Gaucho Poetry and Payador Balladry: Calculations to Define a Nation.

Figure 1. “Drawing of an Argentine gaucho playing his guitar”. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under CC.


There are few times that an entire genre can be identified as wholly exemplifying a socio-historical identity while maintaining an accessible style for the masses. The nacionalismo musical (musical nationalism) that burst onto the scene during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Argentina is precisely this type of genre. It is a curious mixture of poetry and song together with socio-political commentary proffered by gaucho characters shared via the reflections and lamentations of their payador peers, both of whom wandered the outskirts of society (literally and figuratively). This essay proposes that nacionalismo musical was a crucial component for the Argentine identity-formation process and that it occupies a dual role in the literary and musical worlds. Due to the popular styles that it pulls from—payador rural and urban ballads and gaucho poetry­—nacionalismo musical has achieved a much greater degree of accessibility, and thus, longevity within the Argentine imagination and cultural spheres.

This essay discusses how gauchesca themes and image were leveraged within Argentine popular culture for calculated purposes, namely to aid in the delineation of an Argentine identity at a time when those in power felt threatened by what they perceived as frenetic energy and disjointed efforts as a result of rapid change as the eighteenth century turned over to the nineteenth. I will begin by briefly establishing who the gaucho and payador were and highlight why in a late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Argentine context they became so popular in the imaginations of the people regardless of class. I will then demonstrate that while gaucho prose predominantly belongs to the field of literature, it also conforms exceedingly well to nacionalismo musical in how it combined with gaucho-centric ballads to ultimately act as oratory devices of dissent and as a vehicle to educate and pass on information to the masses.

Gaucho and Payador Balladry

The gaucho have long held court in the Argentine cultural imagination. Possessing a legacy of grit dating back to the Colonial period, they pioneered the mass expanse of pampas (plains) spanning Uruguay and Argentina readying it for settlement (Pinnell 1984:243). Early gauchos who settled the plains were the musical benefactors of the European instruments brought to the New World by colonizers and missionaries. It is no accident that the sole instrument associated with the gaucho (the guitar) is also the one that was the most common among missionaries and conquistadores of the time.[1] While perhaps not social equals, the gaucho, missionary, and colonizer social groups would have certainly crossed paths.

Over time it became the business of guitar-playing musician gauchos, or payadores, to roam and entertain other gauchos at moments of leisure by either singing songs that they had memorized or, when challenged, to make up new ones on the spot in a type of freestyling ballad competition (Pinnell 1984: 246-247). In fact, it is this later practice that would become the “tour de force of the gaucho balladeers…Two singers would match their skills by improvising alternate verses without losing a single beat on their guitars. Each verse had to connect in content with the one before it, and the singer who faltered or broke tempo was the loser” (Pinnell 1984: 248). 

It was the individualism, self-reliance, and superior equestrian skills cultivated during settlement efforts that later gauchos to have a defining role in the 1819 War of Independence when Argentina liberated itself from the Spanish grasp (Umphrey 1918:144). The transition to total autonomy was not easy for the newly independent nation, and again it was the gaucho who fought during the decades of civil wars that followed independence. As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, a relative stability was achieved as Argentina burgeoned with industrialization and mass urban (im)migration. It was during this period that the gaucho were re-positioned in the Argentine cultural imagination from a doggedly hands-on figure to one very much ousted to the margins as he contemptuously stood against the modernization that encroached, indeed threatened, the pastoral life that he treasured.

Still, the gaucho’s chided position as lawless, nomadic, trouble-brewing gamblers shifted yet again early in the twentieth century as the learned elite seized the figure to serve as a rallying emblem to represent ideals of Argentina as a nation (self-sufficient and rebellious) and Argentines as a people (tenacious) (Umphrey 1918; Pinnell 1984). This is also when payador balladeers shifted from the countryside to the city. While early and mid-nineteenth century payadores performed for rural crowds, burgeoning urban metropoles such as Buenos Aires became perfect venues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In relocating, the urban payador became “ambassadors of a gaucho culture [that] appeared so authentic that when…elite composers sought to give Argentine classical music a national [authentic] edge, they unwittingly turned to the reworked songs of the urban payadores as genuine folk music” (Bockelman 2011: 593). 

Co-Opting the Gaucho Identity

In examining the musical propaganda potential of the gaucho, an important gauchesca duality emerges: the notion that though a gaucho’s life is “savage like”, and the idea that his “luxury is liberty” (Sarmiento 1961:52). Crudity is a trait that the gaucho inherited honestly very early during pampa settlement due to the “absence of towns…not settl[ing] in groups, clustered round a church or village…but in isolated families, living often far out of reach of one another…practically the sole inhabitants” (Cunninghame Graham 1924:288). It was the result of these circumstances that the gaucho became “adept at capturing horses for himself…He learned to attend to many of his affairs on horseback—even fishing and cooking…there were neither churches nor schools, nor other establishments in which to socialize” (Pinnell 1984:244). Liberty was luxury indeed as the gaucho was his own overlord from inception.

For decades, Argentina had grappled with the consequences and challenges of liberation from Spain. The gaucho became the unfortunate reminder of old ways that “one hoped to destroy and replace” as the foundling nation propelled itself toward yet to be determined new identifiers (Roggiano and Straub 1974:39). Yet, transitioning to a period of industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration brought with it a nostalgia, or rather a gussied up reinterpreted version of these “old ways”, prompting a call to reclaim and reposition the gaucho of yesteryear as representative of a type of Argentine purity that was being lost with the influx of technologies and newcomers. Songs about the gaucho essentially became the way that people “made sense of contradictions in their culture” at a time when conflicts such as “masters and serfs, exploiters and the exploited, rich and poor, learned and uneducated, foreigners and natives” were persistent and irreconcilable (Taylor 1997:217; Roggiano and Straub 1974:38-39). The gaucho embodied this by simultaneously occupying a societal space of rejection and veneration.

Such cultural duality—­forsaken yet cherished, coarse yet fashionable, lawless yet role model­—and the manner in which these themes were leveraged in cultural and socio-political spheres is what makes the Argentine nacionalismo musical, so imbued with the gauchesca genre, effective as a tool to aid in the process of national identity formation, to dissent, and to educate. Because of how well nacionalismo musical absorbed traits of such a variety of social sects and economic and education levels, there were few who did not find at least some aspect (some “spin”) of the gaucho in which they saw themselves reflected. 

Reconstructing de Gaucho

Vulgar and rustic style of speech is a distinctive trait of the gaucho genre. It would be logical to assume that since gauchos were nomadic Argentine country folk of the pampa, prideful yet penniless, that the writing style simply reflected the words (and education level) of the authors. Given the preponderance of illiteracy among these cowboy wanderers, this is more than likely not the case. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the words were more often written by educated and urban poets who enjoyed a lifestyle completely different from that of their muses. These men of “high literary ability” were often involved in politics and participated in society, something that moved them further away from the gaucho reality—a self-respecting gaucho would never have been invited to partake or collaborate in the politics of his time (Umphrey 1918:147). It was not uncommon for these writers to collect works first authored by payadores to seek “material for their own poetic compositions” about the gaucho that they would then publish, giving a permanent niche for the “versified moralizings” and musicalized storytelling that would subsequently be “handed down from generation to generation” (Umphrey 1918:147-149).

Debating appropriation is not the objective here, suffice to say that by adopting payador material and launching it into a more erudite spheres some think that these poets preserved a genre that otherwise would have been lost. That without these “great men of letters” extolling the “spirit and style of the payador” and the “gaucho’s heroism,” the “words and music,” and oral tradition would perhaps not have survived the period of rapid change that ushered in the 1900s (Pinnell 1984:251).

Urbanite poets knowingly selected one of the most polarizing social sects to make come alive the socio-political concerns and discontent that was brewing in Argentina during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In their eyes, gauchos made the perfect intermediary between the supposed civilized and uncivilized worlds. They could manipulate the personal stories, situations, conflicts, treatment, and discourses of the gauchos in order to politicize their existence and use them as tools to facilitate the “emergence of patriotic dialogue” in a way that other social groups or cultural personalities could not (Ludmer 1996:608). For example, as a presidential candidate, Juan Domingo Perón would often “pepper his political speeches with phrases culled from popular old gauchesque poems…giving him an ability to communicate to working-class audiences that his rivals lacked” (Bockelman 2011:578). While Perón himself certainly did not make the gaucho “fashionable”, he did know how to “rework” it in new and compelling ways that socially and politically very much worked in his favor (Bockelman 2011:578).

Manipulation of the gaucho also lent itself to moralizing endeavors. When the famed epic poem Martín Fierro (perhaps the most famous representative of the genre) concludes by “taking leave of [the] hero at the frontier with the hope that someday he might return”, the result was a surge in novels, plays, and song sequels that glorified the more criminal components of the gaucho character (Umphrey 1918:154). Having the hero ride off into the sunset left the vulnerable audience to muse on its own about what Fierro’s (and other gaucho peers) future might look like, and the debauched world that they created reflected the social, political, and economic uncertainties of the time. Gangster gaucho storylines were an exceedingly negative sociological influence so much so that the author of Martín Fierro, José Hernández, took up his pen to write a sequel titled La Vuelta de Martín Fierro “in which the outlaw, now peaceful and law abiding, returns to take his place in the new life of the campo”, renouncing his bad boy bandido ways (Umphrey 1918:155). 

