The story of Sixto Rodriguez is the most incredible, unlikely, and moving rock & roll fairy tale of all time. You’ve probably already heard it, but in case you don’t, here’s the bullet point version:
- Working-class guy from Detroit writes some songs in the early 70s.
- Gets signed to a label, releases two records.
- They sell terribly. Record label folds in 1975. Career over.
- Years pass. His two records become incredibly popular in South Africa.
- He has no idea, because someone else is collecting his royalties.
- His songs become anthems for the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s and 90s.
- He becomes a legend in South Africa, literally more popular than Elvis. He has no idea.
- They assume he’s dead; rumours circulate he killed himself years earlier.
- After the fall of apartheid, a few devoted fans aim to search him out.
- They find him, still working manual labour in Detroit.
- He goes to South Africa and plays in front of thousands of delirious fans who thought he had been dead for decades.
To hear this story told more eloquently than can be done in bullet points, I highly recommend the 2012 Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching For Sugar Man”, which finally earned Rodriguez a bit of recognition in his homeland.
The best part is that it’s not just a nice story; Rodriguez is a really good songwriter. His political protest folk ballads are as good as any that were popular in the late 60s and early 70s. Perhaps better.
This song, a two-in-one type of song that showcases both the instrumental and vocal sides of Rodriguez, is probably my favourite, and serves as a good introduction for those who aren’t familiar with his music.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. The opening guitar. They use this little lick several times in the movie. Pure plinky sunshiney goodness.
2. The string section. It really helps the song blossom in the chorus. The ascending scale at 3:31 really reminds me of the “oh no, not me” part at 0:46 of “The Man Who Sold The World”.
3. Rodriguez himself. He’s incredibly Zen for a guy who writes protest songs, and I feel like it comes across in his voice. Unsurprisingly, his recent fame hasn’t changed him. He lives in the same Detroit apartment he’s always lived in. Money from his recent tours goes mostly to his daughters. And although he was cheated out of years of royalties, he never instigated any lawsuits. When asked on CNN if he felt hatred towards those who had gotten rich off him, he said, “hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on people you don’t like.”
Recommended listening activity:
Letting go of a helium-filled balloon and watching it float away.