Founded in 1755, Laredo, Texas was then a part of the New Spain Spanish colony in what is modern day Mexico. Located on the west end of the Rio Grande Plains, just east of the Mexican Mountains, it was only after the 1846 Mexican-American War that the area including Laredo was ceded to the United States thanks to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Laredo is one of the oldest border crossing points and is now the third most populated city along the US-Mexico border, home to a quarter million people. Laredo takes its name from the Basque word meaning 'beautiful pastures' and it's perhaps these pastures of grass and mesquite that made Laredo synonymous with cowboys.
“Streets of Laredo” is a cowboy ballad derived from an English folk song, “The Unfortunate Lad.” As a folk standard, “Streets of Laredo” has been performed by the likes of Johnny Cash, Joan Baez and Marty Robbins, although authorship of the revised version was claimed by Frank H. Maynard in 1924. Also known as the Cowboy's Lament, “Streets of Laredo” is the story of a cowboy as told by a young cowboy about to die due to a fatal gunshot wound, to another cowboy who passes by the young man's body in the streets of Laredo. Perhaps the original name is more fitting considering the melancholy lyrics including the final line, “For we loved our comrade, so brave, young and handsome, We all loved our comrade, although he'd done wrong,” maintaining the air of tragedy intrinsic to country music as a genre.
Marty Robbins (1925-1982) was one of the most successful and popular country and Western singers of his day, with a discography including over 50 studio albums and 13 compilation albums. He charted 17 Number One singles on the Hot Country Songs chart and his album never strayed far from the Billboard 200. His rendition of “Streets of Laredo” appears only on his Greatest Hits compilation. Despite the numerous covers of this song, fans of country music tend to favour Robbins' version for his smooth vocals and lilting guitar – a perfect combination given the poignant nature of the song.
While “Streets of Laredo” remains a popular folk standard, the song has garnered even greater fame as the inspiration for the 1993 novel similarly titled Streets of Laredo written by Larry McMurtry. The novel, fourth and final in the Lonesome Dove series, is a Western classic following the adventures of ex-Texas Ranger Captain Woodrow F. Call. The book was then made into a TV series starring James Garner and Sissy Spacek in 1995, further immortalising the song. “Streets of Laredo” was also used in Ang Lee's 2005 cowboy movie, Brokeback Mountain.
Laredo today is a bustling University town home to Texas A&M International University. The people of Laredo take pride in their sports facilities from the two 18-hole golf courses, to their baseball stadiums, as well as the massive Laredo Energy Arena home to indoor soccer, hockey, arena football, basketball and wrestling teams, supporting their numerous professional sports teams. Once a small border town at the edge of the country, Laredo has risen above its humble cowboy origins, while never letting go of that Lone Star spirit so ingrained in its people and culture, and exemplified in songs like “Streets of Laredo.” ~ Suzanne van Rooyen
Thanks to Carlos for suggesting this Songplace.
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter.