Because Songs Matter

COWBOY'S LAMENT – A HISTORY LESSON

I am pretty sure every one of us has heard “Cowboy’s Lament” at one time or another. You may know it by its more popular name: “Streets of Laredo”. It has long been considered a traditional country and western song and has been covered by innumerable artists over the years. It has been a mainstay of country music for longer than I have been alive with the most famous version probably being a toss up between Johnny Cash’s recording and Marty Robbins’ treatment. The origins of the song are unknown but the most popular theory is that it descended from an 18th century British folk tune titled “The Unfortunate Rake”. Here are the two together so you can decide for you yourself:

Cowboy’s Lament The Unfortunate Rake
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.”
“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 sods 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 soul 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.
As I was a walking down by the [Lock] 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.
Chorus.
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.
My father oft told me, and of[ten]times chided me,
And said my wicked ways would never do,
But I never minded him, nor ever heeded him,
[I] always kept up in my wicked ways.
Get six jolly fellows to carry my coffin,
And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall,
And give to each of them bunches of roses,
That they may not smell me as they go along.
[Over my coffin put handsful of lavender,
Handsful of lavender on every side,
Bunches of roses all over my coffin,
Saying there goes a young man cut down in his prime.]
Muffle your drums, play your pipes merrily,
Play the death [dead] march as you go along.
And fire your guns right over my coffin,
There goes an unfortunate lad to his home.

While it appears to have descended from “The Unfortunate Rake” the origins go a little deeper all the way back to an Irish ballad “Bard of Armaugh” which later mutated into “A Handful of Laurel” which is the work “The Unfortunate Rake” was based on. It shows, in my opinion, just how much of an affect Irish folk music has had on the country music scene. I started thinking about writing this piece listening to a derivative work called “Green Fields of France” which was written in 1976 by Eric Bogle, a Scottish-Australian songwriter, about a young man who died during WW I (I sing that one to my kids as a lullaby). Aside from the versions I have mentioned here there are still a few more that all appear to have derived from the same place. Regardless of the version throughout history this has been a song about a young man about to breathe his last or in some cases already passed on. As “Streets of Laredo” or “Cowboys Lament” it is, in my opinion, one of the saddest songs ever recorded. In fact I would rate it the second saddest song right after George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and that’s regardless of the version. I dug up a bunch of different treatments for you to check out. I had to stop myself because there are just so my different versions and permutations. There’s even one in there that might just surprise you a little bit.

Cowboy’s Lament/Streets of Laredo:

Willie Nelson - Streets of Laredo     

Paul Westerberg - Streets of Laredo     

Irish Volunteers Civil War Band - Streets of Laredo     

St. James Infirmary:

Arlo Guthrie - St. James Infirmary     

Kid Ory & His Creole Band - St James Infirmary     

Bard of Armaugh:

Jed Marum - Bard of Armaugh     

Green Fields of France:

John McDermott - The Green Fields Of France     

Dropkick Murphys - The Green Fields Of France     

I honestly hadn’t realized there was a Nawlins connection to this song until I started doing my research. Apparently “St. James Infirmary” has the same origins as the classic “Streets of Laredo” which sort of feeds into my having been addicted to Treme and getting a little more into the blues lately because of it. I included the Kid Ory instrumental above because it’s just so damn cool. There was a lot more to this than a story behind a song. The song I chose has mutated over literally centuries, across oceans and through different cultures. It’s vast history and it’s a good one. I hope y’all enjoyed this as much as I did.

6 Comments

  1. bobby bobby
    July 16, 2010    

    freakin’ great.

  2. aimee burrell egner aimee burrell egner
    July 17, 2010    

    wow. a place i like to go. wowsville. wowtown. earthly.

    yum yum.

  3. DownSouth DownSouth
    July 17, 2010    

    Music History 101. I dig this kind of stuff.

  4. July 18, 2010    

    Good stuff!

  5. Roryg Roryg
    July 18, 2010    

    Great piece. A great book that looks at songs and their history, The Rose and The Briar, does a nice job of wandering around songs like your work. My fave in that is probably Rennie Sparks’s look at “Pretty Polly.” As with yours, music was included in my copy.

  6. July 27, 2010    

    Yeah! Love it.

    You can download my new record for free here:

    http://craiggore.bandcamp.com/

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