What’s the Significance of ‘Streets of Laredo’ in ‘Rocketman’?
In the Elton John movie Rocketman, a young and unsuccessful Reg Dwight meets producer Ray Williams and boasts that he can play a wide range of musical styles including rock, soul, and country and western.
Williams replies that the last thing he wants to hear is another rendition of “Streets of Laredo” – which is bad news for John (played by Taron Egerton) because that’s what he was planning to perform.
Later, John and his future songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) bond over their mutual appreciation for the song. It gets a few more mentions throughout the story and an instrumental take, performed by award-winning Sting collaborator Dave Hartley, is heard on the soundtrack. So what’s its significance?
“Streets of Laredo” is also known as “Cowboy’s Lament” and it’s about a dying man who tells another of the tragedy that has befallen him. Its existence was first noted in 1910, but variants are known to have been circulating in Irish folk music since the 1700s, when it was known as “The Unfortunate Rake” (later, in England, “The Unfortunate Lad”).
The idea of John and Taupin discovering the song separately is not one of those moments in Rocketman where fiction gave way to fantasy in order to make a stronger story. Versions were recorded by Johnny Cash, John Cale, Joan Baez, Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson and many others – notably Jim Reeves in 1961 and Marty Robbins in 1959.
Robbins’ version is possibly the best-known and most popular among fans of historical western folk music, admired for its “smooth vocals and lilting guitar – a perfect combination given the poignant nature of the song.”
Listen to Marty Robbins' 'Streets of Laredo'
That’s the version that appears to have meant so much to Taupin. “Once I heard Marty Robbins, I knew I wanted to be a songwriter,” he told the Tennessean in 2018. “When I heard ‘El Paso,’ I was like, ‘You can tell stories? This can be cinematic? You can make songs out of stories?’ It’s what these guys were doing. I didn’t know what you did to write songs. I knew nothing about bridges and choruses, but I gave it a shot and it worked out.”
John probably arrived on those fabled streets via Reeves, who was one of his early inspirations. “I saw the advert in the New Musical Express saying, ‘Liberty leaving EMI, going independent, need singers and talent,’” he told Rolling Stone in 1973 about his decision to apply for the audition with Williams, as he became disillusioned with being a member of Long John Baldry’s band Bluesology.
“It was in a recording studio; they said, 'Sing us five songs.’ I didn’t know five songs, all I knew were the songs Baldry was singing and the Jim Reeves records I used to sing with at home. So I sang five Jim Reeves songs and they turned me down flat. I don’t really blame them.”
Listen to Jim Reeves' 'Streets of Laredo'
Fate was to take another turn, however. Taupin had sent some of his lyrics to Liberty, and some of those were given to John with the instruction to write music that worked with them. Before long the pair was working together – John in London and Taupin in Lincolnshire, about 150 miles away – communicating by mail and phone.
When they later met at the offices of early mentor Dick James, the personal connection between them was instant. “There was an immediate bonding,” Taupin told People in May 2019. “I think we were both searching for something. Whether it was the same thing, I’m not sure, but it was definitely two loose orphans in a storm, finding an anchor in each other.”
After a period in which Taupin “wasn’t even sure that we were going to make it,” they came up with their first hit, “Your Song,” and their success was assured. “The marriage of lyric and melody is probably perfect,” he said of the 1970 hit single. While John and Taupin don’t appear to have worked on their own take on “Streets of Laredo,” their commitment to writing songs that tell stories is in evidence all across their 52-year partnership.
And in their 1971 song “Tiny Dancer,” there’s the line “Lay me down in sheets of linen,” which at least echoes one section of the centuries-old composition:
As I walked out on the streets of Laredo
As I walked out on Laredo one day,
I spied a poor cowboy wrapped in white linen,
Wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay.