top ten gringo songs about tijuana that you’ve (probably) never heard
By Josh Kun
North of the borderline, Tijuana is not an actual place. It is a constellation of fantasies, an infinite junkyard where age-old myths get piled on top each other, recycled and renewed with each new generation. U.S. pop culture has long been obsessed with this make-believe Tijuana—a virtual amusement park that US pleasure barons tried to actually build back in the 20s—and music’s been second only to Hollywood in its imagining and selling of a city that’s synonymous with its misrepresentation and misunderstanding. So here’s my top 10 Tijuana songs from north of the line—the soundtrack to a city of tequila and farmacias, a city of liposuction clinics and brothels, a city that only exists on tourist maps: Tijuana, USA.
1. Ada Brown, “Tia Juana Man Blues”. Humberto Felix Berumen starts his study of Tijuana as a “city-symbol”, Tijuana La Horrible, with the lyrics from this blues song from 1926. Many have called it the first US song about Tijuana, but it was actually beaten to the punch by a few others, most notably Florinda Gardner’s 1924 “Tia Juana”, the one about “a place you all have heard, it’s not in the USA” that came with a drawing of a Mexican vaquero in a sombrero on the cover of its sheet music, and from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1920, Jose Padilla’s pronunciation guide, “Tia Juana (Tee-a-wa-na)”, which beamed about “a little Spanish Madonna named Teeawana” that “grows like a blushing rose in romantic Spain”. Brown’s song was born of a simpler urge, she wanted her man back, and like so many black musicians in the 20s, he was somewhere south of the border.
2. Jelly Roll Morton, “Kansas City Stomp”. Morton was one of those black musicians who headed south from LA to pick up some summer work and take his chances at the racetrack. He did a number of shows at his friend Syl Stewart’s club The Kansas City Bar in 1921 and 1922. He wrote this song as a tribute to the bar, and not, as so many once suspected, to the US jazz haven of Kansas City itself.
3. Miller Bothers, “Rose of Tijuana”. Even cowboys dream of Tijuana. On this twangy soap opera, the old-time bluegrass greats tell the story of a girl in “gay Mexico” who danced with all the vaqueros only to leave them broken-hearted. This might be one of country music’s first señorita songs to be set in Baja California and not in Juarez (Bakersfield urban cowboy Buck Owens would do his own ode decades later on “Tijuana Lady”). Much like Tijuana itself, the girl is only good for a dance. As soon she starts to think for herself, the cowboys dump her and head back north without her.
4. Gary Lewis & The Playboys, “Tijuana Wedding”. This one starts out as “Twist and Shout” and then becomes an archetypal surf-rock instrumental, complete with organ swells and garage guitars. But then with 45 seconds left, a Spanish voice steps in and leads a wedding ceremony fit for Speedy Gonzalez: “Les quiero decir primeramente que ésta es una cosa muy seria? Promete ud. siempre tener muchos frijoles para su señora?”
5. El Clod, “Tijuana Border”. Another Tijuana song that features the kind of Mexican accent that the US media loves to imagine Mexicans have, even when it’s an accent that we’ve invented. “Her tender leeeps are hard and chilly,” the fake Mexican sings, “But to kiss dem I don’t dare”. He has the hots for the daughter of Jose Gonzalez and, of course, Jose wants him dead, so he runs for his life back north across the border. “I’m going to stay out of Tia Juana”. Good idea.
6. Cindy & Lindy, “Saturday Night in Tia Juana”. This one is more innocent, and belongs to a whole genre of 50s pop songs about wild weekend nights spent up and down Revolution Avenue. What becomes clear the more you listen to songs like this one is just how sad Americans seem, how in need of a good time—when it’s not a place of fear, Tijuana is a place of endless happiness, a perfect escape from teenage boredom. When Cindy and Lindy sing, Tijuana just seems like the setting for Happy Days or American Graffiti and La Revo an exotic extension of Main Street, USA.
7. Johnny Cymbal, “Surfin at Tia Juana”. Trying to sound like Buddy Holly, Cymbal hiccups, “Past LA, past the Frisco Bay, there’s a little hunk of heaven where the hippies play, Tia Juana, yeah yeah yeah!” Why fly to Waikiki, when you can drive to TJ? See also: Frank Zappa’s early crew The Persuaders getting wet in the “Tijuana Surf”.
8. Al Tijuana & His Jewish Brass, “Downtown”. A parody of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, who didn’t do Tijuana songs as much as they invented a whole Tijuana repertoire, an entire sound and aesthetic based on one day at a Tijuana bullfight. But here Alpert’s horns and marimbas give way to Eastern European violins and marching band jazz and a Yiddish-spraying band leader who introduces his “Jewish Brass”: Pedro, Manuel, Jose, Miguel, Pablo, Ricardo, Juan, and….Sheldon!” Welcome to Tijuana, recast as the Lower East Side of New York.
9. The Kingston Trio, “The Tijuana Jail”. Before 60 Minutes got interested in the real Tijuana jails, the preppiest folk trio of them all tried to keep it real in the 50s with a tale of a stay in the “Tia Juana Jail” after a night of shooting dice and drinking. Here the jail comes off as a quaint, wild west holding cell, the kind tourists used to pose for pictures in during a day on Revolucion. Rumor has it that there’s an “adult fantasy” hotel that still has a “Tijuana Jail” room that plays this song by request. (Note: this song should not be confused with the other “Tijuana Jail,” the one recorded in the 90s by Guns n Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke).
10. Bix Biederbecke “Tia Juana”. Eddie Condon and Jelly Roll Morton, among many others, also did versions of this one by Larry Conley and Gene Rodemich, but I’ve always liked Bix’s version with the Wolverines Orchestra best. There’s nothing even vaguely or stereotypically Mexican about it—no South of the Border romance, no “Spanish” strings or mentions of “Spanish lace”, no señoritas, no jails. It’s pure nostalgia for any place you need to dream about, which might just make it the best Tijuana song of all.