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Judy Baca is a renowned visual artist known for her murals, including The Great Wall of Los Angeles – the world’s largest mural – which she began in 1976. Her musical choices reflect her work as a social activist, from Joan Baez and Marvin Gaye to Nina Simone. She also takes us back to her youth in Pacoima, when a boy in the neighborhood named Richie Valens was making waves.
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1. Ritchie Valens - Donna
2. Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam
3. Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
4. Joan Baez - De Colores
5. Lila Downs - Pastures of Plenty/This Land Is Your Land
Anthony Valadez: Hi I'm Anthony Valadez and I am here with Judy Baca, a visual artist best known for her large scale murals all across LA. Today we're going to talk about songs she selected that have inspired her over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Judy, how are you and what did you bring for us today?
Judy Baca: Oh, I'm fine thank you and this is great fun, a real diversion from my regular activities in the visual arts. I brought Richie Valens work. One of his classic pieces called "Donna".
Richie was the idol of our neighborhood in Pacoima and he used to perform at the Nights of Columbus Hall and he was like the coolest thing. He was the first rock and roll that I'd heard. People would wear their big hoop skirts and we would dance in our socks and I always thought, ‘what a great thing, to have somebody stand up there and dedicate a song to you’. I actually knew where Donna lived, in the valley, it was local news. It wasn't really something so far from us. So Richie Valens was our local idol.
Song: Richie Valens – Donna
AV: Tell me, was Richie Valens kind of like a hope for people of Pacoima? People of color, of "making it" in the neighborhood?
JB: Oh absolutely, because what he was doing with La Bamba and some of the music he was doing was "crossing over". He was taking the songs that we heard in our community, in the Latino community - and at that point the Mexicano community - and making it go across the airwaves on the radio and that was a big deal. It was a very big deal to hear an affirmation in music that was coming from a Chicano guy that grew up in the neighborhood.
AV: That was Richie Valens with his song "Donna". Judy, what's next?
JB: This is a song that has deeper significance. This is a song called "Mississippi God Damn" by Nina Simone. It became popular in about 1964 and of course it was right in the midst of the civil rights activities and the civil rights era in the United States and it would later become even more important to me because as I grew up, I met Gilbert Roland, who was a big fan of my large scale painting, and had seen my work on a Bill Moyers TV cast, and he called up and said that he wanted to meet me.
Gilbert became a great mentor and a wonderful friend and Nina was a great friend of his, so I got to go to a lot of Nina concerts. And I listened to Nina, in my more adult years, talk about what "Mississippi God Damn" meant to her and how it actually caused so much trouble in her life. Because she was bold enough to speak about the sort of absurdity and the difficulties of Mississippi and actually use an obscenity in the making of the song. So I am a great fan of Nina Simone's and she was a great friend and I think "Mississippi God Damn" is a classic.
Song: Nina Simone – Mississippi God Damn
AV: That was "Mississippi God Damn" by Nina Simone selected by Judy Baca, part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. So what's next for us?
JB: You know if you grew up through the 60's and 70's and your friends were being taken away to Vietnam, as mine were, my friends - as I graduated high school - were all of the age to be drafted and so we would come out of high school and our friends would be waiting for the rating when their number came up they'd be taken away. Of course they never came back the same and I think Marvin Gaye's song "What's Going On", which he published and came out in 1971, really captures the moment and the sentiments against the war in Vietnam and a kind of upheaval in the country in which there was a sense of kind of almost one mind of the young people - of people my age -against the war in Vietnam.
Song: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
AV: That was "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye. So what's next for us Judy?
JB: Well, you can follow up Marvin Gaye, who gave us so many wonderful songs at that time, with “De Colores”. And I picked this because I particularly love the Joan Baez rendition of it because it was a song that was the soundtrack to the marches that I participated in as a young graduate of a University and as an activist against the war in Vietnam and also in the Chicano moratorium. So many times it was the song that kind of brought people together and we swayed in crowds of thousands to this song "Des Colores".
It's a song that was a kind of a civil rights song and marching song. It was really the anthem, in some ways, of the farm workers as we began to realize that conditions in the fields of California had a relationship to the conditions in the inner city, where most of us came from and lived.
Song: Joan Baez – De Colores
AV: You know, it's a very colorful song and I have to ask you this cliché question -- when you paint is this something you might listen to? Might this be inspirational in terms of creating?
JB: Yes, of course, and it's like a soundtrack to activism for me. It was like really connecting with the farm workers and that was a coalescing moment within the civil rights movement. The conditions of the people who worked in the field and almost everyone -- my mother, my uncles, everyone we knew -- had worked in the fields at some point. But I think also blues has always been a track for me. Just the boleros, the beautiful Latino music and also Blues will be what you'll hear in my studio when I'm making a new artwork. It's what fuels the movement of the brush and syncopates the rhythm of the strokes while I am painting.
AV: That was "De Colores" by Joan Baez. Judy, what's the last song you have for us.
JB: Well I have to bring us up to the contemporary times with a Lila Downs piece. Lila Downs’ Border album released in 2001 is a magnificent album, and I think her work captures the spirit of my work on the Great Wall of Los Angeles. And the piece is called "This is Your Land" and particularly when you hear her belt out "When did you come to America" that is clearly something I am thinking about when I am on the Great Wall painting.
AV: You mention the first line of that song hits with a punch. When you paint, do you always want to hit with a punch the minute that you touch that canvas with that brush?
JB: Oh no, sometimes it's kind of much more of a sweet, light touch that moves more powerfully as you get more confident. You know, it isn't always that you can make the boldest mark first. But in mural painting, it does take the entire body and the entire movement of an arm. The thing about Lila's song is that she takes an old song, remakes it, and makes it relate to the border, relate to the time of people coming as immigrants. It's such a perfect song, not only in 2001, but actually today, in 2012.
AV: Judy, thank you so much for joining us on KCRW.com
JB: Oh, thank you for having me. This was great fun.
AV: For a complete track listing and to find these songs on line, go to KCRW.COM/GUESTDJPROJECT and subscribe to the podcast through i-tunes.