History

The Truth About Streets of Laredo: Do You Know the Song’s Origin?

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“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.” The many different versions of the song cast the protagonist as a youthful soldier, cowboy, maiden, or sailor.  The character who has done this “disordering” is variously referred to as a prostitute or camp follower, but in one version she is “my heart’s delight.” The dying youth laments his earlier act of ignoring of his father’s warnings about his “wicked ways,” and requests a funeral to be organized by the narrator, one featuring a pall of six pretty maidens. The maidens will carry “bunches of roses” to overwhelm the stench of his dead body.

The Truth About Streets of Laredo: Do You Know the Song's Origin?
The man responsible for adapting the lyrics of the Irish ballad to the modern version was likely a working cowboy named Frank H. Maynard. When he was sixteen, Maynard left his Iowa home and set out in search of adventure in the glory days of the old west. In 1870, he hunted buffalo for the first time in Kansas. By spring 1872, Maynard was a working cowboy, thriving in a lifestyle he apparently loved. He participated in numerous horse and cattle drives. Maynard’s cowboying days came to an end when he was married in 1881. He later worked as a successful carpenter in Colorado.

 

As early as 1876, Maynard had devised new lyrics to the song that would become “Streets of Laredo.”  Over time, Maynard would come to write articles and poetry about his cowboy days. In 1878, Ed Masterson, Marshal of Dodge City and the brother of famed Bat Masterson, was killed in a gunfight. Maynard sang one of his poems over his friend’s grave. In 1911, Maynard self-published his book Rhymes of the Range and Trail.

The Truth About Streets of Laredo: Do You Know the Song's Origin?
It wasn’t until 1923 that Maynard achieved a degree of fame as the lyricist of “Streets of Laredo.” At the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs, Maynard was working as a night watchman for the simple pleasure of being close to the cowboy world of his glory days. While at the rodeo, a professor and former reporter named Elmo Scott Watson learned Maynard’s story. Watson wrote an article about him, and the story made national news.

 

From its origin as the lament of an Irish rake suffering from a fatal case of venereal disease to its adaptation to tell the story of a dying cowboy, “Streets of Laredo” bears the mark of many bards in its folk evolution. It also preserves the spirit of a lost time and place, never losing its power to touch us with its tragic tale. The song is destined to remain an immortal classic of American music.

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