machine. He used to demonstrate one of his inventions, a 1918 version of the microwave oven that he called “cold heat,” by frying an egg through a newspaper. Thinking that the oven was too expensive to manufacture, he never patented it. He worked closely with Charles Stewart Mott, then chairman of the board of General Motors, and developed a great deal of what was then state-of-the-art equipment in the Buick factory in Flint, Michigan.
Old Mr. Mott was fond of my mother and came many times to visit us in the wilds of Tucson. In the fifties, he was caricatured with his enormously bushy white eyebrows as General Bullmoose in Li’l Abner, a long-running comic strip drawn by Al Capp. We read it regularly in the Tucson Daily Citizen.
Coming from such a background, my mother must have found my father, and the Arizona desert that had shaped him, to be richly exotic.
My father, known as Gilbert, was handsome and somewhat shy. He rarely spoke unless he had something worthy to say. When he did speak, his words carried a quiet authority. He had a beautiful baritone singing voice that sounded like a cross between Pedro Infante, the famous Mexican matinee idol and singer, and Frank Sinatra. He often sang at local venues like the Fox Tucson Theatre, where he was billed as Gil Ronstadt and his Star-Spangled Megaphone. He serenaded my mother under her window with pretty Mexican songs such as “La Barca de Oro” and “Quiéreme Mucho.” Added to this was the fact that when my mother was introduced to my grandfather, an autodidact, he dazzled her with his knowledge of geometry and calculus. My mother surely thought she was marrying into a gene pool that would produce mathematicians, but my grandfather was also a musician, so musicians were what she got.
In the late nineteenth century, my grandfather was the conductor of a brass band called the Club Filarmónico Tucsonense. He taught people how to play their instruments, conducted the band, composed and arranged, and played the flute. I have the cornet part written in his own hand from an instrumental arrangement he wrote for The Pirates of Penzance in 1896.
He was a widower when he married my grandmother. A daughter from his first marriage, Luisa Espinel, was a singer, dancer, and music scholar who collected and performed traditional songs and dances from northern Mexico and many regions in Spain. She can be seen in a brief comedic appearance as a Spanish dancer in The Devil Is a Woman, a 1935 film that starred Marlene Dietrich.
In the twenties, she wrote a letter home to my grandfather from Spain, where she had been performing. In it she reported that she was hugely excited about a guitarist she had hired to be her accompanist. She said he was such a brilliant player that he could hold the audience when she left the stage to change costumes. She wanted to bring him to the United States because she was sure he would make a huge hit with American audiences and eventually establish his own career. His name was Andrés Segovia.
When we were small children, visits from Aunt Luisa were wonderfully exciting. She taught my sister how to do the shimmy and how to play the castanets, and allowed her to try on the beautiful regional Spanish costumes that she had worn as a dancer.
She had lived many years in Spain and been married to a painter who was a Communist and had supported the cause to establish a republic in the Spanish Civil War. My aunt had been friends with the poet Federico García Lorca, who used to play her guitar while he recited his beautiful poems. We found her deliriously glamorous. Many years later, I would take the title of a collection of Mexican folk songs and stories she published called Canciones de Mi Padre, and use it to title my own first recording of traditional Mexican songs.
My mother and father married in 1937. Between that time and the beginning of World War II, they produced my sister, Suzy, and my brother Peter.
When the war started and my father joined the army, our mother went to work at night in the control tower of Davis-Monthan Army Air Field, the base outside of Tucson. Toward the end of the war, the planes that flew out of there on their way to war were mostly brand-new Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. After the war was over, all but a few of the B-29s that could still fly came back to Davis-Monthan, part of which became a graveyard for the decommissioned planes of World War II. Their flight path took them directly over our house. My mother would catch the sound of their engines and run outside and wave at them frantically. We kids would wave too. She had launched them into battle from her control tower, and she must have felt some obligation and no small amount of emotion to welcome home the ones that made it back alive.
I was steeped in the sound of the B-29s in my childhood and often tried to emulate it in the string arrangements in my recordings. It seems to appear in the grind between the cello and double bass, particularly in the interval of a fifth.
In the treacherous currents of the Great Depression and World War II, my grandfather nearly lost his hardware business. His unwillingness to foreclose on the farmers and ranchers who were struggling in the same way didn’t help his bottom line, but he was loved and respected throughout the valley and beyond to Mexico as a good man who kept his word.
During the Depression, my father turned down an offer from Paul Whiteman, by far the most popular bandleader of his time, to tour with them as their “boy singer.” Over the years, other singers with the Whiteman Orchestra included Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, and Billie Holiday. I believe it was a decision that caused him some disappointment, but family loyalties prevailed. He and his brothers helped my grandfather with the ranch and the hardware store, finally selling off the ranch and plowing the money back into the store. They managed to survive the Depression and build the business.
There was never any extra cash, but we had what we needed. My mother used to joke that when she first met my father, he had a red convertible, a horse, a ranch, and a guitar. After she married him, all he had left was the guitar. He had my mother too. They rarely quarreled, and when they did, it was well out of earshot of their children. They were always on each other’s side, and their marriage lasted until my mother died in 1982.
Newcomers to the desert are shocked when I suggest to them that the most dangerous thing in it is not the poisonous Gila monster or the sidewinder rattlesnake that also makes its home there. It is water. Water is not quick to be absorbed into the hard-packed desert floor. Instead, it runs all over the surface of the ground and reflects the gray clouds that temporarily mask the pitiless heat and glare of the summer sun. This gives the sky and ground a silvery luminosity that is particular to desert landscapes, and transforms the desert itself into something that looks like a delicate construct of shimmering Venetian glass.
Sometimes water can get trapped behind brush and debris that has blocked a dry streambed or arroyo, and when the pressure becomes more than the brush dam can bear, a flash flood is the result. The water takes on the appearance of a twisting, angry animal. The sound alone could scare you to death. There are huge boulders being rolled along at the bottom, making a menacing, growling rumble, and then the roar of the rushing wall of water, which can contain anything from huge logs to sections of some rancher’s fence—even his pickup truck.
As very young children, we were warned to head immediately for high ground if there was any sign of rain on the horizon. We knew not to linger in the usually dry rivers and washes where we would spend hours hunting for sand rubies, Indian pottery shards, or maybe even gold. My father had taught us how to use a shallow pan and patiently wash the sand until you “get a little color.” The earth in Arizona is so mineral rich that sometimes we did see something glinting in the pan, but not very often and not enough to make us rich too.
It was hot work moving around in the desert. We often went barefoot, but the ground in summer would become so hot that it could raise a blister. The remedy for this was to wet our feet, then dip them in the dry, powdery clay dust, then a little wet mud, and then back into the dust again until we had built up layers of earth to insulate us from the heat. We called this making “mud huaraches,” or sandals. It was very effective. If one weren’t near a convenient hose or puddle, one simply ran from shade to shade, which seemed to exist in a sadistically meager quantity. The minute we were tall enough to climb onto the back of a horse, we added yet another layer to cushion us from the punishing hot ground.
The first thing I remember ever really wanting, besides the close proximity of my parents, was a horse. My desire for a horse was as fierce as hunger and thirst. I stared at pictures of them in my little books, and drew and colored them with my pencils and crayons—usually colors like pale turquoise, lavender, and rosy pink, and not the more prosaic buckskin, bay, and sorrel colors that I observed on the hides of real horses.
There was one little girl, two years my senior, who lived near enough to visit. One of eight children, her name was Dana, and she was friendly, smart, and had the thing I yearned for most, which was a pony of her own. Her pony was spotted black and white, his name was Little Paint, and a saintlier beast has never been born. Shetland ponies are often mischievous and can be quite naughty, bucking and biting and refusing to budge for their tiny riders. Who can blame them after all that we make them do, encumbering them with saddles and rigid metal bits and then expecting them to haul us around in the hot Arizona sun?
Little Paint, a Shetland crossbred with the more sweet-natured and slightly bigger Welsh pony, was a perfect gentleman. Since there was only one of him, Dana and I would clamber up on his round back and ride double. He was a sturdy little fellow and bore us uncomplainingly wherever we bade him. We would also hitch him up to Dana’s pony cart, and he would pull us alongside the blacktop road all the way to the Fort Lowell drugstore, which had a soda fountain. It was like having a car at age four.
I began to beg my parents for a pony of my own, drooping around the house and visibly pining, hinting that without a pony I might not be expected to live. It being within months of my fifth birthday, my father, showing true mercy, decided to buy me a pony. In those days, this could be done for surprisingly little money.
Dana’s father operated a small farm nearby and was also a photographer. He photographed people’s children dressed up in a cowboy suit and mounted on Little Paint. He had a second pony who had not been a successful picture pony—most likely because he was all Shetland and less patient with the business of having cowboy-suited tots loaded on and off his back all day. His name was Murphy, Dana’s last name being O’Sullivan.
Murphy was small and black, and with his shaggy winter coat, he looked exactly like a giant caterpillar. I fell in love with him immediately. My father made arrangements with Mr. O’Sullivan, and Murphy came home to live with us.
He was somewhat ill tempered and used to dump me off his back and run home, work the lid off the galvanized steel can where we kept his oats, and commence to eat his dinner. I would find him there chewing away after I hiked back, beet red in the face from the heat and the mortification of having him buck me off. I retaliated by taking Murphy inside our house, much cooler than his stable, and feeding him ice cream.
Sometimes he would wriggle under the wire fence of his enclosure and cross blacktop roads humming with traffic to find the nearest subdivision, where one fellow grew a clover lawn. This was much tastier than the Bermuda grass we grew on our lawn. The owner of the clover lawn, much annoyed, would call my mother. Everyone in the vicinity knew Murphy and where he lived. My mother drove a 1951 Chevrolet sedan that she named Frank & Earnest. She would remove the backseat, drive to the subdivision with the clover lawn, squeeze Murphy into the vacant anterior recess of Frank & Earnest, and drive home with Murphy cheerfully taking in the sights, his head hanging out the window. My mother then gave him fresh carrots from her vegetable garden, sugar lumps, and corn husks, which he ate with relish. In summer I would gather mesquite beans by the gunnysackful and load them into his manger. We both loved eating the mesquite beans, which are sweet as candy, packed with nutrients, and will fatten a horse and make its coat shine better than oats will. During the rainy season, I would lead Murphy in his halter to the sweet grasses that grew in the ditches watered by the runoff. He continued to dump me on the ground whenever he got tired of carrying me. We were inseparable.
Dana and I would saddle up in the mornings and meet half the distance between our houses, and then ride to the nearby Rillito River. This river was bone dry most of the year, so we used to slide our ponies down one steep side and then scramble up the equally steep opposite side. Now we were in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, at that time completely devoid of the greedy and cynical development that continues to chip away at its beauty and uniqueness.
The place where I grew up bore no resemblance whatsoever to the pictures in the little books I read as a child. I wondered what kind of a place would have such an abundance of lollipop trees and lush green meadows that didn’t even have to be watered with a hose. Instead, we had the giant cacti known as saguaros. These enormous plant beings (I can think of no other way to describe them) grow within a few hundred miles of Tucson and no place else on the face of the earth. They are the cleverest of water hoarders and can expand their leathery green skin to capture as much as a ton of additional water. Saguaros produce an extravagantly voluptuous white blossom, which is the bravest gesture I can imagine in an environment so purely hostile to plant growth.
