Like baseball, jazz, the personal computer, and about a million other things, the cowboy ballad is a strictly American invention. Of course, as we'll see shortly, many of them are based on older songs of everything from work to murder, but the peculiar alchemy of the American experience has distilled those earlier tunes into a very distinctive folk form, one that reflects the hard life that engendered the songs in an underlying melancholy and an often mordant and biting (if very dark) humor.
While my personal favorite cowboy song has always been "Get Along Little Dogies" - probably because that is one of the first songs I remember ever hearing in my life - my own number two would be what is by common consent the best-known and quite possibly the best of the real traditional tunes, "The Streets of Laredo."
The very name conjures up a host of images - the paintings of Remington and Russell, a book and TV miniseries, and a scene or two from just about every Western film ever made. The real Laredo, Texas is a border town in the southwestern part of the state - not exactly prime cattle country and far off of the beaten trails of the great cattle drives that started in the center of the Lone Star state and ended in the truly wild and lawless prairie railhead destinations of Wichita, Dodge City, and Abilene.
"The Streets of Laredo" has about as fine a pedigree as you could ask for in a folk song. Most sources will tell you that it appears to be descended from a 17th century English folk number called "The Dying Rake" - that last word meaning, of course, what our generation would have called a playboy and what the young 'uns today call a player.
But we who are blessed to be of Irish extraction know better. Sure, the dying young man lyric might indeed come from the Brits - but the tune is note for note a derivation of the great Irish lament "The Bard of Armagh," composed by the very real if mysterious Phelim Brady. But that song (video below) is written in a straight 4/4 time signature, which means that it's just a regular da-da-da-da beat, if a bit slow. In an exceptionally odd transformation, the American Laredo version takes the melody and converts it to 3/4 time - DA-da-da - which is a tempo most commonly associated with the romantic waltz and not really what you'd expect from a dying cowboy. See note above about a mordant sense of humor.
So out first performance here is of the Irish ancestor of the Laredo song, performed by one of the great folk singers of the last century, Tommy Makem, whose signature song this was and who himself hailed from Keady in Armagh and hence was himself called through his life "The Bard of Armagh":
Makem's best version this is not, IMHO. That was at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, where Tommy was accompanied only by the supremely tasteful Bruce Langhorne, who realized that the point of a guitar accompaniment is to support the vocal, not overwhelm or upstage it. And whoever is playing guitar here (definitely neither Makem nor Liam Clancy, who in a score of lifetimes would never play this way) is distorting the melody with a bunch of major and minor seventh chords that just don't fit here. Sadly, as of now, this is the only Makem performance of the number on YouTube.
An offshoot version of this song, one that incorporates the dying youth motif from the British version, is a well-known blues/jazz standard from New Orleans called "The St. James Infirmary." The melody is only vaguely similar to "Laredo/Armagh" but the kinship of the lyric is clear. Doc Watson here does an Appalachian version called "St. James Hospital":
For "The Streets of Laredo" - why not start with maybe the best of all cowboy singers, Marty Robbins:
All Robbins ever needed to turn in a sublime performance was that impossibly small guitar he often played. But his studio version of the song has other virtues, including some secondary orchestration that includes a brushed snare drum that emphasizes the waltz tempo even more clearly than Marty's strumming does above:
Johnny Cash recorded several versions throughout his long career, never more effectively than in this moving rendition on his American Recordings series from the years just before his death.
Cash includes the reference to the "dance hall maidens" in the unexpurgated lyric. The "Rake" song makes it clear that the British youth is dying of syphilis, but that indelicate fact is masked in the American version by the fatal gunshot wound.
The great Chet Atkins uses "Laredo" as the second half of a medley with "Greensleeves" to wonderful effect:
Atkins plays the "Laredo" melody with a harmony a third under the melody and gives it just a bit of a flamenco-like lilt, which I believe is a tip of his guitar to the Mexico border town origin of the song.
Finally, we come to what I have regarded since the first time I heard it as a major disappointment and a massively missed opportunity, as the Kingston Trio turns the song into a one-shot joke:
The live audience clearly enjoyed it, and I suppose that the fact that every folk/western/country singer had given the song a try made it ripe for satire.
But no one else even thought to create the arrangement that Shane, Reynolds, and Stewart did.
Note that all of the "Laredo" arrangements above are roughly similar, based as they are on a mostly two chord accompaniment, often in the key of D. The chord progression there is then mostly a I - V7, or just a D to an A7. But the Trio infers the tragedy of the lyric and comes up with two radical changes. First, the second chord in the pattern is an A minor 7th, which lends a real sense of drama to the accompaniment, a dark shading perfectly consonant with the bleak tale of the lyric. Second, though they preserve the basic 3/4 timing, they hurry the accompaniment with Nick Reynolds' intense and almost-flamenco-sounding speed strumming that supports what I have called the "quiet urgency" of so many vocals of the Guard era Trio and almost never invoked in the Stewart years. The stage is set for a classic Kingston Trio non-traditional but brilliantly re-imagined folk song.
And then the deflation - a joke that I didn't find funny the first time and never have since. I remember being tremendously disappointed and chagrined. One big problem with the joke is just that it is way too self-referential. From "Zombie Jamboree" through the Seven-Up commercials through concert patter, Nick Reynolds was the butt of much of the group's onstage humor. The concert audience knew this - the Kingstons were the most popular act in the U.S. at the time, and it's a safe bet that most of the people knew of the ad campaign and the other NR jokes. But without that frame of reference, the joke becomes as flat as a week-old open can of soda. Most folks who didn't know the internal group dynamic would not have found it funny in the first place, and literally no one for whom I've played the cut today even cracks a smile.
But each to his own. "The Streets of Laredo" is such a great song, so evocative, so American that I still feel bad that we missed out on hearing what would have been the best recorded version of the song - which is why I invariably stop this last video at 1:08.