Songwriter and singer Marty Robbins, a native of Arizona and one of ten children, grew up listening to his maternal grandfather tell stories of the west. (1) This obviously had a profound impact, which can be heard on the, 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and the track El Paso.
In what writer James Miller calls "the last great cowboy ballad" (2), Marty Robbins sings of love, a wicked woman, obsession, vengeance and western justice. Released in 1959, El Paso is a mini-movie set to music, an "essentially aural version of cowboy b-movies that were so popular at the time." (3) It's a tribute to an American west, not of fact, but of Hollywood dreams.
The west presented to us in El Paso is "a dangerous place of large passions and empty violence, where death and eros an intertwined." (4) Moral ambiguity does not exist here. Laws of conduct are set in stone, and those that break those laws are punished.
Light! Camera! Action!
The narrator "[falls] in love with a Mexican girl" (5) by the name of Felina (or Feleena), and spends the night in the local cantina watching this beautiful girl with "eyes blacker than night"(6) dance. We've seen her before, the wicked woman "casting [her] spell"(7), and rendering men powerless. In other songs, such as She's Making Whoopie in Hell, her "spell" is so powerful that the decision is made to kill her in order to break it. But in El Paso, she prompts a man to murder for the love of her.
The "hero" of our story, discovers his love, his obsession, drinking with a "wild young cowboy" (8). Overcome with anger and jealousy he challenges the man to a showdown:
My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat
the handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor (9)
Unlike so many songs, the killer is no nihilistic psychopath, for right after the killing he's shocked by his "foul evil deed" (10) . Remorse doesn't stop him from stealing a horse and galloping off into the desert. No judge's gavel need fall for him to know his fate if he stays: his sentence is death.
Yet his love for Felina overwhelms him. The desert, for all it's dangers is nothing compared to missing her. Seeing her again is worth dying for, and he knows that he will die. Women are dangerous creatures, men will not only kill for them, but against all reason, they will die for them. So still in the grips of her spell, the killer rides back to El Paso
When he gets there, he finds a posse of cowboys waiting for him, dashing any hopes the listener may have had for earthly redemption. It was a foolish hope: a crime of passion or not, El Paso is still "the staunch tale of a man who kills another and must return to the scene of the crime to take his punishment" (11). This is the west, and justice must prevail:
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest (12)
Yet death is worth it, because, before he leaves this world, he winds up in sweet Felina's arms.
One little kiss and Felina
A man's dying wish is granted, and the law of the gun still stands. Everything fades to black and the credits roll.
2. Miller, James. "El Paso", The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in The American Ballad. ed Marcus, Griel. Wilentz, Sean. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company 2006)
3. Thomson, Graeme. I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure as Related in Popular Song. (New York: Continuum, 2008)
4. Miller, James. "El Paso" The Rose and the Briar
5. Marty Robbins, "El Paso", Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, 1959.
11. Thomson, Graeme. I Shot a Man in Reno
12. Marty Robbins, "El Paso".