José González Castillo

Real name: González Castillo, José
Nicknames: Juan de León
Poet and lyricist
(25 January 1885 - 22 October 1937)
Place of birth:
Rosario (Santa Fe) Argentina
Julio Nudler

yrics for tango were born around 1914, based on those ones conceived by Pascual Contursi that year and the following years (“De vuelta al bulín”, “Ivette”, “Flor de fango”, “Mi noche triste (Lita)”), and they were growing strong very slowly. So much so that in Carlos Gardel's repertoire tangos were, until the next decade, a rare bird. There was not even a notion of how to sing a tango, a standard that Gardel was gradually establishing after 1922. That was, precisely, the year José González Castillo truly disembarked in the genre with the lyrics of “Sobre el pucho”, after Sebastián Piana's music, which was introduced at the talent contest organized by Tango cigarettes.

José Gobello (Crónica general del tango, Editorial Fraterna) stated about this work that, with it «some novelties broke into tango that the tango literary work of Homero Manzi would later turn into true constants. By the way, Pompeya («Un callejón en Pompeya/y un farolito plateando el fango...»); later, the description of the neighborhood and, soon, the enumeration as a descriptive procedure».

But in those lyrics there is something else, metaphor, that springs up in the memory that the malevo devotes to his lost love «...tu inconstancia loca/me arrebató de tu boca/como pucho que se tira/ cuando ya/ni sabor ni aroma da». It is clear that González Castillo was a forerunner, and also that other later lyricists were who deepened those trends.

The same elements, but with higher poetic flight, reappeared the following year, 1923, in “Silbando”. The dramatic action is added to them, which blows out after the detailed description of the scene, with its setting, its lighting (the weak light of a street-lamp) and its sounds (a song of sailors, the howl of a dog, the whistling of a rogue). The shadow of that man «la sombra del hombre aquel» quietly comes, his knife sparkles and blood runs in the quiet night at the waterfront. González Castillo, author of uncountable sainetes (one-act farces) and different plays so turns tango lyrics into a small theater play.

Another summit of his work as lyrics writer —the utmost, maybe— he reached in 1924 with “Griseta”, after music by Enrique Delfino, one of the creators of tango romanza. Cabaret displaced neighborhood as scenery, and so characters of several French novels parade (Scenes of bohemian life, by Henri Murger; Manon Lescaut, by Antoine François Prévost, and La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexander Dumas fils. Prostitution, alcohol and cocaine sealed the fatal destiny of the little French girl, who is silently dying in the «fría sordidez del arrabal» (cold sordid space of the outskirts of town).

A unique event in the history of tango is the creative team that González Castillo made with his son Cátulo who was, in every case, the composer of the music, although later he would also stand out as lyricist, surpassing even his father. Together they conceived beautiful pieces, such as “Aquella cantina de la ribera”, “El circo se va”, “El aguacero (Canción de la Pampa)”, “Invocación al tango” and “Papel picado”, among others.

Cátulo collaborated with Piana in the music notes of “Silbando”, but he as well composed the renowned “Organito de la tarde”, to which his father later added that story of an old barrel organ player with slow walking pace and a lame man coming behind, who walked along the neighborhood streets while grinding tangos. The final stanzas will reveal the fatal event that left the old man without daughter and the young man without love and without leg.

González Castillo wanted his tangos to tell us not apparent human dramas, hidden in the folds of his characters. That is the case of the violinist cobbler in “Acuarelita del arrabal” (music by Cátulo as well), who secretly longed for a blonde. Until one day she came into his cheap shop, and he, «under the pretext of fastening a buckle for her», was able to joyfully touch her well-shaped leg. And the poet tells us: «Desde esa tarde su canto parece/con su incansable motivo chillón/la monocorde sonata de un grillo/en el pentragrama de aquel callejón./Y según dicen, pensando en la rubia,/el pobre viejo detrás del portal/ como a una pierna temblando acaricia/la caja del tosco violín fraternal».

In his elaborate descriptions, González Castillo always includes a reflection, either philosophical, either moral or social. In “Aquella cantina de la ribera” he portrays the tavern like this: «Como el mal, el humo de niebla la viste,/y envuelta en la gama doliente del gris/ parece una tela muy rara y muy triste/que hubiera pintado Quinquela Martín».

In “Música de calesita”, recalling his childhood, he confesses his dream: «Yo quiero como el cansino/caballo del carrusel/dar vueltas a mi destino/al ruido de un cascabel».

And José González Castillo's memory keeps on turning round to the dear sound of his tangos.