The Origin of Por una Cabeza

One of the most popular of Carlos Gardel’s tangos is “Por una Cabeza”. Written in 1935, the song’s title is originally a horse racing term “to lose by a head”. It was co-written by Alfredo Le Pera, just shortly before they were both killed in a plane crash in Columbia on 24 June 1935. The lyrics bemoans a man’s life as it compares losing the horse race to losing with women.

The complete lyrics of the song in Spanish along with its English translation was provided by the late Alberto Paz and his wife Valerie Hart on their website Planet Tango.

In 1935, the song was sang in the movie “The Tango Bar” by Carlos Gardel himself. It’s a fun and entertaining movie to watch even for those who do not understand Spanish because of its humour that is easy to follow.

Por una Cabeza

Songwriters: Carlos Gardel / Alfredo La Pera

 

Por una cabeza, de un noble potrillo

Que justo en la raya, afloja al llegar

Y que al regresar, parece decir

No olvides, hermano

Vos sabes, no hay que jugar

 

Por una cabeza, metejón de un día

De aquella coqueta y risueña mujer

Que al jurar sonriendo el amor que está mintiendo

Quema en una hoguera

Todo mi querer

 

Por una cabeza, todas las locuras

Su boca que besa

Borra la tristeza

Calma la amargura

 

Por una cabeza

Si ella me olvida

Qué importa perderme

Mil veces la vida

Para qué vivir

 

Cuántos desengaños, por una cabeza

Yo juré mil veces no vuelvo a insistir

Pero si un mirar me hiere al pasar

Su boca de fuego

Otra vez quiero besar

 

Basta de carreras, se acabo la timba

Un final reñido ya no vuelvo a ver

Pero si algún pingo llega a ser fija el domingo

Yo me juego entero

Qué le voy a hacer

Por una cabeza, todas las locuras

Su boca que besa

Borra la tristeza

Calma la amargura

 

Por una cabeza

Si ella me olvida

Qué importa perderme

Mil veces la vida

Para qué vivir

 

Only By a Head (English Translation)

By only a head of

a pureblood race colt

that just on the finish

had slowed down to shamble;

and upon riding back

it seems to be saying

forget not this brother,

you know that you shouldn’t gamble

 

By only a head I

was love struck at first sight

with that one coquettish

and cheerful dame

who by pledging with a smile

a love that she’s lying about

she burns all my love

in a blazing flame

 

[Chorus:]

By only a head were

all of the follies;

her lips when she’s kissing

the sadness are dismissing

the sourness make jolly

By only a head that

if she forgets me

won’t matter if I lose

my life that hurts me;

what is there to live?

 

Lots of disappointments,

by only a head all

thousand times I swore that

I won’t fall for this

but each time a passing

look off my feet sweeps me

her burning lips, once more,

I want to just kiss

 

I’m done with the race tracks,

I’m quitting all gambling

a dead heat I don’t want

to ever watch again

but if a young filly

looks sure bet on Sunday

I’ll gamble all I have,

what can I do then!

(chorus)

Argentine Tango Carlos Gardel“Por una Cabeza” is an easy song to dance tango to because of its slow and clear rhythm. Because of this, it become one of the most popular songs played by almost all of the major orchestras during the 1940’s and 50’s.

Even to this day, “Por una Cabeza” is still widely used, especially in Hollywood. In fact, it appeared in numerous scenes in the following movies:

  • Scent of a Woman (1992) – The song was performed by “The Tango Project”, consisting of William Schimmel (accordion), Michael Sahl (piano) and Stan Kurtis (violin). The band also appeared in the scene along with Al Pacino.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) – it suited well with the implication of Oskar Schindler’s “addiction” to women
  • True Lies (1994) – Arnold Schwarzenegger dances to it twice – the first time was with a female spy and second was with his character’s wife.
  • Frida (2002) – it was heard on a radio sung by Gardel
  • Bad Santa (2003, Uncut version)
  • All the King’s Men (2006)
  • Easy Virtue (2008) – Colin Firth and Jessica Biel dances to it sensually
  • Planet 51 (2009)

FUN FACT:

During the tango scene in True Lies, it was discovered that Arnold had two left feet and fought to dance even the simplest of steps so most of the scenes were of him dancing tango from the waist up.