Nacionalismo Musical

It is difficult to dispute the widely held notion that gauchos played an extremely important role in the development of an Argentine nationality. While a gaucho rejected society, he was also jilted and cherished by it. The educated class that co-opted the gaucho and consciously gave him a refurbished socio-political voice and cultural image is also the one that would not allow him to enjoy a true participatory role in society or politics unless he was filtered through a more refined gaze and he served a purpose for their socio-political needs. Fierro and his fictional gaucho peers must have been aware of this since they preserved their divine right to seek independence, live according to their own agency, and to break laws that they felt to be ridiculous, inappropriate or most importantly, inapplicable to their situation. It is not just the decision to live on the margins and to take a particularly social-moral stance against the government that cultivates a sense of mystery around the gaucho persona by the end of the nineteenth century but also the seeming permission to do so granted by the lumpenbourgeoisie.

The musicality of gaucho prose contributed to two very crucial aspects of its successful distribution: it made poetry more attractive so that it would fit into the mainstream, and it made it much more accessible to a variety of different social demographics. As Bockelman explains:

The typical payador songbook was thirty-two pages long and consisted of multiple lyrics organized around a common urban theme or the life of a popular gaucho…In their focus on legendary rural stories and contemporary urban curiosities, they more closely resembled nineteenth-century American dime novels--only in this case the narratives were rendered in song verse, not prose (2011:583).

Putting written words to song results in the message becoming understandable to anyone, regardless of education level or social status. With a melodious accompaniment “now the interpretation is guided by the musical context” (Figueredo 2002:308), meaning that even the illiterate masses could be exposed to stories about the gauchos and follow along with their exploits. The common man and woman did not need to share written versions of such tales but could sing the words to spread them far and wide. The lives and adventures, policies and opinions, rejection and independence that punctuated a gaucho life were things that undoubtedly would have had an impact on those in seriously dire situations, desperate, worried, or who felt confused, angry, or simply fed up with the socio-political reality in which they lived. It gave the impression that the poems, with their catchy rhythms easily set to music, were of the people and for the people while at the same time totally relevant to national concerns and events.

Gaucho poetry coupled with payador balladry essentially oralized and popularized a new euphonious aural genre. Figueredo believes that a political-social crisis generates the perfect environment for music and poetry to interact (2002:299), a stance supported by Plesch who believes that gaucho poetry became exemplar of “musical nationalism” in action (2009:242). Particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when politics and society strained under the immense pressure of nationalistic growing pains, these particular niches of prose were tapped as perfect partners to accompany the fabrication of a sense of “Argentineness” (Plesch 2009:243). We see this in play during the 1880s when the image (or rather the marketing of it) of the gaucho and his “badly strung and out of tune” instrument morphed to become emblematic of Argentine guitar and singing styles. Once an embarrassment, the gaucho is now peaceful, noble even, as he strums on the declared guitarra nacional (national guitar) (Plesch 2009: 244).[2] In the cultural imagination of the time it was perhaps not too far of a leap to imagine this balladeer as dashingly macho and gentlemanly to boot. The gaucho’s metamorphosis from a position of civilization-opposing and barbarous “Other” to the “quintessence of all things Argentine” occurs in part by shifting mediums from the elite-oriented genre of poetry to a more encompassing musical one.

And so, at the end of the nineteenth century, as Argentine composers heeded the call to throw their hat in the ring to craft an Argentine (musical) identity that would complement other modes of “Argentineness” being pushed, they “stylized, homogenized, and reorganized” elements from gaucho poetry and the payador tradition resulting in a particular Argentinian brand of nacionalismo musical, the first cannon of modern Argentina in which the gaucho (and his patriotism) were a main fixture (Plesch 2009:247). By writing a song in verses that can be easily divided, the prose could become personal or political mantras. Experiencing the poem in a musical form “arouses other senses for interpretation and reception ... the auditory, the tactile, the kinetic, as well as the visual, are involved. Essentially, what we see with the gaucho genre is how the musicalizing of poetry transforms the text-audience-participant relationship.

