Campfire Songs: Learn ‘Streets of Laredo’ With Four Cowboy Chords

Learn to play 'The Streets of Laredo' (aka “Cowboy’s Lament”), in the key of C major, using four cowboy chords: C (I), G (V), F (IV), and D (II).

In the memorable final scene of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest Coen Brothers film, the actor Brendan Gleeson sings an unaccompanied version of “The Unfortunate Lad” (aka “The Unfortunate Rake”), a number that represents an excellent example of the folk process at work. The song originated in the late 1700s as an Irish ballad and spawned many variations, including an American version, “Streets of Laredo” (aka “Cowboy’s Lament”), in which an unlucky cowboy meets his untimely demise in Texas.

“Streets of Laredo” has received lots of great interpretations over the years, by artists such as Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, and Chet Atkins to name just a few. It’s often played with just four chords—the I, the IV, the V, and the V/V, or II—making it ideally suited for campfire play. The arrangement shown here, not based on a particular version, is in the guitar-friendly key of C major and uses the basic C (I), G (V), F (IV), and D (II) chords. If you’d like, for a little harmonic variety, substitute G7 for the G chord—just play the first-fret F on string 1 with your first finger.


I’ve provided two basic accompaniment patterns, both in 3/4, or waltz time, which will work well for the arrangement. In the first approach, pick a bass note on beat 1, followed by eighth-note (two per beat) down-up strums on beats 2 and 3. Or, try playing the chords as either finger- or flat-picked arpeggios. Remembering to hold down each chord shape for as long as possible, pick the individual chord tones in flowing eighth notes. If you’re fingerpicking, articulate the notes on the bottom strings with your thumb, and those on the higher strings with your index and middle fingers; if using a plectrum, use whatever pick strokes feel most natural.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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