Streets of Laredo: Frank & John Stewart
Once upon a time, about a decade ago, someone closely associated with John Stewart asked me if I remembered an apocryphal anecdote about Frank Zappa meeting John Stewart. I had a vague memory at the time, I mean this was 1963 they're asking me about and at the time they'd asked (2003 maybe), I was in the middle of editing a huge music section and couldn't fall right back into that groove. I'm still not sure I have, but I'm teetering that way.
This is what I remember. Frank had bombed at the Meeting Place. I had bombed at the Meeting Place. John Stewart would likely be met with applause and adulation there because his brother Mike Stewart worked the place so often and would pep up the crowd to expect an appearance by his famous brother, John Stewart, who was about to join the Kingston Trio.
Before Frank went to the Meeting Place, I showed him some of Dorothy Chase's fingerpicking handouts, and we rehearsed a little bit. I taught him "The Streets of Laredo", an old cowboy song.
This is a lonely song sung by a cowboy as he rides his horse, and tells a tale of warning. The song's usual storyline is he had come upon a dying cowboy on display in town. The soon to be corpse of a badman who had been caught, hung or shot, and was on display to warn people to behave. Usually the corpse in a coffin was propped up against a building so people could take a look as they walked past, or even have their photos taken with the coffin and dead criminal ... You know, Railroad Bill was one of those .. he was black ... and his song was better, because he'd been made a folk hero in song ... That's why I had Railroad Bill (the Barbara Dane or Whiskeyhill Singers version) in my feeble folk repertoire. But no! In the Streets of Laredo, this guy was still alive and bleeding when they wrapped him in linen and shoved him in a coffin and waited for his eventual death.
But I had taught Frank the funny version, the one changed from its usual dolorous ending into a comedic outburst as done by the Kingston Trio in 1961 (and John Stewart was about to become a member of the Kingston Trio when all this happened).
This is how the Streets of Laredo usually start (echoing far off lonely voice):
As I walked out in the Streets of Laredo
As I walked out in Laredo one day
I spied a young cowboy wrapped up in white linen
Wrapped up in white linen and cold as the clay
(The harsh punishing townspeople knew the bad cowboy was dying and wrapped him in linen to prepare to bury him once he'd died and went on display. And the dying cowboy sings to the pedestrian onlooker strolling by)
"I can see by your outfit that you are a cowboy
I see by your outfit you are a cowboy too.
You see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.
So get yourself an outfit, and be a cowboy too."
That version was the one which Frank later tried to teach to John Stewart.
Well, it was very funny at the time.