AROUND THE KITCHEN TABLE
By Donald Ward
Over the past few days a song has been going around in my mind in an interminable loop. The song is El Paso by Marty Robbins. I have particular memories of it because my father bought me the 45 when I was a seven-year-old and I listened to it endlessly on the little record player we children had.
I have been thinking of my father lately as I re-read a clutch of books by P.G. Wodehouse, who was my father’s favourite author. I inherited his collection of Wodehouse when he died, and my father’s signature is on the first page of each book. That’s the connection among my father, P. G. Wodehouse and Marty Robbins — tenuous, perhaps, but it’s been keeping me up nights, to the extent that I looked up the lyrics to El Paso on the Internet at three o’clock the other morning.
The song has all the drama of an opera, with hopeless love, death, a fleeing hero, and in the end the promise of redemption. It opens in the “West Texas town of El Paso,” where the narrator “fell in love with a Mexican girl.” Night-times, we are told, he spent in Rosa’s cantina, “where music would play and Felina would whirl.”
In the second verse whirling Felina is described as “wicked and evil,” but the narrator loves her nonetheless — enough to kill for her, which he accomplishes in due course. His victim is “a wild young cowboy” who comes into town one night and shares a drink with Felina. When the narrator “challenges his right for the love of this maiden” — an over-reaction, surely — the cowboy goes for his gun, which is of course the normal thing to do under the circumstances. The narrator is faster on the draw, however, and “in less than a heartbeat” the handsome young stranger lies dead on the floor.
Overcome with remorse for this “FOUL EVIL” deed that he’s done (the words are in upper case on the lyric sheet), the narrator decides that his only course is to flee. He runs outside, grabs a likely looking horse (adding horse theft to his sins) and rides away to the badlands of New Mexico. There he stays for an unspecified period, convinced that back in El Paso his life would be worthless: “Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.” Gradually he realizes that his love is stronger than his fear of death, so back he rides to El Paso. From a hill overlooking the town he can see Rosa’s cantina, and “down off the hill to Felina I go.”
Suddenly there are five mounted cowboys on his right and a dozen or more on his left. We are not told if they had been waiting for him ever since he fled, but that is the clear implication. Being cowboys, of course, they are heavily armed, and they open fire without provocation. One imagines a sort of pincer action as the two groups close in from either side. Our narrator continues, regardless: “Shouting and shooting I can’t let them catch me. I have to make it to Rosa’s back door.”
Inside Rosa’s, presumably, Felina is still whirling, unaware of the drama that is unfolding on her doorstep. The narrator is shot in the side, which seriously compromises his ability to ride a horse. His love is strong, however, and it is for love that he rises and continues.
As it turns out, his love is not as strong as the bullet that he soon finds embedded in his chest. But Felina — no longer wicked Felina but now a sort of ministering angel — goes to his side, where she kneels and cradles the narrator in her “two loving arms.” The song ends on a sombre note: “One little kiss and Felina, goodbye.”
We realize, at the end, that the whole song is being narrated from the grave — and by a grateful corpse. There is some sort of redemption in this. I don’t remember what I made of it when I was seven years old, but I do remember playing the record over and over, and I remember a special gratitude I felt for my father, for he wouldn’t normally have bought me a record if it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas.
As I said, my father has been much on my mind lately; if I have Marty Robbins or P. G. Wodehouse to thank for that, then so be it. It is no bad thing to remember a parent with gratitude.