EL PASO BY MARTY ROBBINS–LEARNING HISTORY THROUGH SONGS #4 (AND A GIVEAWAY!) by Cheryl Pierson

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”.

 

https://youtu.be/ryzIX09s2o4

 

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!

A picture of “retro” Rosa’s Cantina that hangs in my breakfast nook.

 

I’m offering a free copy of The Devil and Miss Julia Jackson to one lucky commenter today (USA only)–so don’t forget to leave a comment and your contact info!

What’s your favorite classic country & western song? Is there a sequel to it?

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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
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53 thoughts on “EL PASO BY MARTY ROBBINS–LEARNING HISTORY THROUGH SONGS #4 (AND A GIVEAWAY!) by Cheryl Pierson”

    • Laura, i didn’t know about Feleena until my dad told me about it several years ago. I was in my 50’s! LOL Anyhow, It’s very different and explains a lot about their relationship. El Paso (and the sequels) are all just such masterpieces. Songwriting, IMO, is the very hardest form of writing, and Marty did a great job with his talents! I’m enjoying this series. Got a really cool one for next time I’m working on, too! Glad you are loving them.

    • Debra, I can’t think of a Marty Robbins song I DON’T like! LOL Probably because his music is one of my earliest childhood memories, so his voice is always a comfort to me.

  1. My favorite country song is Hello Darlin by Conway Twitty. Favorite Marty Robbins song is White Sports Coat. I only listen to Country.

  2. I love all 3 of these songs by Marty, they definitely tell a story which most of today’s songs do not.
    I loved Pancho & Lefty by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. That told a great story too. I was very fortunate to see both of these men in concert.
    LYRICS
    Living on the road my friend
    Was gonna keep you free and clean
    Now you wear your skin like iron
    Your breath as hard as kerosene
    You weren’t your momma’s only boy
    But her favorite one it seems
    She began to cry when you said goodbye
    And sank into your dreams
    Pancho was a bandit boy
    His horse was fast as polished steel
    He wore his gun outside his pants
    For all the honest world to feel
    Pancho met his match you know
    On the deserts down in Mexico
    Nobody heard his dying words
    But that’s the way it goes
    All the Federales say
    They could’ve had him any day
    They only let him slip away
    Out of kindness I suppose
    Lefty, he can’t sing the blues
    All night long like he used to
    The dust that Pancho bit down south
    Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
    The day they laid poor Pancho low
    Lefty split for Ohio
    Where he got the bread to go
    There ain’t nobody knows
    All the Federales say
    They could’ve had him any day
    We only let him slip away
    Out of kindness I suppose
    The poets tell how old Pancho fell
    And Lefty’s living in cheap hotels
    The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold
    And so the story ends, we’re told
    Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true
    But save a few for Lefty too
    He only did what he had to do
    And now he’s growing old
    All the Federales say
    They could’ve had him any day
    They only let him go so long
    Out of kindness I suppose
    A few gray Federales say
    They could’ve had him any day
    They only let him go so long
    Out of kindness I suppose

  3. My family played Marty Robbins. Did not know about this series they sounds amazing. Have a blessed day.

    • Hi Kristi! I listened to a ton of Marty Robbins songs through the years and I still love them all. When you consider his range vocally, his skill in singing, and his talented song writing, it’s not surprising he had so many wonderful hits in more than one genre.

  4. I love how story-driven many of the classic western songs are. One of my favorites is Ghost Riders in the Sky with Johnny Cash.

    • Hi Jess, I love Ghost Riders, too. I had a little 45 rpm record of that one, too, and played it over and over again. I remember being scared to death but loved it so much I’d put it right back on and play it again. My version wasn’t Johnny Cash, though, it was the original (I’m old) with Stan Jones and his Death Valley Rangers…even the name of the group was scary! LOL

  5. I love Marty Robbins! A couple of songs that were good that had answers were Wild Side of Life and It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, Giddy-up and Giddy-up Go Answer. Also, Teddy Bear and Little Joe, both by Red Sovine.

