Pete Seeger’s version of the Cuban song “Guantanamera” was released on his album “We Shall Overcome,” recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1963, in the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Seeger later urged American audiences to “to sing “Guantanamera” in the original Spanish and not in translation “to hasten the day” that “the U.S.A. . . .is some sort of bilingual country.”
The prescient and passionate folk singer, who died Monday (Jan. 27) at age 94, was also a crossover pioneer. “Guajira Guantanamera” started in 1932 as an ode to a hot and haughty girl written by Cuban singer/songwriter Joseíto Fernandez. The song would became a patriotic Cuban anthem after Julián Orbón adapted stanzas from “Versos Sencillos” by the Cuban poet, intellectual and independence hero José Martí as lyrics for the song.
Seeger, who later noted that Martí was living in exile in New York State when he wrote the poems, first heard the song in 1961 at a children’s camp in the Catskills, where Cuban musician Hector Angulo was working as a counselor. Seeger later recalled that he didn’t speak any Spanish, but “But I said I’ve got to try and learn it.”
After Seeger began to perform it, urging audiences to sing along, “Guantamera” introduced some Americans to Spanish, and it became an anthem for immigrants, Cuban or otherwise.
“It’s one of my favorite songs in the entire world,” Seeger told an audience at Wolftrap in 1993, when, as on many occasions later in his life, he sang the song with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. “I’ve sung it in 35 countries of this world.”
Seeger died on the eve of the 161st anniversary of the birth of Jose Martí, whose verses praising nature and extolling solidarity with the campesino he so loved.
In homage to the great singer and activist, we’ve put together a list of versions of the song by artists including Jose Feliciano, Los Lobos, Celia Cruz and Pitbull, and performances by Seeger himself captured on video.
As Seeger liked to say, “join in on the refrain.”
Pete Seeger | The studio audience sings the chorus of “Guantanamera” along with Seeger during an undated television performance.
The Sandpipers | The vocal quartet The Sandpipers had a hit with their recording of “Guantanamera,” which came after it was introduced in the United States by Seeger. The track spent five weeks in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966, peaking at no. 9.
Celia Cruz & The Fania All Stars | The Cuban salsa queen often performed “Guantanamera” after she moved to New York. Here she delivers a smoking version during a concert with the Fania All Stars in Zaire.
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Los Lobos | The band from East L.A. included an acoustic version on their 1987 breakthrough album “By the Light of the Moon.”
Jose Feliciano | The bilingual trailblazer has made his rocking versionof “Guantanamera” a standard in his repertoire. “There are other things in Cuba besides cigars,” he says in this live performance, where he shows off his guitar chops and improvises avocal riff.
Wyclef Jean | Wyclef brought the song into the hip-hop era with his Refugee Allstars on his 1997 album “The Carnival.” The track features Celia Cruz and Lauryn Hill.
Julio Iglesias | Julio adds some vibrato, synthesizers and “yeah,yeah, yeahs” to this loungey version of the song.
Gloria Estefan | The Cuban American icon touched on her own story whilesinging the song to troops at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in 1995.
Pitbull | Pit gets his Cuban on with the mamis in this video mix set to his dance version of the song.
Pete Seeger and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger | Seeger talks about “Guantanamera” and gives the audience a Spanish lesson as he sings the song with his Spanish-speaking grandson at Wolf Trap in 1993.