the saddest song I've ever heard
August 3, 2005 3:24 PM   Subscribe

The Streets of Laredo: The Cowboy's Lament was originally written as the Irish drover balled Bard of Armaugh (or Armagh), which later mutated into A Handful of Laurel, about a young man dying of syphilis in a London hospital, musing back on his days in the alehouses and whorehouses. Immigrants settling in the Appalachians brought their own version, The Unfortunate Rake, sung as early as 1790, about a young soldier dying of mercury poisoning, a result of treatment for venereal disease, who requests a military funeral - a slight but important evolution from the previous version. The current lyrics are most popularly attributed to cowboy Frances Henry "Frank" Maynard, who copyrighted them in 1879. While various versions of the song were popular in the US before Maynard took pen to paper and needle to wax cylinder (under such titles as Locke Hospital, St. James Infirmary Blues, Tom Sherman's Bar and Way Down in Lodorra), his version is the one with which we are most familiar today.

beat the drum slowly, play the fife lowly / sound the death march as you carry me along / cover my body in sweet-smelling posies / for I'm the young (rake, soldier, man, girl, lass, etc) cut down in (his/her) prime (or and I know I've done wrong)

The song has been recorded by pretty much every country, western and folk-identified musical artist since recording music became practical, although the most popular versions must be those by Arlo Guthrie (who once said it was "the saddest song I know," and who sings it on his album Son of the Wind) and Johnny Cash (who added a few verses to his 1965 version, improving the song a bit and making it more emotionally complex). Roger McGuinn's creative commons-licensed version is one of my personal favorites, as is Bobby Sutliff's version.
posted by luriete (26 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent post, thanks - I've loved this song in its various forms for years. When I first heard the western "Streets of Laredo" version, I thought it was so odd that a cowboy would be playing a fife, but later learned about the song's Old World roots.
posted by piers at 3:27 PM on August 3, 2005

Great post.

I know this song as "Willie Mcbride," written (or adapted) by Eric Bogle. Whatever, it's a beautiful melody.
posted by fire&wings at 3:32 PM on August 3, 2005

Best post in a long, long time. Thank you very much.
posted by dios at 3:36 PM on August 3, 2005

Dang, I noticed I spelled "called" "balled". Oh well. No matter if you preview the damn thing 20 times and spend 2 days researching it, there's always something...

I grew up with this and songs like Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and always tear up when I hear the opening bars. In fact, this song - and Summertime - have been pretty much stuck in my head for the past 25 years or so.

Maybe next week's post will be on that tune.
posted by luriete at 3:38 PM on August 3, 2005

Love the song, love the post. There's just no Western in today's Country and Western, which means a long folk history has been abandoned in favor of twangy pop.
posted by maxsparber at 4:30 PM on August 3, 2005

We made them sing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" at my father's funeral, and it will be sung at mine. My mother hated it when she saw the lyrics, and we don't care, we'll sing it at hers. (Funerals are for the living.) Just glad there's one other human being who cares about it as much as we do.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 4:44 PM on August 3, 2005

Fantastic song. I first heard the Buck Owens version.
posted by sklero at 5:14 PM on August 3, 2005

I first heard this in the movie Bang The Drum Slowly which is one of the few movies that real men are alowed to cry while watching.
posted by fixedgear at 5:16 PM on August 3, 2005

Related post on "St. James Infirmary."
posted by languagehat at 5:25 PM on August 3, 2005

Great post, and great songs thanks for reminding me why I love this place!
posted by mrs.pants at 5:27 PM on August 3, 2005

I first heard this in the movie Bang The Drum Slowly which is one of the few movies that real men are alowed to cry while watching.

The others are Rudy and Brian's Song.
posted by jonmc at 5:45 PM on August 3, 2005

[more outside]
posted by designbot at 6:00 PM on August 3, 2005

Coming from a long line of bluegrass musicians, I really appreciate this post. "Will the Circle be unbroken" brings back some memories for me too. Way back when the family would get together, the boys would all pick, pluck and fiddle, while the girls sang. Beautiful times and beautiful music.
posted by snsranch at 6:02 PM on August 3, 2005

Nice post. I know the song through Cash's version, but didn't know the back story. I should have recognized it as an Irish melody.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 6:57 PM on August 3, 2005

WARNING WMP Marty Robbins version is the one I know best.
posted by bjgeiger at 7:10 PM on August 3, 2005

Heh. Well put, designbot.

Front-page space-hogging aside, great post. Since no one else has, I'll add the immortal Smothers Brothers version (c. 1967), where the second (and last) stanza goes:

Tom: I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy
Dick: I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy too
Both: We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys
        If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy too!
posted by soyjoy at 9:00 PM on August 3, 2005

Great post, bookmarked for further perusal at a more decent hour. :)

Emmylou Harris does a song on Red Dirt Girl that uses the first two lines of that chorus; it has an immediate effect upon me.
posted by livii at 9:01 PM on August 3, 2005

I've always been partial to the Cash version (probably since it was my first exposure) but I enjoy the Roger McGuinn version quite a bit. Thanks for the link.
posted by mdbell79 at 10:06 PM on August 3, 2005

Also, Mercury Rev recorded "Streets of Laredo" as a B-side on their Little Rhymes, pt. 2 single, released in 2002. It's an interesting take on the song, since it comes from a totally different musical aesthetic. Unfortunately, the ambient music sort of overpowers the lyrics, which really are the best part of the song.
posted by mdbell79 at 10:16 PM on August 3, 2005

I never gave it too much thought, but I always thought it was a Marty Robbins original. Thanks for the backstory - I've got to pay more attention to writers credits. And soyjoy, thanks for the Smother Brothers memory jogger - now THAT'S the version I have stuck in my head.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:36 PM on August 3, 2005

I cannot hear this song without thinking of Allan Sherman's Streets of Miami (#30 - sorry the only link I could find).
posted by skyscraper at 10:39 PM on August 3, 2005

Well sheeoot, the "honored guest" James Hoy in the Frank Maynard link was my thesis director. He was also the first one to tell me that the poem/song (or at least the American version) was set in Dodge City and not Laredo.

And Marty Robbins version is the saddest to me, just to bring it back on topic.
posted by sleepy pete at 10:45 PM on August 3, 2005

Snakefarm has an album with both St. James Infirmary and Streets of Laredo on it. Go fig. Also, Sarah Vowell did a salon article about it in 1999. I'm sure I heard her reading it on the radio, but I can't seem to find any reference to it on the internets.
posted by jlub at 11:20 PM on August 3, 2005

Uccellina - thanks, yes, Mudcat was instrumental (no pun intended) in researching this post.
posted by luriete at 9:05 AM on August 4, 2005

Excellent post. I'd always been familiar with Streets of Laredo, so I was surprised when a local Irish band did one of the earlier versions with different lyrics. Nice to know the backstory!
posted by MsMolly at 3:08 PM on August 4, 2005

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