Out in the West Texas town of El Paso / I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Apparently Marty Robbins (born Martin Robinson on September 26, 1925) had a career singing a variety of songs—including early rock’n’roll and pop romance songs. And he later became “a NASCAR legend.” But in our house he was always and only the singer of—to borrow the title of his defining album—Gunslinger Ballads and Trail Songs (released the year I was born, it was in the house as long as I can remember).
Robbins was our favorite as kids because his songs told stories and had, as in today’s song, a cinematic grasp of how to present a story of rollicking romance and death and derring-do, with “point of view” shots and narration and action. When Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy wrote “Romance in Durango,” Dylan’s Western movie track on Desire (1976), Robbins was the figure in the background, who showed how it’s done. And it doesn’t hurt that the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir took to singing and playing “El Paso” as one of the lonesome outlaw songs he was fond of performing.
“El Paso,” released as a single in 1960, also shares its do-and-die situation with a song Dylan recorded a number of times: “Spanish is the Loving Tongue.” There, in a song based on a poem of 1907 by Charles Badger Clark, a white man falls in love with a Mexican girl and eventually has to desert her because “I can’t cross the line, I know” because (as sung in Dylan’s best version) “they want me for a gamblin’ fight.” In Robbins’ “El Paso” we see the killing—and it’s due to jealousy of a man drinking with Filena, our hero’s love—“wicked Filena,” in that instant. “Dashing and daring / A drink he was sharing / With wicked Filena / The girl that I loved.” Always a fun part to sing along with.
It’s a story of how a moment of jealousy flares into murder—as tends to happen when unchecked firearms are easily available—though we’ve no reason to believe Felina is actually unfaithful.
No matter. The killing occurs instantaneously and our hero, “shocked by the foul, evil deed I had done,” flies—“Out through the backdoor of Rosa’s I ran / Out where the horses were tied / I picked a good one / It looked like it could run / Up on its back and away I did ride.” Then, unlike the situation of the pining lover in “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” our hero returns to the scene of the crime—because he can’t stay away from Filena: “my love is stronger than my fear of death.” And of course that spells his death. “Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me / Tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart.”
Then we get that great “you are there” as the scene unfolds: “So at last here I am on a hill overlooking El Paso / I can see Rosa’s Cantina below.” Then comes the suspenseful chase: “Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys / Off to my left ride a dozen or more.” And forget about the logic that says, if the guy is narrating, he must’ve lived to tell the tale. No such luck.
In fact, the narration of this cowboy’s moments of death become the burden of the final third of the song, and it’s potent stuff: “Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel / A deep burning pain in my side”—and the melody here—with its higher register more drawn-out for drama—is the same as the “Out where the horses are tied” part, so that there’s a parallel between the burst for freedom after the killing, and the inevitable justice of this moment. “I’m getting weary, unable to ride” (but not unable to sing!).
“I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle / I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.” There you have it, a POV shooting with the speaker as victim. If you’re a Western film-buff (and Westerns were a constant in my family’s house) then you’ve gotta love this song. And that breezy, easy Tex-Mex melody certainly helps.
And of course it has to end with a screen-kiss: “From out of nowhere Filena has found me / Kisses my cheek as she kneels by my side / Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for / One little kiss and, Filena, good-bye.” A little moment of one-ness with the woman whose eyes—“dark as the night”—were “wicked and evil while casting a spell.” I guess one does tend to demonize a person who draws one to one’s death.
Who was that foolish man? He was Marty, the Singing Cowboy, able to narrate his fall and his final kiss with his dying breath, so that song closes with his last words. Pretty damn good, especially with Marty's strong, mellifluous voice.
You can’t feel too sorry for him—as a hero, he’s rather driven by gusts of emotion—but anyone that lucid about all his doings has to get our interest: “Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there,” he says, after the shooting, and it's easy to imagine him standing there like a slapped ass looking down at the dead body of the “handsome young stranger.” The Western songs Robbins recorded (he didn’t write them all, though he did write this one) had a lot to do, like Western films and tales, with the paired gunslingers—one good, one bad—who meet in a showdown. In one, “Tall, Handsome Stranger,” the outlaw killed is revealed to be the brother of the sheriff doing the killing. Lots of fate in those old Western tales.
Everything’s gone in life, nothing is left.