Everything in the desert seems to either want to inject one with venom or give a vicious stab with a thorn, but we were rarely injured in this manner. I prefer to think that we were lovingly protected by the great good sense and vigilant valor of Murphy and Little Paint. I remember Paint skidding to a halt one afternoon at the sight of a huge rattlesnake stretched across the trail in front of us.
Our parents expected us to be home by dark, and we had no reason to dawdle, as a place with so many spines and fangs was no place we wanted to be after sundown. The trip home always seemed to take half the time, because Murphy and Little Paint were eager for their dinner. We clung like burrs on their backs and rode like the wind. We were eager for our dinner too.
The year before Murphy came into our lives, my mother had brought home a brown and white springer spaniel puppy. She called him “His Honor the Judge” because his curly ears reminded her of the wigs worn in the British court. One late afternoon, we were cruising down the road in Frank & Earnest, Mother driving and the puppy with me in the backseat. Some exuberant canine impulse caused His Honor to jump from the backseat into her lap. This had the unhappy effect of landing us in the ditch that ran by the side of the road. My mother was very calm. I remember her saying “Well! Here we are!” in a chipper voice and then climbing out of the car so she could pull me out of the back. My knees were skinned, but neither of us seemed to be seriously hurt, so we hiked to the nearest gas station, and someone came and took us home.
The following morning, my mother leaned over the sink to brush her teeth. Next, she was lying on the floor and couldn’t move her legs. Again, she stayed calm, so I wasn’t aware that anything was particularly wrong. My father was helping her, and he was pretty calm too.
Eventually some men arrived with a tidy little bed on wheels, loaded my mother on it, and wheeled her out the door and into an ambulance. I was fascinated by the little bed with its crisp sheets and neatly tucked-in blanket, and hoped I’d get a turn on it next. I fully expected her to be right back after a short ride around the neighborhood. I thought I would spend the morning helping her to make beds and hang wet clothes on the line, rake leaves, feed the chickens, and gather the eggs. My mother still wasn’t around at bedtime, and she didn’t read to me from her own childhood collection of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, which were my favorites. She didn’t turn up the next morning at breakfast, either, and by now I’d gathered that she wasn’t feeling well and had ridden in that little bed to St. Mary’s Hospital. I knew about this place because my older brother had been hit by a car and taken to the hospital with a broken leg. They put a cast on the leg, and we went there and brought him home. My sister had been treated for polio at the hospital, but she came home too, and she was fine. I didn’t know what was wrong with my mother or when we would bring her home. I didn’t know that she was completely paralyzed from the waist down and not expected to walk ever again.
A thin-lipped, rather severe woman of Scottish extraction who wore a green-striped uniform was moved into our guesthouse. She had been hired to care for me; my sister, Suzy; and my brother, Peter; keep the house clean; and do the cooking. No wonder she was grouchy. We thought her cooking tasted funny. She fried steaks in a pan until they were gray and rubbery. She introduced us to Jell-O. I wasn’t in school yet, so I was home with her by myself all day. With all that she had to do, she understandably paid me very little attention. I learned to entertain myself. I spent hours pretending that I was galloping with Hopalong Cassidy and his big white stallion, Topper, chasing cattle rustlers. Hoppy and I were tight. We did everything together.
I figured out how to work the big combination radio–record player and would twist the dial through the Arizona call letters beginning with K. Also, I could get the Mexican stations, beginning with X. They played blaring mariachi rancheras: accordion-driven polkas, waltzes, and corridos from the mighty state of Sonora. ¡Sí, señor!
This was before rock and roll, and I listened to the sonic fantasies of a country still reeling from the war, with men finally home from the nightmares they had endured and survived, and wouldn’t talk about. The songs were all about pleasant, positive things: love and marriage, doggies in the window, counting blessings.
My father had some 78 rpm recordings, and I liked those better. Bizet’s Carmen, Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and the flamenco singer Pastora Pavón, known as La Niña de los Peines, who sang in a slangy Spanish that I couldn’t understand. She killed me. I could somehow sense that she was not singing about something pleasant, she was singing about something essential. Something she yearned for so much it burned her, like I felt when I missed my mother, which was all the time.
The Scottish woman had not been raised in the desert, so she wasn’t going for the mud huaraches. She insisted that I wear my little black patent leather party shoes, which I wore only to birthday parties and had already outgrown. They pinched my toes and rubbed my heels to blisters, which I popped with a pin. They hurt like hell. I couldn’t stand shoes for years after that and still always buy them a size too big. The Scottish woman, who apparently wasn’t aware that I had powerful friends like Hoppy and Topper, whacked me with a pink hairbrush if I squirmed when she was trying to braid my hair. I was pretty squirmy. I wanted my mother to come back.
In those days, children, being considered noisy little germ factories, were not allowed in hospitals to visit. After several months, my father smuggled me in through the window in my mother’s room. She was lying in bed in traction, with a body cast. The room smelled strongly of rubbing alcohol. She was smiling at me. I got a little fit of shyness. I wasn’t quite sure what to say after all that time. There was a novelty song we knew from the radio. It went “Ah, get out of here with a [drum sound effect] boom, boom, boom, and don’t come back no more!” Peter, Suzy, and I would sing it all over the house, banging the drum part on any resonant surface handy. I stepped up to the bed, belted the song out at the top of my lungs, and pounded the boom, boom, boom on her cast.
