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Streets of Laredo
by Frank H. Maynard
As I walked out on the streets of Laredo
As I walked out on Laredo one day,
I spied a poor cowboy, all wrapped in white linen
All wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay.
“I can see by your outfit, that you are a cowboy.”
These words he did say as I slowly passed by.
“Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story,
For I’m shot in the chest, and today I must die.”
“It was once in the saddle I used to go dashing,
Once in the saddle I used to go gay.
First down to Rosie’s, and then to the card-house,
Got shot in the breast, and now here I lay.”
“Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
And play the death march as you carry me along;
Take me to the green valley, and lay the sod o’er me,
For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.”
“Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin,
Get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall.
Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,
Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.”
“Then swing your rope slowly and rattle your spurs lowly,
And give a wild whoop as you carry me along;
And in the grave throw me and roll the sod o’er me.
For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.”
“Go bring me a cup, a cup of cold water.
To cool my parched lips”, the cowboy then said.
Before I returned, his spirit had departed,
And gone to the round up – the cowboy was dead.
We beat the drum slowly and played the fife lowly,
And bitterly wept as we bore him along.
For we loved our comrade, so brave, young and handsome,
We all loved our comrade, although he’d done wrong.
Like a lot of trail songs, this one owes a great part of its preservation to John A. Lomax and his 1910 publication, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, and like many other songs from that publication, it has a somewhat disputed authorship, several variations, and an interesting backstory. Legendary Old West cowboy, Frank H. Maynard claimed authorship of the song, and also claimed that Texas cowboys on cattle trails changed the lyrics to refer to the Texas town of Laredo.
As for The Cowboy’s Lament/Streets of Laredo itself, Austin E. and Alta S. Fife in Songs of the Cowboys (1966) say,
There are hundreds of texts, with variants so numerous that scholars will never assemble and analyze them all.
Note that some versions of printed lyrics, such as Lomax’s 1910 version, have been bowdlerized, eliminating, for example, subtle mentions of drunkenness and/or prostitution. Johnny Cash’s 1965 recording substitutes “dram-house” for the traditional “Rosie’s,” i.e. the saloon for the brothel (though Burl Ives’ 1949 recording retains the more logical, “first down to Rosie’s, and then to the card-house…”). This bowdlerization renders nonsensical the next phrase, “…and then to the card-house,” as though drinking and gambling took place in separate establishments. One of the Fifes’ sources “exaggerating somewhat, says that there were originally seventy stanzas, sixty-nine of which had to be whistled.”
The song is widely considered to be a traditional ballad. It was first published in 1910 in John Lomax‘s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.
The lyrics appear to be primarily descended from an Irish folk song of the late 18th century called “The Unfortunate Rake“, which also evolved (with a time signature change and completely different melody) into the New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary Blues“. The Irish ballad shares a melody with the British sea-song “Spanish Ladies“. The Bodleian Library, Oxford, has copies of a 19th-century broadside entitled “The Unfortunate Lad”, which is a version of the British ballad. Some elements of this song closely presage those in the “Streets of Laredo” and in the “St. James Infirmary Blues”.
The song has been covered innumerable times. It has also been featured in many, many movies and television programs (again, via wiki):
The song is also featured in the following films:
- Pursued (1947) directed by Raoul Walsh, played on piano at the Honest Wheel and later sung by Robert Mitchum.
- 3 Godfathers (1948) directed by John Ford, sung by Harry Carey Jr.
- The Plunderers (1948) – the song was played from a saloon piano as the main characters spoke with each other out in the street.
- Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) – Several verses of this song are sung in the locker room by catcher Piney Woods, played by Tom Ligon.
- Night on Earth (1991) – A line from the song is sung by Roberto Benigni‘s character.
- Brokeback Mountain (2005)
- Appaloosa (2008) – sung by Kate Jewell
- The Borderlands (2013) – Lines from the song also feature in this British found-footage horror film.
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) – A few verses from the traditional Irish ballad The Unfortunate Rake are sung by the Irishman, played by Brendan Gleeson.
- Rocketman (2019) – Elton John and Bernie Taupin sing the song together in a café which plays a part with starting their friendship and writing partnership.
- Asteroid City (2023) – the song can be heard twice in the movie, once as The Cowboy’s Lament by Burt Ives and a second time as The Streets of Laredo by Bing Crosby.
- Maverick – sung by the character Bret Maverick (James Garner) in the episode ‘The Belcastle Brand’ (1958)
- Rawhide Season 5 in the episode ‘Pale Rider’ sung by each of twin brothers (1964)
- Gunsmoke – sung by the character Martin Kellum (Theodore Bikel) in the episode ‘Song for Dying’ (1965)
- Murder, She Wrote (1988-1989) – Two verses of this song are sung by a character during a wake in the “Snow White, Blood Red” episode. (1988)
- Deadwood – sung by the character Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) in one episode.
- In “Per Stirpes” (Season 3, Episode 4; 28 February 2021) of the Australian forensic crime show Harrow, three regular characters, Bryan Nichols (Damien Garvey), Lyle Fairley (Darren Gilshenan), and Daniel Harrow (Ioan Gruffudd), sing part of the song before being interrupted by a man who represents himself as a ghost shot to death, like the cowboy in the song.
The song also influenced a novel of the same title – the last of the Lonesome Dove series by Larry McMurtry. From songfacts:
While “Streets of Laredo” remains a popular folk standard, the song has garnered even greater fame as the inspiration for the 1993 novel similarly titled Streets of Laredo written by Larry McMurtry. The novel, fourth and final in the Lonesome Dove series, is a Western classic following the adventures of ex-Texas Ranger Captain Woodrow F. Call. The book was then made into a TV series starring James Garner and Sissy Spacek in 1995, further immortalizing the song.
I have embedded a couple versions of the song below, for your enjoyment:
This cowboy song is probably most well associated with musician Marty Robbins (the link above) but Johnny Cash also has a well-known version of the song.
It can be fascinating to follow the history and evolution of a tune, as well as the lyrics that accompanies said tune. Here are versions of “The Unfortunate Rake” – the Irish ballad upon which the cowboy song may have been based, and “Spanish Ladies”, the British sea song which also preceded the cowboy ballad in its evolution: