Streets of Laredo

I’ve sung “Streets of Laredo” since grade school, and have long wondered where the song came from.   The answer’s interesting but complicated.  There are many versions of this song, also known as “Cowboy’s Lament.”  Here’s one of the most familiar.

As I walked out in the streets of Laredo

As I walked out in Laredo one day,

I spied a young cowboy, all wrapped in white linen

Wrapped up in white linen and cold as the clay.

“I see by your outfit, that you are a cowboy.”

These words he did say as I slowly walked by.

“Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story,

For I’m shot in the chest, and today I must die.”

“‘Twas once in the saddle I used to go dashing,

‘Twas 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 I’m dying today.”

“Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,

And play the dead march as you carry me along;

Take me to the valley, and lay the sod o’er me,

For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.”

There’s more, too much to include here.  The song is widely considered a traditional ballad, and the origins are not entirely clear. It seems to be primarily descended from a British folk song of the late 18th century called “The Unfortunate Rake.”  Here’s a sample of the English lyrics – definitely not for the kiddies.

As I was a walking down by the [Hospital]

As I was walking one morning of late,

Who did I spy but my own dear comrade,

Wrapp’d in flannel, so hard is his fate.

Had she but told me when she disordered me,

Had she but told me of it at the time,

I might have got salts and pills of white mercury,

But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.

I boldly stepped up to him and kindly did ask him,

Why he was wrapp’d in flannel so white?

My body is injured and sadly disordered,

All by a young woman, my own heart’s delight.

Transported to America, the song evolved into a New Orleans standard, “St. James Infirmary Blues.”  Here’s a verse from the Louis Armstrong version:

I went down to St. James Infirmary,

Saw my baby there,

Set down on a long white table,

So sweet, so cold, so fair.

Let her go, let her go, God bless her,

Wherever she may be,

She can look this wide world over,

She’ll never find a sweet man like me.

“Streets of Laredo” is closer to the original.  The old-time cowboy Frank H. Maynard (1853-1926) claimed authorship of the revised version, but most scholars believe he edited an already existing song.  As for the melody, I’m a bit confused myself.  According to Wikipedia, the British ballad shares a melody with the British sea-song “Spanish Ladies.”  Since I wasn’t able to find the music I’m not sure it’s the tune used in “Streets of Laredo.”

Be that as it may, here are links to versions sung by two of our favorite cowboys, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash.  Do you have a favorite version of this song?  Is there anyone out there who’s never heard it?

Enjoy.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L14UKBjC5Is

  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSzfWLlvlAE

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I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.

20 thoughts on “Streets of Laredo”

  1. Good morning, all. I’m just about to leave town for a couple of days, so I hope you’ll drop by and add your comments. Wishing everyone a great summer week.
    Elizabeth

  2. Hi Elizabeth,

    The Marty Robbins version will always be my favorite. This used to be a staple travel song for my dad and I. It’s funny I just visited my parents in Wyoming a couple weeks ago and about ten minutes into a road trip my dad and I were belting out “Streets of Laredo.” :o)

    Kirsten

  3. Still here, Kirstin, and I love your comment. I can just imagine you and your dad singing this song in the car. (Too bad we don’t have a link to add to Marty and Johnny.
    🙂

  4. No one needs a video of us singing, Elizabeth. :o) Our best concerts are done in a car for a reason.

    I actually like the Burl Ives version, as well. But Marty Robbins was a family favorite. El Paso was another sing-along song.

  5. Definitely a cowboy classic, Elizabeth. How fun to learn more about it’s origins and how it slowly made the trip across the ocean and the eastern US. I had no idea it started in England.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  6. Hi Elizabeth, I never knew all the words until this fine post today, but the melody has always been a haunting one. Great job today, and thanks for the links to the wonderful versions. oxoxox

  7. Oh this is such a great song. I think it was the first one of Marty Robbins recording I ever heard..Thanks for sharing…

  8. Elizabeth, I love this song, but my favorite version was sung by the late, great Marty Robbins. He had such a unique voice. Like you, I used to sing this when I was young and thought I was so grown up. Thanks for the memories.

  9. Love this song and like so many I like Marty Robbins” version although Burl Ives would be a close second!

  10. This song was actually written about a cowboy in Dodge City, music was added later and Marty Robbins changed it to Laredo

  11. http://www.cowboypoetry.com/fhmaynard.htm

    But Maynard’s most enduring contribution sprang from overhearing a version of an old Irish ballad in 1876 and reworking it as “The Cowboy’s Lament,” the standard most recognize today as “The Streets of Laredo.” His role in adapting the song and his other colorful experiences on the trail have come to light with the recent discovery of his unpublished memoir. Now, alongside the frontier recollections of Charlie Siringo and Charles Colchord, Maynard’s personal account offers a rare and revealing glimpse of the true Old West.

  12. The Dying Cowboy

    As I rode down by Tom Sherman’s bar-room,
    Tom Sherman’s bar-room so early one day,
    There I espied a handsome young ranger
    All wrapped in white linen, as cold as the clay.
    “I see by your outfit that you are a ranger,”
    The words that he said as I went riding by,
    “Come sit down beside me, and hear my sad story,
    I’m shot through the breast and I know I must die.

    Chorus:
    Then muffle the drums and play the dead marches;
    Play the dead marches as I’m carried along;
    Take me to the church-yard and lay the sod o’er me,
    I’m a young ranger and I know I’ve done wrong.

    “Go bear a message to my grey-haired mother
    Go break the news to gently to my sister so dear,
    But never a word of this place do you mention,
    As they gather around you my story to hear.
    Then there is another as dear as a sister,
    Who will bitterly weep when she knows I am gone,
    But another more worthy may win her affection,
    For I’m a young ranger—I know I’ve done wrong.”

    Chorus

    “Once in my saddle I used to be dashing;
    Once in my saddle, I used to be brave;
    But I first took to gambling, from that to drinking,
    And now in my prime, I must go to my grave.
    Go gather around you a crowd of gay rangers,
    Go tell them the tale of their comrade’s sad fate,
    Tell each and all to take timely warning,
    And leave their wild ways before it’s too late.”

    Chorus

    “Go, now, and bring me a cup of cold water,
    To bathe my flushed temples,” the poor fellow said.
    But ere I returned, the spirit had left him,
    Had gone to is Giver—the ranger was dead.
    So we muffled the drums and played the dead marches,
    We bitterly wept as we bore him along,
    For we all loved the ranger, so brave and so handsome,
    We all loved our comrade, although he’d done wrong.

    by F.H. Maynard, from Rhymes of the Range and Trail, 1911

  13. Reading your comments on my return after a 3-day mini-vacation. Thanks all of you for dropping by and adding your comments.

    Tom, thanks especially to you for adding the information about F.H. Maynard and the earlier version of the great old song, which has had many versions in its history.

    Elizabeth

  14. Tom, one minor disagreement here. I was singing “Streets of Laredo” in grade school years before Marty Robbins would have recorded the song. My guess is that someone else changed it earlier. But I have no idea who. Love the FH Maynard version.
    Thanks again for your great comments.

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