My mother exploded in laughter. The ice was broken. She showed me the picture of a Mexican guy in a big hat with a big-toothed grin that my father had drawn for her on her cast. She showed me the circle they had cut out of the front of her cast with a little electric saw, so she might be a bit cooler in that hot room in the middle of the desert before air-conditioning was in general use. The traction rig looked kind of fun, like a jungle gym for people who had to stay in bed. I didn’t know she had been paralyzed. I didn’t know that she had gone through a horrific surgery to try to make her walk again, incorporating a brand-new technique that might not even work. This involved taking a piece of her shin bone and grinding it up to make new pieces for her poor broken back, which was reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle and fused in place. During the six months my mother was in the hospital, that was the only time I got to see her.
When she finally came home, she was in bed for another six months, except she could take little steps with a walker. I played on the floor of her room all day, and we would listen to Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby sing live on the radio. I was ecstatic. I had my mother back.
In the second six months of her recovery, my mother began to make steady progress. She still had to wear a cast on her torso but gradually was able to do without the walker. She began to spend long hours with her sewing machine, making dresses that would fit over her cast and also pretty little cotton dresses for me and my sister to wear to school.
During the time that my mother was absent, I was used to a lot of freedom, roaming the desert with Dana on our ponies. So the idea of spending the day squirming in my desk in a stuffy classroom was not too popular with me. Peter and Suzy and all the O’Sullivan kids attended Saints Peter and Paul, the local Catholic school, and that was where I would be going in the fall. I had heard a lot of their stories and complaints. I was pretty excited about the brand-new pair of saddle shoes Mother bought for me, with plenty of room for my toes, but I would have traded them in a minute for the mud huaraches and more days to spend with Murphy.
I had always been extremely shy around other children. Before Dana, the only times I encountered other children were at my cousin Nina’s birthday parties. I would be dressed up in pastel organdy and driven to my uncle’s beautiful cattle ranch, the Agua Linda, which sprawled in the valley between Tucson and the Mexican border. Nina’s mother would set a pretty table and have a wonderful lunch for us, including a cake that revolved on a music box stand. Then, after a hayride around my uncle’s cotton fields, we would play pin the tail on the donkey and break a piñata. The other children would be scrambling for the candy, and I would peek out at them from behind my mother’s leg, much too shy to participate.
At school, I knew I was going to have to contend with miserable shyness and no hayride.
As a little girl, I was taught that cowgirls don’t cry. I didn’t feel like a cowgirl the first day of school. I managed a few brave smiles for my father’s camera but started to cry as soon as it was time to get in the car. My father took my hand and walked me, still crying, into my classroom. He thoughtfully introduced me to the sweet-faced little girl sitting across the aisle. Her name was Patsy, and she would become a lifelong and dearly loved friend, now godmother to my children and I to hers. I cried all day every day for three weeks. Then I finally gave up and just looked out the window.
The classroom that Patsy and I occupied was brand-new cinder block construction with a bank of windows on the left side and a cloakroom stretching along the entire back of the room.
We would file in there in the morning and stretch to put our lunch boxes on the shelf that ran above the row of hooks where we hung our coats. That was our one place to whisper and visit, because once we were seated in the classroom, we were expected to sit still with our hands folded on our desks and give our full attention to the front of the room. This was not always easy for such young children, especially some of the boys, and anyone who disobeyed was dealt with swiftly. I remember one unfortunate little boy who had wet his pants. The nun went after him, there was a struggle, and his desk tipped over onto the floor. She picked him up by his shirt collar, shook him loose from his desk, and then pulled him bawling back to the cloakroom and hung him on one of the available hooks by his belt. He was left there for a minute or two, utterly humiliated, flailing his little arms and legs furiously. This was shocking behavior to me. My parents never treated us like this—not even the thin-lipped Scottish woman did. If my mother had known that such things were going on in the classroom, she would have rammed Frank & Earnest through the convent wall. But we didn’t tell her. We just said that we didn’t like school. We thought this behavior was standard procedure at all schools, as we had never been to any other. I left for school each morning with a stomachache.
The class size was big—there were forty-eight of us—so the young nun standing in the front of the room might have envisioned Lilliputian anarchy if her crowd control methods were ineffective. She was dressed, poor thing, in a habit that consisted of a long-sleeved, ankle-length black wool dress, with heavy black stockings and lace-up black leather shoes. An elbow-length cape made of the same wool went over the pleated bodice and was never removed, even on the most blisteringly hot days. On her head was a black wool bonnet with a stiffly starched lining of white linen. The bonnet fastened snugly beneath her chin with a black bow. The starchy bit looked like it must surely scratch, and the tender skin at the side of her face was often streaked with red. At her waist was a long rosary with a heavy crucifix, the rustling sound of her rosary beads being synonymous with her movement. We learned to fear that sound because it could mean that she was coming up from behind to whack an offender with a ruler or, worse yet, the pointer.
To be made to dress in such a way in the desert heat was nothing short of sadistic. It made it very hard for the sisters to observe us properly on the playground, let alone play with us, as a minute spent in the full sun would turn the black habit into a solar collector that could incinerate its wearer. It’s a wonder that the playground didn’t turn into Lord of the Flies.
In the front of every classroom, above the blackboards, was a fairly large crucifix, fully loaded with a suffering Jesus and complement of thorny crown, nails, and oozing side gash. Whoever had the idea to force six-year-olds to contemplate an image of a man being horribly tortured to death was a sick person indeed. I thought the whole thing was gross and tried not to look. We were instructed that our childish peccadilloes had been responsible for this guy Jesus being treated in such a cruel fashion. Furthermore, they told us, he had eventually died to atone for what we did. I knew this couldn’t possibly be true, because when all this stuff happened to him, I wasn’t even born. This made me question the veracity of everything they ever told us.
