I first listened properly to this song thanks to John Cale, who has a propensity for taking a well-known song and applying a near-malevolent twist to it. Perhaps his most successful, and certainly well-known reconstruction, in this vein is Elvis Presley drama Heartbreak Hotel which exists in two recorded versions.
But my favorite reworking is the gloom-laden version of The Streets Of Laredo that John Cale recorded on his Honi Soit album in 1981. This a stark and bleak recording, with prominent drum beat and Cale’s on-the-verge-of-dementia voice right up front, and it is hard not to consider that this performance led Nick Cave (at that time thrashing away with The Birthday Party) along the pathway to his solo career as modern balladeer.
I had the opportunity to reconsider this song thanks to the collection “Back In The Saddle Again”, a double CD set of cowboy ballads spanning the 1920s to the 1980s that I picked up as part of the background listening for my current music course.
Here we have the song performed as an accompanied ballad by John G. Prude, and is a good example of a naturalized ballad. It derives from the old British broadside (i.e. printed) ballad “The Unfortunate Rake”, but changes the words to place the story in an American context. Note that this is not a native ballad, i.e. a story that derives directly from American folk history.
Interestingly, Mr. Prude lives up to his name by changing to the cause of the poor young cowboy’s demise to a shoot-out at a gambling house. The subject of the original ballad dies as a result of venereal disease (syphilis most likely) contracted via a much less respectable sin. John Cale restores an ambiguity to the cowboy’s demise, adding considerably to the ballad’s innate menace. Mr. Prude’s version, at a much faster tempo, and concerned perhaps rather more with sustaining the melody than the drama of the tale is a good example of an old and authentic version that does not necessarily triumph artistically over later recreations. Thoroughly Corporeal though.