Art&Seek presents This Week in Texas Music History. Every week, we’ll spotlight a different moment and the musician who made it. This week, Texas music scholar Gary Hartman looks at a popular Texas ballad based on an actual gunfight.
You can also hear This Week in Texas Music History on Friday on KXT and Saturday on KERA radio. But subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss an episode. And our thanks to KUT public radio in Austin for helping us bring this segment to you. And if you’re a music lover, be sure to check out Track by Track, the bi-weekly podcast from Paul Slavens, host of KERA radio’s 90.1 at Night.
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On June 12, 1901, the sheriff of Karnes County, Texas, wrongly accused a local ranch hand named Gregorio Cortez of stealing a horse. The sheriff misunderstood Cortez’s responses in Spanish, an argument ensued, and the two men shot at each other. The sheriff died, and Cortez fled. For days, Cortez eluded a posse of several hundred men, but he was eventually caught and sentenced to life in prison. Cortez quickly became a folk hero for many Hispanic Texans and a symbol of their struggle against racial discrimination. “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” a song that celebrated and in some cases even exaggerated his exploits, soon became popular throughout South Texas. Cortez was acquitted after eight years, but his open defiance against Anglo authorities made him a legendary figure among Texas-Mexican communities. His story gained national fame in 1982, when “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” became the basis for a major Hollywood movie.
Next time on This Week in Texas Music History, we’ll remember a singer who narrowly escaped death before going on to become a Texas music icon.