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?