Chilean singer and guitarist Violeta Parra (Oct. 4, 1917- Feb. 5, 1967) was a politically-minded performer dedicated to discovering and preserving her country’s fading roots music traditions.
Parra spent much of her career interviewing and recording aging musicians who had fled rural areas for the shantytowns of Santiago due to economic and political change. In the process, she preserved songs and memories that otherwise might have been lost forever.
Her efforts helped spearhead Nueva Cancion (“new song”), Chile’s own politically-charged folk revival later carried on by Parra’s son Angel and daughter Isabel. Her original and preserved songs reached a wider audience through the “Canta Violeta Parra” radio program that ran from 1953-1954 on a leftist radio station, offering culturally-rich programming on a medium then-dominated by escapist entertainment. She also helped keep folk traditions alive on the home front by running La Peña de los Parra, a performance space and community center that served a similar purpose as modern D.I.Y. performance and art spaces.
Among Parra’s best-known compositions is “Gracias a la Vida” from her 1966 album Las Ultimas Composiciones De Violeta Parra (RCA Victor). It’s one of the most covered Latin American songs of the past 50 years and was the title track for Joan Baez’s 1974 Spanish language album. Like many of her global folk music peers, Parra compiled a diverse catalog that blended heartfelt love songs (“Volver a los 17”) with socio-political allegories (“La Jardinera”).
In addition to her music, Parra was a multi-talented visual artist, creating paintings, sculptures, and tapestries inspired by Chilean folk traditions. In 1964, she became the first Latin American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Louvre. Yet it’s her dedication to preserving musical traditions swept aside by modernization that makes Parra a giant among 20th century folklorists and songwriters.
In 2014, Museo Violeta Parra was founded by the artist’s children Angel and Isabel Parra, in Santiago, Chile in order to preserve and share her work and legacy. More information can be found here.