Boy Bandit King: Songs about Billy the Kid
The story of William H. Bonney, born Henry McCarty and known as Billy the Kid, has proven to be a remarkably fertile one, artistically speaking. He killed at least eight men in his 21 years. A few he murdered in fights, a few he killed as part of the legendary Regulators in the Lincoln County War, and a few he killed in a daring prison escape. In the end, as you probably know, he was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who later wrote a book about Bonney and is probably as responsible as anyone for The Kid's mythic status.
The bare facts of his story are open to many different interpretations, including at least 140 films, from Poverty Row serials to Weird Westerns to Acid Westerns. Sometimes he's a hero, sometimes an antihero, sometimes a villain,and sometimes, as the film Dirty Little Billy explained in its advertising campaign, he's just a punk.
He shows up in songs as well, and they seem just as uncertain and varied in their representation of the character. Here are my favorite examples.
1. "Billy the Kid," Ry Cooder
This folk song is of uncertain origin, but it was recorded by Alan Lomax in his 1934 book "American Ballads and Folk Songs" and is probably much older. The songs gets facts about Billy the Kid right, such as placing him in Silver City, NM, and gets facts wrong about The Kid, such as the claim that he killed 21 men. The song also treats The Kid heroically and sympathetically, both calling him a "boy bandit king" and opining that anyone might likewise find circumstance pushing them into the life of a killer.
There are a number of recordings of this, but I especially like the Ry Cooder version from his 1972 album "Into the Purple Valley." Starting with a sprightly mandolin part, soon joined by Cooder's signature electric slide guitar, Cooder sings the songs with a thin, slightly nervous quality that sometimes pushes into a sort of vocal bravado, like the song is exciting the singer. Cooder is not the best or most memorable singer on this list, but his vocal uncertainty gives this recording a rough, folkish quality that might have been lost in a song with such virtuoso instrumental playing.
2. "Billy the Kid," Bobbie Gentry
Bobbie Gentry is one of country's most complicated artists: unabashedly feminist, multiply talented (she generally wrote and produced her own albums and sometimes even painted the covers), and often marvelously ambiguous. Her version of the Billy the Kid story didn't get much traction in the U.S., as far as I can tell, having been released as an extra track on the British version of her 1970 album "Fancy."
Gentry's song is marvelously contradictory, featuring an arrangement that is almost a parody of a cowboy songs, including a bouncy guitar, a clip clopping sound made my somebody clucking their tongue, a cheerful whistle, and a bass portion played on saxophone that sounds borrowed from a Pink Panther movie. Occasionally a lush, soft rock orchestra kicks in.
Gentry sings of watching The Kid on old movies on television and having compassion for his circumstances, blaming his murderousness mostly on a lack of a paternal figure in his life. One gets the sense that that's not Gentry's real concern, as in the chorus she actually turns into a cheerleader for his violence. "Shoot 'em in the belly, Billy," she sings, "shoot 'em in the head!"
3. "The Fastest Gun Around," Marty Robbins
Marty Robbins sang about Billy the Kid on his first collection of cowboy songs, "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs" from 1959, and he sang the same folk song that Ry Cooder later tackled. Robbons' version features Spanish guitar and his soaring, bravura vocals; it's a superb minor key variation of the song.
But I prefer a song from his 1965 album "The Return Of The Gunfighter," written by country songwriters Jeanne Pruett and Jim Glaser, the latter of whom was a longtime back up vocalist for Robbins and presumably sang on this song.
It's a series of paired rhyming couplets with a simple, rolling melody that repeats itself throughout the song, sometimes modulating upward to build excitement, sung over a nattering, fast series of Mexican sounding guitar figures, with a chorus singing "ah" in a strangely excited way in the background.
The story is simple, and fictional, telling of an aspiring gunslinger who decides to test his mettle against Billy the Kid and comes out worse for it, leaving The Kid wondering just how long he will continue to be the fastest on the draw.
4. "Me and Billy the Kid," Joe Ely
Singer/songwriter Joe Ely produced this list's most eccentric take on Billy the Kid from his 1987 album "Lord of the Highway," singing over a beat box and new wave power chords with an occasional synthesizer reproducing the high, lonesome howls of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack.
Ely imagines himself as Billy the Kid's best friend-cum-worst enemy. The kid was hopped up on speed, Ely complains, and he parted his hair badly, and he wore his gun wrong. Ely and The Kid share a girlfriend in the song, who the Kid is especially bad to, shooting her chihuahua, and all of it pushes Ely toward killing The Kid in a deliberately terrible robbery scheme. "I don't feel bad," Ely tells listeners.
5. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," Bob Dylan
Let's close with what must be the most famous Billy the Kid song, although it never mentions him by name. Bob Dylan's 1973 song, from his soundtrack for "Pat Garret and Billy the Kid," is one of Dylan's most popular from his post-60s career, and is regularly counted as both one of the best rock and best country songs written.
The song is funereal, sung over simple strummed acoustic and arpeggiated electric guitars, but fleshed out with a powerful, mournful, vaguely gospel chorus. The song is written from the point of view of The Kid, sung at the moment of death, and relies on uniquely Western representations of the moment, including the removal of a badge and burying of guns.
The song was regularly sung as a cast singalong after daily filming ended on 1988's "Young Guns," the Emilio Estevez-starring, critically derided retelling of the Billy the Kid story. The cast apparently decided to take a break from a poor retelling of the tale to honor a better one.