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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Print the Legend - La Muerte de Fred Gomez Carrasco

"Nothing less than a re-interpertation of one of the great Greek myths."* ~ Bob Dylan on La Muerte de Fred Gomez Carrasco

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."  Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Our Host: I told Steve Earle the subject of this week's show. He put down his coffee cup and said, "I gotta tell you something 'bout a guy named Fred Gomez Carrasco. He took people hostage at the Huntsville Prison in Texas. It ended in a bloody massacre."

Actually, let me let Steve tell you about it.

Steve Earle: Well Bob, I do have a favorite robber or desperado by the name of Fred Gomez Carrasco, and there are a 150 corridos that I know of like 10 of which were released on the day that he was killed, which was like in 1969 or '70. He broke out of Huntsville Prison in Texas with three other guys. They made a huge Trojan Horse out of cafeteria tables. And they negotiated for hours. Big stand-off. And they tried to roll the thing out and to get into a van that was waiting for them. The Texas Rangers knocked it down with fire hoses and killed him and all of the hostages.


The next day there were like three different corridos already on the air in San Antonio when I was growing up.

Our Host: Steve sent me this song all about Fred Gomez Carrasco. A one act sacramental drama, the song. Nothing less than a re-interpertation of one of the great Greek myths.
"La Muerte de Fred Gomez Carrasco" 
El sabado 3 de agosto
del año 74
en la prision del estado
mataron a Fred Carrasco
lo acribillaron a tiros
en compañia de otros 4

On a Saturday, August 3rd
in the year `74
at the State Prison
they killed Fred Carrasco.
Riddled him with bullets
in the company of four others.
The first impulse is to write that the loathsome Fred Carrasco was an unlikely hero to be featured in any ballad, but that's coming from an Anglo, middle-aged perspective of the ought-years, and God knows, middle-aged Anglos of any year have enough of their own unlikely heroes of song, including Pretty Boy Floyd and Jesse James among others. Not a coincidence that Mr. D. also featured both of those desperados on the Cops & Robbers show, nor his notation that La Muerte de Fred Gomez Carrasco was a one act sacramental drama - not something meant as truth.  Meant for legend, as were Poor Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd

On the hot barrio streets of San Antonio in the mid-70s, with not much going on in your life except despair, the story of one of your own going down in a blaze of glory, spitting defiance to the end, probably sounded pretty good.

Print the legend.
Un año tenia en la carcel
sentenciado de por vida
tenia planeado fugarse
frente de la policia
queria enseñarles 'quel hombre
que miedo no les tenia

Sentenced to life,
after a year in jail
he planned his escape
wanting to show that he was a man
and that he had no fear.
As befits the re-telling of a myth, Steve Earle gets almost all the facts wrong in the space of less than a minute. Carrasco was no robber, but a stone-cold drug-dealing killer who had been imprisoned in 1974 with a life sentence after a shoot-out with a dozen San Antonio plainclothes officers. Among other crimes, Carrasco had been charged with armed robbery, auto theft, possession of heroin, and assault with intent to murder during a criminal career that stretched over 25 years. He was also rumored to have killed over 50 people.

Carrasco listed his occupation on arrest reports as "farmer and laborer."
Se hizo de 13 rehenes
para proteger su vida
pidio chalecos de malla
y casco a pruebas de balas
tambien un carro blindado
para lograr su escapada

They took 13 hostages
to protect their lives.
Demanded bulletproof helmets and vests,
even an armored car
to achieve their escape!
On July 24, 19 and 74, when Steve Earle would have been 19 years old, not 15 or 16, the longest prison siege in U.S. history began. Along with two compadres, Carrasco took eleven prison workers and four other inmates hostage.

Over the next several days the convicts made demands for tailored suits, dress shoes, toothpaste, and cologne. Having apparently satisfied their sartorial needs, they also demanded walkie-talkies, bulletproof helmets and an armored getaway car. With the approval of the Texas Governor an armored car was rolled into the prison courtyard.  Carrasco claimed that they were planning to flee to Cuba, noting he preferred to take his chances of being shot by Castro rather than remain in Texas.  Some stories have it that Carrasco was deliberately stalling for time with his increasingly weird demands in the hopes that his drug gang would come to rescue him.
Diez dias duró negociando
pidiendo su libertad
si no cumplen lo que pido
muy pronto les va a pesar
de a uno por uno a los 13
voy a empezar a matar

Negotiations lasted for 10 days.
He demanded freedom
"If you do not give me what I ask,
you will regret it.
I will kill the 13 one-by-one."
But after an 11-day standoff, the convicts tried a break-out to the armored car, using a makeshift mobile shield not built of cafeteria tables, as Earle said, but of blackboards on wheels covered with legal books.  On reporting the shoot-out a Texas reporter, apparently thinking it all just great Mexican fun, dubbed the escape shield  the “Trojan Taco,” possibly forgetting to mention that besides the legal volumes, the "taco's" shielding consisted of live hostages.

