Streets of Laredo: About the Song

Streets of Laredo
Cowboys in Newton, Kansas

Historical Background

When cowboys finally reached town after months on the trail, they were eager to shake off the dust and spend their pay. They would get haircuts, take showers, polish their boots, put on fancy shirts, and head for a saloon to drink, play billiards, and gamble. Generally, they were just looking to have a good time in these railhead towns. The frequency of gunfights and fatal shootings has been greatly exaggerated in books and movies through the years. Although these occurrences did happen, the dangers of the cattle drive, including stampedes, lightning, and leading herds across swift flowing rivers, took many more lives.

Song History

The story of one unfortunate cowboy who met a violent end in one of these towns is told in the song "Streets of Laredo." Laredo is located in Southern Texas and was not one of the early railheads, but there are over a hundred different versions of this ballad set in almost as many towns across the West. The song evolved from a seventeenth century British ballad about a soldier who died of syphilis. It has been known by countless titles, including "The Bard of Armagh," "The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime," "The Dying Cowboy," and "The Cowboy's Lament." The main character has had almost as many occupations as those present in American life.


As I walked out in the streets of Laredo
As I walked out in Laredo one day
I spied a dear cowboy wrapped up 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 boldly stepped by
"Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story
I am shot in the breast and I know I must die

"It was once in the saddle I used to go dashing
It was once in the saddle I used to go gay
But I first took to drinkin' and then to card playin'
Got shot in the breast and I am dying today

"Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly
Play the dead march as you carry me along
Take me to the green valley, there 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
Put 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 all loved our comrade, so brave, young, and handsome
We all loved our comrade although he'd done wrong

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