Continuing my series on “learning history through songs” I just knew I had to include this “series” of songs by one of my favorite songwriters/balladeers, the incomparable Marty Robbins. This isn’t specific history, but these songs give us an idea of how life was for this particular gunfighter, then for his love, Feleena, and then how a modern-day man feels such a connection to it all. I love that there is “history” as we think of it, and then the modern-day connection to it all to “complete the circle.”
How many songs do you know that had sequels to them? Remember “back in the day” when recording artists would sometimes “answer” a song with one of their own? Well, if you love Marty Robbins like I do, you’ll know that his song El Paso had not only one sequel, but two, and he was working on a third sequel when he died in 1982! I think that’s a “record” for musical sequels, don’t you? I love ballads, or story-songs, and to find out that there were sequels to my all-time favorite one was pure pleasure!
El Paso was written and originally recorded by Marty Robbins, and was released in September 1959 (I was two years old at the time, but Marty was my man from the minute I heard this song!) Though it was originally released on the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, within a month it was released as a single and immediately became a hit on both the country and pop music charts, reaching NUMBER 1 IN BOTH at the start of 1960! But that wasn’t the end of it at all—it also won the Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961, and with good reason. It still remains Robbins’ best-known song, all these years later.
Wikipedia states: It is widely considered a genre classic for its gripping narrative which ends in the death of its protagonist, its shift from past to present tense, haunting harmonies by vocalists Bobby Sykes and Jim Glaser (of the Glaser Brothers) and the eloquent and varied Spanish guitar accompaniment by Grady Martin that lends the recording a distinctive Tex-Mex feel. The name of the character Feleena was based upon a schoolmate of Robbins in the fifth grade; Fidelina Martinez.
The storyline is this: The song is a first-person narrative told by a cowboy in El Paso, Texas, in the days of the Wild West. The singer recalls how he frequented “Rosa’s Cantina”, where he became smitten with a young Mexican dancer named Feleena. When the singer notices another cowboy sharing a drink with “wicked Feleena”, out of jealousy he challenges the newcomer to a gunfight. The singer kills the newcomer, then flees El Paso for fear of being hanged for murder or killed in revenge by his victim’s friends. In the act of escaping, the singer commits the additional and potentially hanging offense of horse theft (“I caught a good one, it looked like it could run”), further sealing his fate in El Paso. Departing the town, the singer hides out in the “badlands of New Mexico.”
The song then fast-forwards to an undisclosed time later – the lyrics at this point change from past to present tense – when the singer describes the yearning for Feleena that drives him to return, without regard for his own life, to El Paso. He states that his “love is stronger than [his] fear of death.” Upon arriving, the singer races for the cantina, but is chased and fatally wounded by a posse. At the end of the song, the singer recounts how Feleena has come to his side and he dies in her arms after “one little kiss”.
Robbins wrote two songs that are explicit sequels to “El Paso”, one in 1966, one in 1976. Robbins intended to do one more sequel, “The Mystery of Old El Paso”, but he died in late 1982 before he could finish the final song.
Feleena (From El Paso) (FIRST SEQUEL TO EL PASO)
In 1966, Robbins recorded “Feleena (From El Paso)”, telling the life story of Feleena, the “Mexican girl” from “El Paso”, in a third-person narrative. This track was over eight minutes long, but what a story it tells!
Born in a desert shack in New Mexico during a thunderstorm, Feleena runs away from home at 17, living off her charms for a year in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before moving to the brighter lights of El Paso to become a paid dancer. After another year, the narrator of “El Paso” arrives, the first man she did not have contempt for. He spends six weeks romancing her and then, in a retelling of the key moment in the original song, beset by “insane jealousy”, he shoots another man with whom she was flirting.
Her lover’s return to El Paso comes only a day after his flight (the original song suggests a longer time frame before his return) and as she goes to run to him, the cowboy motions to her to stay out of the line of fire and is shot; immediately after his dying kiss, Feleena shoots herself with his gun. Their ghosts are heard to this day in the wind blowing around El Paso: “It’s only the young cowboy showing Feleena the town”.
El Paso City (SECOND SEQUEL TO EL PASO)
In 1976 Robbins released another reworking, “El Paso City”, in which the present-day singer is a passenger on a flight over El Paso, which reminds him of a song he had heard “long ago”, proceeding to summarize the original “El Paso” story. “I don’t recall who sang the song,” he sings, but he feels a supernatural connection to the story: “Could it be that I could be the cowboy in this mystery…,” he asks, suggesting a past life. This song reached No. 1 on the country charts. The arrangement includes riffs and themes from the previous two El Paso songs. Robbins wrote it while flying over El Paso in, he reported, the same amount of time it takes to sing–four minutes and 14 seconds. It was only the second time that ever happened to him; the first time was when he composed the original “El Paso” as fast as he could write it down.
Though there have been many cover versions of the original “El Paso” song, Marty Robbins put out more than one version of it, himself. There have actually been three versions of Robbins’ original recording of “El Paso”: the original full-length version, the edited version, and the abbreviated version, which is an alternate take in stereo that can be found on the Gunfighter Ballads album. The original version, released on a 45 single record, is in mono and is around 4 minutes and 38 seconds in duration, far longer than most contemporary singles at the time, especially in the country genre. Robbins’ longtime record company, Columbia Records, was unsure whether radio stations would play such a long song, so it released two versions of the song on a promo 45—the full-length version on one side, and an edited version on the other which was nearer to the three-minute mark. This version omitted a verse describing the cowboy’s remorse over the “foul evil deed [he] had done” before his flight from El Paso. The record-buying public, as well as most disc jockeys, overwhelmingly preferred the full-length version.
I can’t tell you how many times I played my 45 record of El Paso on my little portable record player as a little girl. As a country and western song, this has to qualify as my all-time favorite, and my husband even managed to record and adapt the ringtone for me on my iPhone, so when my phone rings it plays the opening words to EL PASO. This has been a huge embarrassment for my kids when they were teens and had to be with me in public, but also was a source of amazement for them when other people actually smiled and said, “Hey! Marty Robbins!
Now THAT recognition is the mark of endurance—a song that is still beloved by so many after over sixty years!
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What’s your favorite classic country & western song? Is there a sequel to it?