An incident that stands out as a turning point in my ability to swallow any life-defining ideas not accompanied by data and published in a peer-reviewed journal occurred when I was in the second grade. Our teacher was Sister Francis Mary, a wizened old soul who had taught my father and Peter and Suzy before me. We actually liked her pretty well and tried hard to please her. She had established a point system to gauge our good behavior. This is how it worked: Sister Francis Mary hung a piece of paper on the wall. Sometimes she would leave the room for a short while, and if we were completely quiet and sitting with our hands folded when she returned, she would stick a gummed foil star on the paper. If we got ten stars, that meant we got to have a party.
In our class, we had a sweet girl, Bojanna, with thick, beautiful hair to her waist, whose family was Polish. Her mother made a traditional sweet called a Polish rosette, which was made out of fried dough and sprinkled with powdered sugar. When we had a party, Bojanna’s mother would fry up fifty of them and bring them to school for the party. They were the most delicious things we ever tasted, and we really wanted to earn those ten stars and have our party.
One May afternoon, after we had earned almost enough stars and were in the home stretch for the party, Sister Francis Mary left the room. We had set up the traditional May altar in the corner, with a large plaster statue of the Virgin Mary and some flat pieces of scenery made to look like trees in a garden. Each morning, a different child would be responsible for bringing in a little wreath made of fresh flowers. We would all sing a song to the Virgin Mary, she would be crowned with the wreath, and it was a big deal. That particular afternoon after Sister left, we were being good, and we were being quiet. Patsy was walking up and down the aisles with her finger pressed to her lips as an extra reminder, and we were all thinking of the party and the Polish rosettes. The windows at the side of the classroom had been left open because it was a warm day, and a wind had kicked up. This can happen very suddenly in the desert, and the wind can be quite violent. The wind surged through the open windows and blew down a piece of scenery, which crashed into the Virgin Mary, knocking her to the floor and snapping her head off at the neck. The head rolled across the floor in front of our horrified gazes and came to a stop at about the third row. We couldn’t have been more shocked if Marie Antoinette herself had been executed before us with a guillotine.
We were speechless and frozen in place when Sister Francis Mary returned. She was apoplectic. She demanded to know who had been roughhousing. Brave Patsy raised her hand and told Sister Francis Mary about the wind. Sister accepted her explanation. Then she wheeled on us and hissed that we in the class must have been having impure and sinful thoughts, that we were clearly wicked children, and that she was canceling all the stars we had earned. We were devastated. We hadn’t been thinking impure thoughts. We had been thinking about the Polish rosettes.
I don’t remember when there wasn’t music going on in our house: my father whistling while he was figuring out how to fix something; my brother Pete practicing the “Ave Maria” for his performance with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus; my sister, Suzy, sobbing a Hank Williams song with her hands in the dishwater; my little brother, Mike, struggling to play the huge double bass.
Sundays, my father would sit at the piano and play most anything in the key of C. He sang love songs in Spanish for my mother, and then a few Sinatra songs while he remembered single life before children, and responsibilities, and the awful war. My sister sang the role of Little Buttercup in a school production of H.M.S. Pinafore when she was in the eighth grade, so she and my mother would play from the big Gilbert and Sullivan book that sat on the piano. If they were in a frisky mood, they would sing “Strike Up the Band” or “The Oceana Roll.” We would all harmonize with our mother on “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”
When we got tired of listening to our own house, we would tramp across the few hundred yards to the house of our Ronstadt grandparents, where we got a pretty regular diet of classical music. They had what they called a Victrola and would listen to their favorite opera excerpts played on 78 rpm recordings. La Traviata, La Bohème, and Madama Butterfly were the great favorites. On Saturdays they would tune in to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast or sit at the piano trying to unravel a simple Beethoven, Brahms, or Liszt composition from a page of sheet music.
Evenings, if the weather wasn’t too hot or freezing, or the mosquitoes weren’t threatening to carry us away to the Land of Oz, we would haul our guitars outside and sing until it was time to go in, which was when we had run out of songs.
There was no TV, the radio couldn’t wander around with you because it was tethered to the wall, and we didn’t get enough allowance to buy concert tickets. In any case, there weren’t many big acts playing in Tucson, so if we wanted music, we had to make our own. The music I heard in those two houses before I was ten provided me with material to explore for my entire career.
Our parents sang to us from the time we were babies, and one haunting lullaby was often included in our nighttime ritual. It was a traditional song from northern Mexico that my father had learned from his mother, and it went like this:
Arriba en el cielo
Up in the sky
Se vive un coyote
There lives a coyote
Con ojos de plata
With silver eyes
Y los pies de azogue
And feet of mercury
Mátalo por ladrón
Kill it for a thief
Lulo, que lulo
Que San Camaleón
Debajo del suelo
From underneath the floor
Que salió un ratón
There goes a rat
Mátalo, con un jalón
Kill it with a stake
Our mother had brought her own traditions from Michigan, and her songs were even grimmer. She sang us a song about Johnny Rebeck, whose wife accidentally ground him up in a sausage machine of his own invention. After that, she sang:
Last night my darling baby died
She died committing suicide
Some say she died to spite us
Of spinal meningitis
She was a nasty baby anyway
We would howl with laughter and chorus back at her in three-part harmony:
Oh, don’t go in the cage tonight, Mother darling
For the lions are ferocious and may bite
And when they get their angry fits
They will tear you all to bits
So don’t go in the lion’s cage tonight
My favorite place for music was a pachanga. This was a Mexican rancher’s most cherished form of entertainment. It was a picnic that took up an entire afternoon and evening and could last until midnight. Preparations would begin in the late afternoon, to avoid the worst heat of the day. A good site was chosen under a grove of cottonwood trees so there would be cool shade and a nice breeze. Someone would build a mesquite fire and grill steaks or pork ribs or whatever the local ranches provided. There would be huge, paper-thin Sonoran wheat tortillas being made by hand and baked on a comal, which is a smooth, flat piece of iron laid over the fire. Fragrant coffee beans were roasted over the fire too, then brewed and served with refried beans, white ranch cheese, homemade tamales, roasted corn, nopalitos, calabasitas, and a variety of chiles.
