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Songs of Yesterday: The Cowboy's Lament

"The Streets of Laredo" has been around for at least two centuries, in one form or another. It has been a vehicle for various parodies and carried a message of warning to both men and women. But its description of the quintessential funeral is probably its most well-remembered hallmark and this article discusses this common theme that is repeated in different versions in various cultures.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Jean Hibben
Word Count: 1761 (approx.)
Labels: Death Record 
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Editor Note: Hear the author perform "The Cowboy's Lament." To order the complete CD, see Songs of the American West.

"I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy."

"I see by your outfit that you're a cowboy, too."

"We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys, if you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too."

I remember singing that song, a parody on an old Western ballad, "The Streets of Laredo," when I was a kid (I was a huge Smothers Brothers fan long before they made it big on television and this was featured on one of their recordings). It was many years before I heard the actual song, alternately titled, "The Cowboy's Lament" and "The Dying Cowboy." Personally, the parody made more sense to me, as the lyrics of "The Streets of Laredo" speak of a man who was "shot in the breast" and then proceeded to have a lengthy conversation with the cowboy (recognized by his outfit) who is relating the tale to us, his audience. He also requests that they "play the fife lowly" at his funeral; how many fifes would there be in the Old West? It seemed to be a rather odd request. But when we learn more about the origins of this song, we can better appreciate these anomalies.

Many of the folks who settled the Western United States were transplants from the quickly populating areas of the East coast, including the Appalachian regions. And many of these folks had their origins in the British Isles. Hard to believe, perhaps, but "The Streets of Laredo" is actually a rewrite of a Irish "gallows song" (a gallows song is one that tells the sad tale of how the unfortunate "victim" has come to his death sentence, whether by natural or man-made means): "The Unfortunate Rake" (Lingenfelter & Dwyer, p. 420). Set to the tune of the Irish ballad "The Bard of Armagh" (Luriete), the "parent" of our Western saga tells quite a different story (Laws).

When British ballads were imported here to America, a major adjustment was demanded by the puritanical approaches to society (and, therefore, to the associated activities of song, dance, and storytelling). While it may have been acceptable "in the old country" to sing of a man who recklessly engaged in forbidden activities, thus suffering the consequences, once the song made it "across the pond," the lyrics either had to hide the initial event or change it completely (Koon, p. 8). So the song about a man dying of syphilis in a London hospital became a story of a man dying of a gunshot wound in the old west (of course, considering how scarce women were in the early days of the western frontier, perhaps the adjustment just made the song more believable). However, it is far more believable that a man dying of a disease (any disease) is likely to have enough time to drone on and on about his plight and funeral arrangements than one who had been shot (and in the breast, no less).

Another interesting metamorphosis of this song is that it changes regionally and occupationally. There is a version reserved for sailors, another for lumberjacks, another for soldiers, and so on. In all cases, the song is used as a "lesson" to others who might act without considering the consequences. Also, whether the poor, unfortunate victim of his own actions is dying of a gunshot or a social disease, his primary concern seems to be that his funeral be one the community will remember. While most versions mention his desire to have the drum beaten slowly and the fife played lowly as they play the death march on the graveyard trip, at least one version has adjusted that to "swing the rope slowly and ring your spurs lowly," which does not make a lot of sense, considering the next line states, "play the death march as you bear me along" (Lingenfelter & Dwyer, p. 427).

Our dying cowboy (lumberjack, railroader, gambler, etc.) requests that six (or sixteen, depending on the version) individuals (soldiers, cowboys, sailors, gamblers, railroaders, etc.) carry his coffin while six (or sixteen, depending on the version) people (young girls, handsome women, pretty maidens, young cowboys, etc.) sing him off to his grave (whether the singers are to sing along with the drums and fifes – or ropes and spurs – is unclear). He also expects the coffin to be properly adorned (roses and laurel are mentioned in some renditions) and some versions ask that those left to mourn communicate his passing to his own family (specifically, his mother and sister, in one version, and at least one other variation refers to a girlfriend). In some versions he requests some water, just prior to expiring, but he dies before the cowboy, who has listened to the tale, can return with the refreshment. For specifics on these different versions, see the references below, specifically Botkin; Lingenfelter and Dwyer; Silber; Lomax; and Hoy. There are also a great many versions of this song and its sailor, soldier, lumberjack, and Irish rake counterparts on the Internet (some are referenced here).

