In 1942, a 7-year-old boy was dragged by his parents to La Polkita, an open air venue in Del Valle that was basically a concrete slab outlined by a square of Christmas lights. He became transfixed on the accordion player whose flying fingers had the power to get the whole crowd dancing. The kid couldn’t believe the magic Camilo Cantu got out of that box!
Nicknamed “El Azote de Austin,” (“the Scourge from Austin,”) because he’d go to towns and blow everybody away, Cantu was as highly regarded a player as the Big Three 1930s conjunto pioneers- Narciso Martinez, Santiago Jimenez Sr. and Valerio Longoria. But because El Azote never put out a record, he didn’t become a legend. His influence lasted only as long as personal memories, but you can be sure nobody wanted to follow Cantu, who retired from performing in 1963 to concentrate on his accordion repair shop.
Johnny Degollado said his life was laid out for him that night in 1942. “I started begging my parents for an accordion on the drive home.”
Twelve years later, “El Montopolis Kid,” as Degollado was billed, was on the road with a conjunto group that hit the Texas towns where the populations doubled during picking season. At a quick-stop grocery in Littlefield, near Lubbock, Degollado noticed an attractive cashier. Her name was Antonia. They made clumsy small talk as he paid for his sodas, and he asked for her mailing address so he could send postcards from the road.
“Antonia,” Degollado kept repeating, as he walked back to the band’s station wagon. What a pretty name. He sent her not postcards, but a love letter and a long-distance romance blossomed. During the sixth year of courtship a wedding date was set.
But after a disagreement about how much time Degollado would spend out on the road, among other things, the 1960 nuptials were canceled and the couple broke up.
Once, in San Antonio in the ’70s, “Toni” heard a song on the radio called “El Pintor” about a young couple breaking up and regretting it later, and she thought about her Johnny. When the announcer said the song was by Johnny
Degollado, Toni almost fell over.
“I kept hoping to meet her again so I could say how sorry I was that things didn’t work out,” Degollado said. He got the chance in 1992, more than three decades after the split, when Toni showed up at one of his shows. “My daughter was coming through Austin on her way to San Antonio, where we lived, and she bought the Austin paper,” said Toni. “There was a big picture of Johnny, and I wondered if that was my Johnny, my first boyfriend Johnny.” After deciding that it was, the divorced mother of four and her sister Alicia decided to go to Austin, “just to see the show, nothing else. I figured that Johnny was married and I didn’t want to interfere,” said Toni.
Degollado had been married, twice, and was the father of six kids, but he was single in ’92. Against her sister’s wishes, Alicia approached Degollado and asked if he remembered an old girlfriend named Toni. His eyes lit up.
“Well, she’s sitting over there,” Alicia said. The couple talked for two hours that night and married a few months later. One of their first dances as husband and wife was to a Camilo Cantu song Degollado had recorded as his own. An 85-year-old Cantu looked on proudly. The song wasn’t stolen, it was a gift.
“Mr. Cantu told me that if I hadn’t recorded his songs, no one would ever know they existed. He just passed them on to me and said, ‘They’re your songs now.’”
Taking credit for songs you didn’t write didn’t sit well with conjunto historian and photographer Daniel Schaefer. “When J.D. recorded ‘La Lupita,’ one of Camilo Cantu’s greatest compositions, and I saw the name ‘Johnny Degollado’ listed as the writer, I went to J.D. and said, ‘That’s not right,’ ” said Schaefer. “But he said that’s the way the old man wanted it.”
The two had an almost father-son relationship, especially after Cantu took on Degollado as an apprentice in his accordion repairing and tuning practice. “He was as talented in repairing accordions as he was in playing them,” Degollado said.
Cantu didn’t care about recognition. When Cantu was inducted into the Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1987 at age 80, he sent Degollado to pick up the award.
One of the reasons Cantu stopped playing music and writing songs in his fifties was that the accolades were meaningless. He knew he’d lost a step from his prime, even if the audiences didn’t. The best way he felt that he could still contribute to the conjunto music he loved was in retuning accordions, by filing down the reeds. Customizing factory accordions comprised about 75% of Cantu’s business. All the top players in Texas came to his little shop on Normandie Avenue in South Austin.
At the funeral in 1998 (he was 90), friends fondly remembered Cantu’s last regular gig at Janie’s Place, owned by his first wife, on East Seventh St. in Austin. Cantu didn’t see the need to title his songs, which were all instrumentals. He’d start off with the melody and his bajo sexto player would fall in. But one night a drunk patron requested a certain tune by singing its melody and Cantu couldn’t take the butchering so he named it “La Calle Siete.” He started naming more of his songs- or Degollado did when he recorded them later.
Cantu’s broad repertoire ranged from traditional Mexican folk music to the Czech/German polkas, redovas and schottisches that Texans love to dance to.
Degollado still has his first squeezebox, a two-row button Hohner accordion his father paid $40 for in 1945. It sits in a display case in the backyard shed where Degollado works on accordions. “It was important to him to keep the craft alive,” said Degollado. “If there’s no one to fix the accordions, then people will stop playing them, and without the accordion, there’s no more conjunto.”
Known as “musica nortena” in Mexico, conjunto has thrived in the region from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon (where Cantu was born in 1907) to San Antonio since the 1930s when Hispanic button accordion players (inspired by polkas and brass band music of Czech and German immigrants) teamed with bajo sexto guitarists to create a new sound. Narciso Martinez, from the Rio Grande Valley, practically abandoned the left-hand chord and bass buttons and instead concentrated on flashy, cat-quick runs on the treble and melody buttons controlled by his right hand. With bajo sexto player Santiago Almeida holding down the bass lines on the landmark 1936 recordings for Bluebird, the Martinez style would be adopted by almost all conjunto accordionists, except the irascible Cantu, who continued to play the buttons on both sides of the accordion and scoffed at those who didn’t.
In 1947, Valerio Longoria of San Antonio added trap drums and vocals to this previously all-instrumental music, creating the precursor to contemporary Tejano music.
As a teenager who performed often on Austin’s KTXN radio, Degollado picked up the nickname “El Montopolis Kid,” after the East Austin neighborhood where he still lives. He also found a musical running buddy for life, bajo sexto player Vicente Alonzo, who anchored Degollado’s conjunto band for more than 50 years. During the 1950s heyday of conjunto, they’d play five or six nights a week.
But in the ’60s, conjunto started getting a bad rap as poor people’s music and was rivaled in popularity by a new, more sophisticated, accordion-free style called “orquesta” or “musica decente,” decent music. Such still-popular acts as Little Joe y la Familia and Ruben Ramos come from the orchestra tradition.
“There was definitely a division. Folks who liked the orchestras hated conjunto,” J.D. said. “And if you were a conjunto fan, you didn’t like the orchestras.” But when orchestras started playing and recording several Degollado compositions, including “Un Cielo” and “De Ti Estoy Enamorado,” his group was able to cross over somewhat. A prolific songwriter, J.D. has penned more than 100 songs in his career, not counting the ones Cantu taught him.
A recurring subject was his first love, the one he practically left at the altar to hit the conjunto circuit. “Even after we broke up in 1960, I kept writing songs about Toni,” J.D. says. “Whenever I’d write a sad song I’d think about how things didn’t work out. If I wanted a happy song, I’d think about us dancing together.”
Conjunto has long been known as “Mexican wedding music,” with love and tradition twirling together like young and old hearts that pump the same blood. Like the two-row button accordion and the 12-string bajo sexto that moved the smitten dancers and a 7-year-old kid who saw his life laid out for him among the Christmas lights.