Around sunset, someone would uncork a bottle of tequila or the local bacanora, and people would start tuning up the guitars. The stars blinked on, and the songs sailed into the night. Mostly in Spanish, they were yearning, beautiful songs of love and desperation and despair. My father would often sing the lead, and then aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends joined in with whatever words they knew or whatever harmonies they could invent. The music never felt like a performance, it simply ebbed and flowed with the rest of the conversation. We children weren’t sent off to bed but would crawl into someone’s lap and fall asleep to the comforting sound of family voices singing and murmuring in two languages.
My brother Peter’s beautiful boy soprano voice landed him a soloist’s position in the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, which at the time had a national reputation. They would travel by private bus giving concerts throughout the country and return covered in aw-shucks glory. On the nights of their homecoming concerts, my father, mother, sister, and I would troop down to the Temple of Music and Art—a beautiful, small theater in downtown Tucson, modeled after the Pasadena Playhouse—and watch them sing. Our whole family would hold its collective breath while my brother emitted the eerie and mysterious high sounds that only prepubescent boy sopranos can make, praying that he wouldn’t be sharp or flat. He was seldom either, but when he strayed, he was more likely to be sharp. I have the identical tendency. We all knew from hearing him practice at home which passages were likely to derail him, and we white-knuckled through them as we listened.
The boys were dressed in cowboy hats, silk neckerchiefs, satin-fringed and pearl-snapped cowboy shirts in desert sunset colors (the colors being allotted to sopranos and altos accordingly), bell-bottomed “frontier pants” with rodeo belt buckles, and cowboy boots. The stage was dressed with an artificial campfire, a starry-night backdrop, some saguaro cactus silhouettes, and a beautiful full moon projected from the back of the hall. Now, this was some serious production value, in my six-year-old opinion! It had a mesmerizing effect on the audience, and everyone listened in hushed and rapturous delight.
Whenever I imagined myself singing for the public, it would be like that: I would stand on a proscenium stage with a real curtain that opened and closed, and sing those beautiful, high, pure notes and give the audience chills. After all, I was a soprano too and could sing just as high as my brother. I wanted to sing like him. I can remember sitting at the piano. My sister was playing and my brother was singing something and I said, “I want to try that.” My sister turned to my brother and said, “Think we got a soprano here.” I was about four. I remember thinking, “I’m a singer, that’s what I do.” It was like I had become validated somehow, my existence affirmed. I was so pleased to know that that was what I was in life: I was a soprano. The idea of being famous or a star would not have been in my consciousness. I just wanted to sing and be able to make the sounds I had heard that had thrilled me so. And then one day, when I was fourteen, my sister and brother were singing a folk song called “The Columbus Stockade Blues.” I came walking around the corner and threw in the high harmony. I did it in my chest voice and I surprised myself. Before that, I had tried to sing only in a high falsetto tone, and it didn’t have any power.
Because my brother’s voice was high and his performances were so central to our early family life, his sound was the first I ever tried to copy. All artists copy. We try as hard as we can to sound just like someone we admire; someone who evokes a strong feeling that we would like to emulate. The best part is, no matter how hard we try to copy, we wind up sounding like a version of ourselves.
The elements of voice and style are braided together like twine, consisting of these attempts to copy other artists, or an instrument, or even the sound of a bird or passing train. Added to these characteristics are emotions and thoughts that register as various vocal quirks, like hiccups, sighs, growls, warbles—a practically limitless assortment of choices. Most of these choices are made at the speed of sound on a subconscious level, or one would be completely overwhelmed by the task.
When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponselle in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse.
The regional accent one speaks also affects rhythms and phrasing, so someone who is “copying” has to import the accent too. For me, it helps to know the vocal bloodlines in order to decode the phrasing of a song. I once sang a Tom Petty song called “The Waiting,” which has an intricate rhythm scheme for fitting lyrics into the music. Petty, an artist I admire, came along later than many classic rockers and so was able to absorb their elements into his writing and singing style. As I studied his vocal performance, it broke down something like this: Tom with his Florida accent was copying Mick Jagger with his British accent, who was copying Robert Johnson from the Mississippi Delta. And in another part of the same song, Tom was copying Roger McGuinn, who was copying Bob Dylan, who copied Woody Guthrie, who was in turn copying someone lost to our generation. These influences can show up in a whole line or just a word, or even the way that part of a word is attacked. As voices age, the vocal twine can become unraveled, and one hears the seams and joins of the laminated sound that has come to be recognized as that artist’s style. It can collapse into a heap of ticks and quirks.
As kids growing up in the fifties, we tried to copy anything that inspired us from the radio, both in Spanish and English. We would harmonize on Hank Williams songs, Everly Brothers songs, or soap jingles. My father brought home a lot of records from Mexico. Of these, our favorites were the mysterious huapangos, sung by the Trio Calaveras and Trio Tariacuri. These songs from the mountains deep in Mexico had strange indigenous rhythms and vocal lines that broke into a thrilling falsetto. We also loved the urban smoothness of the jazz-based Trio Los Panchos.