As the dying cowboy (lumberjack, soldier, sailor, railroader, etc.) tells his sad story to the man who has so graciously allowed his day to be interrupted by this stranger in white linen – burial clothing (Lomax, p. 384), he reminisces about being young and dashing and riding tall in the saddle, before he was taken over by a life of drinking and gambling and (in some versions) womanizing. But we are never told exactly why this poor unfortunate was shot in the first place (or, in this case, the last place). Did he steal another man's woman? Was he a cattle rustler? Did he cheat at cards? Did he rob somebody? Did he kill somebody? It is left to the imagination, but, at least in the cowboy version, he blames his impending death on the evils of alcohol and gambling. Also, in one version, he states that his family is back "in the Nation" (i.e., the United States, as opposed to Texas territory) and they do not know his whereabouts (Botkin, p. 860). In the version that requests his family be notified of his passing, he makes no clarification of their specific whereabouts (Lingenfelter & Dwyer, p. 427), certainly creating a dilemma for those left behind.

Before the women reading this get the idea that this song theme is reserved for the men in these professions, there is a version that focuses on the young girl who was similarly reckless in her behavior. Her careless consumption of alcohol was the beginning of her end, as she laments about finding herself jailed for her offense, which is not exactly clarified (Silber, p. 279).

But no matter which version one reads, the primary focus of this young person's concerns is a proper (i.e., flamboyant) burial. While the error of his ways is discussed and is certainly an issue, it is more important that the funeral be one that will remain memorable (perhaps so that people will say, "ah, I shall behave: I remember the funeral of _________ and don't want to experience that sort of fate"). While this song dates to the late 1700s, it is also thought that it became the parent lyrics for the early jazz song "St. James Infirmary" (AKA "St. James Hospital") (Silber, p. 279). The tune is significantly different, but the theme is the same; both use a first person narrative, though "St. James Infirmary" is sung from the point of view of the wronged boyfriend while "The Cowboy's Lament" is sung from a the point of view of an unrelated narrator.

"The Cowboy's Lament" was copyrighted in 1879 by Francis Henry "Frank" Maynard who allegedly wrote the lyrics following a cattle drive from Kansas to Texas. Whether or not he actually wrote all the words is in question, since various versions were known long before Maynard went on that 1870s trip that opened his eyes to many of the cowboy behaviors of Texas, but it is highly likely that some of the verses were his and his alone. He placed the location of the incident outside "Tom Sherman's barroom" (this was in Kansas, not Laredo, Texas). His version is the one that adds the reference to rope and spurs. His version also discusses the burial of his knife, guns, and spurs along with the wayward cowboy, who asks that a bottle of brandy be poured over his dead form (perhaps to exemplify all those elements that defined his life . . . or, more accurately, death). Maynard stated in an interview in 1924 that he wrote the song as a male's response to a version about a female who had lived a colorful, and fateful, life, which he heard around a campfire on one of his droving experiences (Hoy).

The theme of this classic song has been around probably much longer than anyone knows. While written origins can be traced to the late 1700s, it is probable that the basic story was told by minstrels and balladeers strolling the roads of Medieval England, warning young ladies to beware of these roguish chaps, and young men to steer clear of wayward (and disease-ridden) ladies of ill-repute. But the song keeps telling the stories (and people keep ignoring the warnings), leading us to believe that history does, indeed, repeat itself. I am certain that the ancestors of my readers never had need of these cautionary ballads; that they all lived upright and law-abiding lives. But it is more than likely that those same ancestors (at least a few of them) were known to throw back their heads and sing these words around campfires or parlor organs: "I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy. . . ."

References:

Botkin, B. A. (Ed.). A Treasury of American Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the People. New York: Crown Publishers, 1944.

Hoy, Jim. "Classic Poetry: Frances [sic.] Henry ‘Frank' Maynard." Featured at the Bar-D Ranch. Accessed 7 June 2010, from http://www.cowboypoetry.com/fhmaynard.htm#Link.

Koon, William Henry (Ed.). American Ballads and Folk Songs. Unpublished manuscript. Fullerton, CA: California State Univ., 1987.

Laws. "The Unfortunate Rake," October 1999. Folk and Traditional Song Lyrics. Accessed 7 June 2010, from http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/folk-song-lyrics/Unfortunate_Rake.htm.

Lingenfelter, Richard E., & Dwyer, Richard A. Songs of the American West. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1968.

Lomax, Alan. Folk Songs of North America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1960.

Luriete (blogger). "The Saddest Song I've Ever Heard," 3 August 2005. Metafilter: Community Weblog. Accessed 7 June 2010, from http://www.metafilter.com/44003/the-saddest-song-Ive-ever-heard.

Silber, Irwin. Songs of the Great American West. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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