The Texas Rangers did indeed blast the Trojan Taco with a fire hose, but did not then go on to kill all the convicts and their hostages.  That was the rumor on the streets of San Antonio, that in order to get to Carrasco the Rangers had deliberately fired through the bodies of their hostages, killing two in the process.  However, an autopsy showed that Carrasco himself had shot one of the hostages, his accomplice another.  Both women, and I'll note their names here, as songs seldom get written about the victims.  Elizabeth Beseda, 57, a prison school teacher, and Judy Standley, 43, a librarian, both brave people who had volunteered to accompany their kidnapers into the armored car, which led to their deaths. Like a scorpion on fire, Carrasco lashed out at the closest living thing he could find when he knew he was going to die. He then committed suicide with his own gun.
Vuela vuela palomita
parate en aquel peñasco
anda avisa a San Antonio
que mataron a Carrasco
en la prision del estado
en compañia de otros 4

Fly little bird, fly
Fly away from this rock
Go to San Antonio
and tell of how they killed Carrasco
at the State Prison
in the company of four others.
Whether 150 songs were written about Fred Gomez Carraco as Steve Earle claims, I don't know.  But he is right that in as little as 24 hours, corridos about his death were appearing on San Antonio Spanish language radio stations and even in juke boxes around the city, as improbable as it seems that they could be written, recorded, and printed that quickly.

As Mr. D. has noted in another context, songs often act as cultural memes, especially in societies that don't have access to more usual ways of distributing news, and can spread like wildfire when needed. Corridos are like a good news story: the date and place of the event, characters' names, and quotations. "On an afternoon of March in the year of '48, the plague of blond rats began stealing without hesitation," goes one famous song, El Corrido de Mazapil which details the sufferings of Mexicans at the hands of "blond rats" during the Mexican- American War.

La Muerte de Fred Gomez Carrasco was written by Salome Gutierrez, a well-known figure in the San Antonio music scene: BMI Award Recipient, owner of the Del Bravo Record Shop in San Antonio since 19 and 67, songwriter, publisher, owner of the DLB label and who recorded and released La Muerte de Fred Gomez Carrasco literally the morning after.  The author of over 1,000 corridos, Gutierrez' wife woke him up at 2 a.m. to tell him of Carrasco's death.  He immediately wrote a corrido, taped it, and rushed it down to local station KEDA, which aired the corrido later that morning.

And some 35-odd years later La Muerte de Fred Gomez Carrasco would air again, on Theme Time Radio Hour. And now you know its story.

Print the legend.
Prision de Consdil mentada
guardianes y policias
aunque quisieran negarlo
no olvidaran el mal rato
que les daria ese gallito
llamado Gomez Carrasco
The prison officials, guards, and police
although they wanted to forget it
could not deny the hard time
that fighting cock Gomez Carrasco
had given them!
* Thanks to the keen-eared Dreamtime fan who pointed out in the comments that in the context of the "Trojan Taco," Mr. D. was more likely saying "Greek" than "great."


Anonymous said...


Great post, you really know how to dig up the facts! This is definitely one of my favorites of yours. As much as you are most of the time right, I believe Bob says "Nothing less than a re-interpertation of one of the GREEK myths." in reference to the Trojan horse that Fred and the other inmates built.

Fred@Dreamtime said...

Thanks for the kind words, and the correction, DF. It certainly makes more sense in the context. I've corrected the post.



Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work hombre!

Anonymous said...

PS Where did you get the translation for the song?

Fred@Dreamtime said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fred@Dreamtime said...

I may be embarrassed :-) to say that I did the translation myself, DF. Between the fact that my Spanish is very rusty, and my translating skills could probably best be described as ah, "freehand," taking lots of poetic license, I wouldn't be surprised if I got the letter of the lyrics wrong, but hope I at least sustained the spirit.

Unknown said...

My neighbor while attending SWTSU and living in a cabin on the south bank of the Blanco near Wimberley in early `75 was Mark Standley, son of Judy the librarian killed by Fred. Perhaps for him, and others close to "those in the company" of Fred Carrasco on that fateful but deliberate day, Steve's ballad had been written for the wrong reasons and for those less deserving than the teacher and librarian hostages.

If truth lacks the elements needed for a song to be successful, then silence is the only honorable alternative.


Anonymous said...

There is a certain New York professor who believes Carrascos arrest and imprisonment has a lot to do with 'colonial' aggression and material resources?Nothing to do with 40+ murders,cop killings,and drug dealing then?