I spent hours listening to the great ranchera singer Lola Beltrán. She influenced my singing style more than anyone. “Lola the Great” stood for Mexico as Edith Piaf stood for France. She had an enormous, richly colored voice that was loaded with drama, intrigue, and bitter sorrow. Although she was a belter who sang Mexican country music, her voice had the same dramatic and emotional elements as the opera singer Maria Callas. I listened to Callas with my grandmother. I read later in a Callas biography that she loved to sing along to the Mexican radio stations during trips she made to appear at the Dallas Opera. Lola was the most played female singer on Mexican radio. I am sure Callas loved her too.
When commercial folk music began to play on the radio in my early teens, we really paid attention. Here was something that sounded much like the Mexican traditional music on which we had been raised. Like the rancheras and huapangos, it was drawn from an earlier, agrarian life, was accompanied by acoustic instruments, and had rich, natural-sounding harmonies.
Peter, Suzy, and I hovered over recordings by popular folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia. We would learn their songs and harmonies and then rearrange them for our own configuration of voices. I would cover the soprano-alto registers, Suzy the alto-tenor, and Pete would sing tenor-baritone. Years later, my younger brother, Mike, would sing whatever extra part was needed, from bass to high tenor. But he was still little then, so we formed a trio and called ourselves the New Union Ramblers. At the time, Suzy worked at the Union Bank, and I had an Arhoolie recording of the Hackberry Ramblers and thought ramblers sounded folky. We tried our best not to sound too treacly but were not always successful. We were having a lot of fun and sometimes played at the local folk clubs.
Bobby Kimmel, soon to become my Stone Poneys band-mate, played bass. He was short, with the dark, bearded look of the Beat Generation, and prone to quoting lengthy selections from his philosophy heroes, who ranged from the Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti to Lord Buckley, the hipster comic of the 1940s and 1950s.
Richard Saltus, a preppy, unusually tall and skinny schoolmate of mine, leaned over us playing the banjo and cracking us up with his quirky humor. He was unusually bright, years later becoming a science writer for the Boston Globe. He introduced me to Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Blue Sky Boys. Again, their mountain harmonies reminded me of the Mexican trios and the huapangos I loved. They dealt with the same issues: the grueling work of living off the land and the treachery of misplaced affection.
My brother Pete went to work for the Tucson Police Department while he took his master’s degree in government at the University of Arizona. He eventually became the chief of police, but at the time, the department didn’t think too highly of my brother hanging around beatnik folk music clubs. My sister had three children and less time for music, so I began to play small venues on my own, sometimes with my cousin Bill Ronstadt accompanying me on the guitar. Bill, the most accomplished guitar player in our family, was a serious student of Brazilian music, but when he played with me, we did simpler American folk songs. The professional demands were not great. I could play a set of four or five songs, and Bill would fill in with Brazilian pieces. We occasionally got paid but felt lucky to get the experience of being in front of an audience. Sometimes Bobby Kimmel would play a set of blues tunes that he had worked out, and I would duet with him on a folkier piece like “Handsome Molly.”
We played at a coffeehouse called Ash Alley and another called the First Step. They were tiny, seventy- to one-hundred-seat places owned by local folk music entrepreneur David Graham.
His younger brother, Alan Fudge, sang and played guitar and was studying acting at the university. He was smart, funny, kind, and political. Alan and I spent most of our spare time at his brother’s establishment and became sweethearts. His mother, Margaret, was the first feminist I ever encountered and would scold her sons robustly if they were careless with their girlfriends. She was divorced, and when her son David brought in older bluesmen like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to play at his club, she would cook for them, let them stay at her house, and do what she could to cushion them from the bruising elements of Jim Crow still hovering in the Southwest. This was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there were signs everywhere bragging about a proprietor’s right to refuse service.
Conversations at their house were often about the hoped-for civil rights legislation, the Vietnam War (which few Americans were aware of at the time), and the unconscionable shenanigans of the House Un-American Activities Committee. At the public high school that I attended, my civics teacher, a Ukrainian, showed us films on the HUAC and warned us about the Communist threat that lurked behind every cactus. I also had an English teacher from the Deep South who spent one entire class period making an impassioned defense of the KKK, and awarded an A to anyone who read Gone With the Wind. At Margaret’s house, I got another side of the story. She was not like any of the Tucson mothers I had ever met. A free spirit who insisted on personal responsibility, she was very kind to me.
Alan taught me songs he had learned from Pete Seeger and the Weavers about the labor movement. He was performing the lead in a university production of Shakespeare’s Othello, and we explored that play together. One night he came home with two records: Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely and the first Bob Dylan album. I thought the Nelson Riddle arrangements on the Sinatra record were stunning. It was the first time I had ever heard Bob Dylan sing, and I liked that too. We spent many evenings dissecting those records. Some of my music friends thought those artists were diametrically opposed, one from “the establishment” and the other from the foment of cultural revolution. I thought they were both great storytellers.
In those days, Top Forty radio was still regional and had a wide-open playlist. When I drove to school, I could turn on the radio and hear George Jones, Dave Brubeck, the Beach Boys, and the Singing Nun on the same station. I much prefer that style of radio to the corporate model we have today, with tightly formatted playlists and the total absence of regional input.
Alan’s brother continued to try to build a following for folk music at the First Step. He brought in ace bluegrass band the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White and his brother Roland. I would watch Clarence night after night, his face an expressionless mask while he flat-picked notes at speeds not equaled until the invention of the particle accelerator.