Musical Narratives: the Transmission of Knowledge, Propaganda, and Dissent

The strategy to use gaucho poetry and payador balladry illustrates how collective dialogue and information dissemination does not have to be limited to newspapers, pamphlets, or booklets. To use the combination of popular writing with popular music styles as a new distribution technique ensured that whatever socio-political or moral message of the moment reached a wider audience. As Plesch so aptly points out, “constructing a nation involves a considerable amount of political and ideological manipulations” (2009:246). Knowingly and pointedly crafting symbols that are marketed to represent supposedly shared values help to both “reinforce feelings of belonging” and to “internalize a collective identity”, even when a duality as opposing as civilization versus barbarism (an extremely Argentine trope) is present (Plesch 2009:246).

An example of this in action is how the gaucho was so effectively used to “otherize” a different social sect: immigrants. Previously, it was the gaucho who was accused of drunken lawlessness, fornication, and other ills but discomfort with the mass influx of foreigners evoked panic among elite who felt that a “cultural incoherence” was cancerous to the “Argentineness” so carefully being crafted. These traits were thus reaffixed to the immigrant class, a political move executed by way of a cultural tool (music). For decades after it was the immigrant’s burden to be the “new site of barbarism…made responsible for the perceived fragmentation of the culture, debasement of the language, and loss of traditional values”, all things previously ascribed to the gaucho (Plesch 2009:246).

Just as the gaucho found comfort in his music so can the listener. A significant connection develops by listening to the gaucho as he laments, bemoans, or celebrates. Consider the following excerpt: Con la guitarra en la mano Ni las moscas se me arriman, Nadie me pone el pie encima, (Hernández 2004:9). Here, our gaucho character suggests that his music (voice, lyrics and song) are his greatest weapons against the annoying and relentless moscas (flies). It could be that the flies and overall scene that he describes are as they literally seem. That one’s guitar and music protect against the boredom and filthiness of the rural and homeless life. But even more likely is that the “flies” are the socio-political figures that try to control or force him to do something he does not want, or to live a life that is not what he wanted to live (figures such as the army, the government, the upper class, etc.) As long as he continues to sing, that is to keep proclaiming his truth, it cannot bring him closer or harm him; music is his greatest protection and security against adversity.

If we consider nacionalismo musical not just as a device to educate and persuade but also to dissent, it is possible that during the nineteenth century the dissemination of more anarchistic gaucho tunes was not entirely safe due to intense agitation and repression. Yet censorship along with the use of fear and force would not have diminished the need for artistic expression to narrate current events according to a more counterculture take as well. As Figueredo says, “the socio-political challenges and ideological questioning that predominate in society... influence not only the creation of the phenomenon but also the way it is expressed” (2002:302).


A vagabond cowboy, the gaucho is representative of fundamental aspects of national and individual Argentine identity. He cannot be defined as merely a spineless deserter who had abandoned society but rather must also be understood as the most patriotic figure due to his independent and extremely individual position in the face of intense repression and submission to the hands of the government and the bourgeoisie. For these reasons the gaucho became the voice and image of internal conflicts of a nation that was grappling with rapid industrialization, immigration, and urbanization Writers, poets, composers and the like (who occupied positions in which they could exert social and cultural influence) seized the payador style and the gaucho character to be used for their own nation-building and identity-forming interests. Nacionalismo musical has become one of the most iconic genres of national and political discourse in Argentina vis-à-vis gaucho representations that simultaneously criminalize and glorify life on the margins, by virtue of functioning as a literary device with a strong foothold in poetry and a musical genre with mass appeal.

[1] Though a bit out of the time scope for this project, one of the first published mentions of a guitar accompanied by a gaucho’s playing it and improvising ballads to entertain his peers is in 1773 (Pinnell 1984: 246).

[2] Also known as guitarra melodiosa (melodious guitar).


Bockelman, Brian. “Between the Gaucho and the Tango: Popular Songs and the Shifting Landscape of Modern Argentine Identity, 1895-1915.” The American Historical Review 116(3): 577-601.

Hernández, José. 2004. Martin Fierro. Buenos Aires: Stockcero.

Ludmer, Josefina. 1996. “The Gaucho Genre”. In The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature: Discovery to Modernism, edited by Roberto González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo-Walker, 608-631. New York: Cambridge UP.

Figueredo, María L. 2002. “El eterno retorno entre la poesía y el canto popular: Uruguay, 1960-1985.” Revista canadiense de estudios hispánicos 26(1/2): 299-321.

Pinnell, Richard. 1984. “The Guitarist-Singer of Pre-1900 Gaucho Literature.” Latin American Music Review/Revista de Música Latinoamericana 5(2): 243-262.

Plesch, Melanie. 2009. “The Topos of the Guitar in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Argentina.” The Musical Quarterly 92(3/4): 242-278.

Roggiano, Alfredo A. and William J. Straub. 1974. “Personal Destiny and National Destiny in Martin Fierro.” In Latin American Literary Review 3(5): 37-49.





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