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by Alice Corbin Henderson

Alice Corbin Henderson, a Santa Fe poet and writer, describes the origins of alabados, traditional hymns sung in Spanish by northern New Mexicans since the 17th century. A traditional alabado, “Good-by to this World,” follows.

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“These shrill songs of religious fervor suddenly lifted above the bare desert have the effect of poising the single soul against space.”

Parts of the Penitente ritual have an ancestry of great age. This is particularly true of the alabados, or hymns, patiently written down in small copybooks or transmitted by memory. In verse forms these alabados have the earmarks of Fifteenth- or Sixteenth-Century Spain. The music to which these hymns are Night Procession of the Penitentes“Night Procession of the Penitentes,” William Penhallow Henderson (Artist) sung is somewhat reminiscent of Gregorian chants, but often with wilder, more primitive strain, particularly in the case of songs by an individual penitient, which suddenly startle the listener with the piercing note of the saeta, “arrow-song” of Seville—undoubtedly of Moorish origin. These shrill songs of religious fervor suddenly lifted above the bare desert have the effect of poising the single soul against space. The longer hymns, with an interminable number of verses, are sung in what purports to be unison, but with the unevenness of the march over rough ground, the interrupting thud of the whips, and especially the high notes of the pito [whistle] which has no harmonic relation to the pitch of the voices, the general effect is that of a curious harmonic dissonance. This peculiar quality of the music is so moving that, once having heard it, one willingly makes a pilgrimage any, or every, year to hear it.

The words of the songs are very beautiful in the Spanish originals. Essentially mystic in spirit, they have a direct simplicity, an “earthy” concreteness of expression similar to that of Seventeenth-Century metaphysical poets. One of the alabados in a small copybook in my possession is a funeral hymn sung as the body is being carried to the Campo Santo. It is the dead man who speaks and says good-by to the world he is leaving. The song is typically Spanish in its stoic acceptance of life and death, and in its mixture of the homely and the Divine. Other alabados are long narratives of the whole story of Christ’s life and death; shorter ones in praise of the Virgin; and many, of course, apply directly to the discipline of penance as a means of salvation or purification of the heart.


Good-by, all this company,
Who have been here at my wake,
The hour and time have come
When you must take me out.

Good-by, my loving parents,
Who conserved my life,
The hour and time have come
For me to take my parting.

Good-by, my dear children,
And my wife, much beloved,
Good-by, all this company,
Now I go to the other life.

Good-by, all my kindred,
Good-by, my sweet morada,
Good-by, all my companions,
Now I go on the Journey.

Good-by, all this company,
My last hour has arrived;
Accompany me to my interment,
Which is my true house.

What a wearisome journey,
And such a hard road!
Now I am going to another life,
As my God has determined.

My strength has all left me,
And my mind has left me;
Now I leave all the pleasures
Of this world so confusing.

Accompany me to the sepulcher;
From me my soul has separated
And is going to confess its sins,
Surrounded by angels.

Good-by, all this company,
I am going to the Campo Santo,
And with me all my kindred,
Who weep bitter tears.

Now I separate from all,
And from the world in general,
Until we meet in glory
In the universal justice.

It is possible the God of my soul
May look in on me
Inside the sepulcher
Where my bed will be.

The sepulcher is my bed,
The earth my proper seat;
And souls are frightened
When they consider themselves inside.

Now I am going to the church
Preceded by prayer,
And by all my kindred
Whose hearts are broken.

What one cannot see,
When he stops to consider,
That this bitter step,
All have got to take!

This life is a riddle,
And it keeps us in a dream,
And we invent amusements
In order to support the pain.

From the earth I was made,
And the earth shall eat me,
The earth has sustained me,
And at last earth I shall be also.

God made me by the power
Of His Divine Spirit;
And I trust in His Goodness
He will guide me by a good road.

Good-by, all this company,
All has been completed;
Put me in the sepulcher
In the earth of forgetfulness.

Of nothing I was formed,
By the hands of the Creator,
And in the universal justice
He will be my defender.

To God I kneel humbly,
Of my faults repented;
He will forgive me
For the wrong way I have served Him.

In God I await to repose,
In God I await consolation,
Trusting in His tremendous justice
He will open Heaven's gate.

I am of my Jesus the brother,
I belong to Jesus and always will,
Because I yield gladly,
And to Jesus I surrender.

Good-by for the last time,
Those who see me on this earth,
Place me in the sepulcher
Which is truly my house.

Good-by, all those present,
All who accompany me,
Pray a sudario
In order to overtake me.

Good-by, all my neighbors,
All, all in general,
Commend my soul to God,
And do not forget me.