Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Gallo del Cielo by Tom Russell

Gallo del Cielo

Written and Performed by Tom Russell. You can listen to Tom Russell sing it live here and here. Joe Ely has recorded the song and you can listen to live performance from him here, here and here. You can read the lyrics here. You can buy Tom Russell’s version form iTunes here and Joe Ely’s version here. Russell and Ely sing it together here.

Here is an example of songwriting at its best, making a sublime legend of a story of a man who steals a fighting rooster. Like all great stories, there is so much more to this song than what first appears: adventure, loyalty, honor, gambling all set against the backdrop of a time before California joined the U.S. The Tex-Mex music, complete with accordion, perfectly matches the lyrics.

Come along for the ride with Carlos Zaragoza who “left his home in Casa Grandas when the moon was full.” He flees with “no money in his pocket, just a locket of his sister framed in gold.” Russell’s singing imparts nobility to this effort. Zaragoza heads to El Sueco, where he steals the roster called Gallo del Cielo, the rooster from heaven, and then travels north of the Rio Grande. Listen to the details; hear the hints of beauty and mystery, and the accordion weaving underneath that adds resonance.

In the second verse, we learn the background of the fighting roster Zaragoza has stolen:

Gallo del Cielo was a warrior born in heaven, so the legends say
His wings they had been broken, he had one eye rollin’ crazy in his head
He’s fought a hundred fights, and the legends say that one night near El Sueco
They’d fought Cielo seven times and seven times he’d left brave roosters dead.

Some would turn away from the barbarism of cock fighting, some would turn away from a song that tries to make epic the story of a man and his stolen rooster, yet Russell makes it work in the utter conviction of his craftsmanship and the sincerity of the performance.

The chorus gives purpose to Zaragoza’s adventure:

Hola, my Theresa, I am thinking of you now in San Antonio
I have 27 dollars and the locket with your picture framed in gold
Tonight I'll bet it all on the fighting spurs of Gallo del Cielo
Then I'll return to buy the land that Villa stole from father long ago

We follow Zaragoza to the “onion fields of Paco Monteverde” where the crowd laughed, “when Zaragoza pulled the one-eyed del Cielo from beneath his coat/but they cried when Zaragoza walked away with a thousand dollar bill.” The song is full of these vignettes, moments that rise and build the momentum of the overall story. Next, we travel to Santa Barbara where he now has $1,500 and onto the next fight in Santa Clara where the rooster will fight “a wicked black named Zorro.” Zaragoza now has $50,000 riding on his fighter, though he “fears the tiny crack that runs across his rooster’s back.” Here’s how Russell describes the fight that unfolds:

Then the signal it was given, and the cocks they rose together far above the sand
Gallo del Cielo sunk a gaff into Zorro's shiny breast
They were separated quickly and they rose and fought each other thirty seven times
And the legends say that everyone agreed that del Cielo fought the best
Then the screams of Zaragoza filled the night outside the town of Santa Clara
As the beak of del Cielo lay broken like a shell within his hand
And they say that Zaragoza screamed a curse upon the bones of Pancho Villa
When Zorro rose up one last time and drove del Cielo to the sand.

We know this is not simply a lost wager, that much more is lost, for by now we understand how much is invested in Zaragoza’s journey, his last desperate effort to regain the land and glory of his family and town. The rooster and handler are one in the same crazy with a broken wing, fighting nobly, but doomed to fall. Here’s how the tale ends:

Hola, my Theresa, I am thinking of you now in San Francisco
There's no money in my pocket, I no longer have your picture framed in gold
I buried it last evening with the bones of my beloved del Cielo
I'll not return to buy the land that Villa stole from father long ago
Do the rivers still run muddy outside of my beloved Casas Grandes?
Does the scar upon my brother's face turn red when he hears mention of my name?
Do the people of El Sueco still curse the theft of Gallo del Cielo?
Tell my family not to worry, I will not return to cause them shame.

What a beautiful and sad tale. Russell imparts such meaning and dignity in Zaragoza and Gallo del Cielo. I find myself listening to this song repeatedly rooting for Zaragoza, hearing new touches, new subtleties and new reasons to believe. The more one believes, the more one feels the pain of the defeat.


I first heard Tom Russell, backed by his long time sideman, Andy Hardin, in the backroom of Tubridy’s Pub in Rockaway Beach in what must’ve been 1981 or 1982. Tubridy’s didn’t feature music on a regular basis, so I’m not sure why they even set up the show, most likely Mike Tubridy came across Tom Russell somehow (Mike seem to have his fingers in lots of different circles). In those days, Russell drove a cab and I remember thinking that it was a shame that this guy was so good, but couldn’t get a recording contract. I still have the self-produced LP that I bought that day. Well, Tubridy’s is long gone and I left the Rocakways long ago, yet Tom Russell is still making great music and seemingly getting better as he ages. Born in L.A. and now outside El Paso, his music melds many influences into a unique, impassioned sound. You can hear plenty of Texas outlaw and hill country music as well as Tex-Mex in his songs mixed with strong strains of country and hardcore folk. There’s plenty of Marty Robbins, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Freddy Fender and all the Texas outlaw music looming in the background.

In addition to his music, Tom Russell paints, has written three books and has produced some other albums, most notably the Merle Haggard Tribute, Tulare Dust, which he and Dave Alvin put together.  

I list his albums Love and Fear, Indians, Cowboys, Horses, Dogs and Cowboy Real among my favorites. You can hear many of Tom Russell’s songs on the web, including:

Check out Tom Russell’s website for tour info and ways to buy his music, including his latest album, Blood and Candle Smoke. You can read a review of the new album in Paste Magazine. You can read many articles and reviews of Tom Russell at No Depression. NPR did a piece, along with a performance, of “Whose Gonna Build Your Wall?” here.


6 Responses to “Gallo del Cielo by Tom Russell”

  1. I love Tom Russell.

    Very nice article.

  2. Historical note: the references to “the bones Pancho Villa” and “a thousand dollar bill” place the story of Gallo del Cielo between the assassination of Villa, 20 July 1923, and the gradual withdrawal of high-denomination bills from circulation, the last being printed in 1945.

    • Good info on the high denomination bills. If they stopped printing them in 1945 I wonder how long they would have still been in circulation thereafter. The lifespan of a smaller denomination Bill us very short as they change hands frequently and where out whereas a large denomnation bill would more likely be spending time in a private safe or in a bank vault.

  3. Very nice article. One small correction. The story does not occur before California joined the U.S. California became a U.S. State in 1850. Zaragoza is attempting to reclaim land stolen by Pancho Villa. Villa was born in 1878. The land would likely have been stolen in the early part of the 20th century. 1905 -1920? The protagonist is referring to land stolen by Villa “long ago” perhaps when he was a child placing the story anywhere 1935 to 1955?

  4. How do you not mention that theresa is most likely his sister in law.

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