David also brought Kathy and Carol, a duo who sang Elizabethan ballads and Carter Family songs. They were good guitar players, especially Carol, and their complex, shimmering harmonies were completely original. The two were both natural beauties, innocent and full of wonder. Still teenagers, they had an Elektra Records recording contract, were playing folk festivals around the country, and getting to hear and jam with major folk artists that I had read about in Sing Out! magazine.
I remember seeing blues singer Barbara Dane and guitarist Dick Rosmini at David’s club. Dick complimented my voice and encouraged me to go to Los Angeles and see what was happening at the Ash Grove, an L.A. coffeehouse that played traditional music to enthusiastic crowds. Tucson being a relatively small city, the folk music venues always struggled, and the shows were poorly attended. I began to wish I could go someplace that had a richer, more diverse, and more appreciated pool of music.
Alan left Tucson to play Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Bobby had gone east to Massachusetts to spend time with friends in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. He wrote to me about this girl singer they had added named Maria D’Amato, who was gorgeous and could really sing. She married his friend Geoff Muldaur, the other star singer in the Kweskin band, and became Maria Muldaur. Geoff was a great admirer of blues singer Sleepy John Estes and cobbled together his own compelling and original style from that influence. Geoff in turn had a strong influence on the singing style of John Sebastian, later a founding member of the Lovin’ Spoonful. After spending some time on Martha’s Vineyard with the Kweskin band, Kimmel went to the West Coast and moved in with Malcolm Terence, a friend from Tucson who was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
My mother and I drove to the coast the summer of 1964 to visit my aunt Luisa, then resident hostess at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles. Knowing I wanted to sing, Aunt Luisa had sent me a recording, Duets with the Spanish Guitar, which featured guitarist Laurindo Almeida dueting alternately with flautist Martin Ruderman and soprano Salli Terri. It became one of my most cherished recordings.
She and Terri were close friends, and when I told her how much I loved the record, she invited me to meet her. My aunt had helped her research material for her recordings, plus she coached her pronunciation when she sang in Spanish. Aunt Luisa also gave Terri many of the costumes she had worn during the course of her own career. They now belong to the Southwest Museum. She drove us to Olvera Street, the original center of Los Angeles, and showed us the theater where she herself had sung while wearing those beautiful costumes, sometime during the 1920s.
Alan drove up from San Diego, and he and I spent the evening with Bobby at Malcolm’s little place at the beach. Bobby was playing in small clubs and said that if I wanted to come over, he could find us work. There weren’t many opportunities left for me in Tucson. David hadn’t been able to succeed with the First Step and had to close it. I decided to think about it. I was eighteen and enrolled for the spring semester at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
I made plans to drive to the coast and visit Bobby again during spring break of 1965. I traveled with some friends who were going to get summer jobs in canneries in California and return to school in the fall. We all slept on the sofa or the floor or anywhere we could fit.
Bobby was eager to introduce me to a guitar player he had met named Kenny Edwards. He worked at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, which was in the front lobby of the Ash Grove, a club on Melrose, then the mecca for West Coast folkies. We jammed all of us into somebody’s car and drove to West Hollywood. We found Kenny seated with a guitar, playing a flashy finger-picked version of “Roll Out the Barrel.” It was a nightly ritual that he engaged in with another guitarist who worked there. They would try to outplay each other and also show off the guitars they had for sale. Kenny was tall, with the athletic body of a surfer. He was skeptical and intellectual, dark featured and handsome. He dressed like a disheveled English schoolboy, and at nineteen, his guitar playing was impressive. He suggested we move from the lobby into the performing space of the Ash Grove to hear a new band call the Rising Sons. Kenny loved their two guitar players, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Though just young kids, they played like demons, with confidence and skill far beyond their years. They were dead serious about the music.
Driving back to the beach, Malcolm and Bobby started talking about a new L.A. band called the Byrds, who were playing folk rock, a new hybrid taking hold on the West Coast. Eventually, we went to see them at the Trip, a new club on the Sunset Strip that had a light show and was supposed to give you a psychedelic experience with your music. As soon as I heard their creamy harmonies, I was mesmerized. I recognized Chris Hillman from a bluegrass band I’d heard, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. In that band, he had played mandolin. Now he was playing bass guitar in an electric band with Beatle haircuts. It was clear to me that music was happening on a whole different level in Los Angeles. I began making plans to move to L.A. at the end of the spring semester.
I turned in my final exam to my English professor, the noted Arizona poet Richard Shelton. He was also an autoharp player and sometimes joined us at family jam sessions. The final was an essay on something from Yeats that he had written on the blackboard. He said he hoped he would see me in the fall. I told him I was moving to Los Angeles to sing in a folk-rock band. Justifiably bemused, he replied, “Well, Miss Ronstadt, I wish you luck.”
I still hadn’t told my parents. I knew they would insist that I was too young, hadn’t finished school, and had no real way to support myself. I also knew they were right, but I had to go where the music was.
I waited until the night I left to tell them. A musician friend had offered me a ride to the coast. He had gigs north of L.A. and offered to drop me off on the way. My parents were upset and tried to talk me out of it. When it became apparent that they couldn’t change my mind, my father went into the other room and returned with the Martin acoustic guitar that his father had bought brand new in 1898. When my father began singing as a young man, my grandfather had given him the instrument and said, “Ahora que tienes guitarra, nunca tendrás hambre” (“Now that you own a guitar, you will never be hungry”). My father handed me the guitar with the same words. Then he took out his wallet and gave me thirty dollars. I made it last a month.
The only thing I remember about that long ride through the desert night was searing remorse for having defied my parents. I was still very attached, and they had always been so kind to me. I felt terrible for hurting them and causing them worry. There was nothing to be done. My new life was beginning to take shape.