  6. I love Marty Robins he was a wonderful story teller. One of my favorites is The Streets Of Laredo. I also love El Paso, we use to listen to his albums many years ago. My older sister was also a big fan. Another good story teller is Willie Nelson which I am very fond of. They don’t make country music like that anymore. It is just now the same now.

  7. I also grew up listening to that song a million times over, as it was the one vinyl record my dad ever bought and layed, again and again. Amazing harmonies and guitar
    .

    • YES! My dad loved that song too, so he was (I am sure) secretly glad I loved it as much and he could listen to it to his heart’s content because I played it so many times! It truly is amazing!

    • Emma, I hope you enjoy all three of the links I provided above, although the 2nd one didn’t show the pictures as I’d hoped, it will still take you to YOUTUBE where you can see the video with the song!

  8. I remember my mother listening to Marty Robbins growing up. Heard this song many times!

    My favorite country music singer is Alan Jackson.

  9. There are too many really good country songs for me to have ONE all time favorite. I do like Marty Robbins and Johnny Horton. I also like the Tom T. Hall story songs especially “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine”.

    • Alice, my hubby loves that song by Tom T. Hall. I do, too. Another fave of mine was Mr. Bojangles–but I love the version by Jim Stafford. It’s extra special.

  10. I love that Marty Robbins song! I also always enjoyed Johnny Hortons songs too. That and the Red Baron song. I love story songs so much.

  11. Oh my gosh, I loved this man! He had one of the most amazing voices and his songs have endured all these years. I still listen to him quite often on YouTube. Love your post, Cheryl. It takes me back.

  12. I Love Marty Robbin’s songs as I grew up with that same music Also Conway Twitty It’s Only Make Believe ! And George Jones I could go on and on! Thank You for this amazing Post Today Sarahbaby601973(at)gmail(dot) com

  13. I grew up on “the oldies” including Marty Robbins. I love this type of music and yes even like Marty Robbin’s music/songs. I like Tennessee Earnie Ford too. There’s something about a good country/western song
    I do hope I Win
    Thanks for this amazing post
    Name: Crystal Stewart
    Email: don(dot)stewart(at)zoominternet(dot)net

  14. I first heard Marty Robbins at my aunt and uncles house. This was a favorite song of theirs. I ended up with their copy of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs featured above. I fell in love with The Sons Of The Pioneers way back when Roy Rogers was still a member. I bought their Cool Water album when I was in college and still have it. Ghost Riders In The Sky is my favorite and the reason I bought the record. I really like Cool Water, Twilight On The Trail, and many of the other songs they recorded.
    Hope you are able to stay cool. Take care.

    • I remember hearing El Paso when I was soooo young. Don’t remember the first time I heard it, but just seemed like it has always been with me, and that’s why I love his voice so much. I love Cool Water. There is nothing like those kinds of harmonies!

  15. I like ‘Woman, Amen’ and ‘Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue.’ I don’t think either have sequels.

    • I like those, too, Minette. There are so many great country songs out there. I’m so glad we have those to go back and listen to whenever we want to hear them.

  16. Wow, I am not sure that I can narrow it down to one. I grew up listening to Marty Robbins so this post was such a treat. I would say I can narrow it down to two songs, Take Me Home Country Roads and Coal Miners Daughter. Thank you for the opportunity.

    • Debbie, Take Me Home Country Roads was popular the year my dad got transferred from where I’d lived most of my life in Seminole, OK, to WEST VIRGINIA! Talk about a change for me! It was the summer before my senior year in high school. I thought life had ended. But, that song got me through it in a lot of ways because I loved John Denver so much and I loved singing the harmony in that song (I was determined to be in a band!) and so I tried to concentrate on the good. I have always loved that song–it helped me through some rough teen-age angst! LOL! And of course, Coal Miner’s Daughter is such a classic, too!

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