Because of Bob Dylan’s prolific songwriting talents, one of the biggest draws for Dylan obsessives is that there are always songs to be discovered. Like Coronado seeking the lost cities of gold, the completists are always on the search for an undiscovered Dylan song. With the ongoing success of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and the regular “50th Anniversary Collection” compilations released to maintain copyright protection of Dylan recordings in Europe, more and more of the Dylan rarities that previously could only found on the backside of sixth generation tapes or the dusty corners of the internet are now more accessible than ever. For years, a song such as “I’m Not There” was only available if one knew how to access the music world black market, only to have it officially released on a soundtrack of a movie named after the song. Now, it can be cued up instantaneously on any number of music streaming platforms.
Acknowledging all of this, there are still exceptions such as “Patty’s Gone to Laredo.” Click on this link and it will bring you to an official page on Dylan’s website with no lyrics. The site says it has been played “0 times” live. It appears as a recording on the 2019 release The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings. Despite the official release, the song has not been placed on any of the streaming platforms, including YouTube or Spotify.
“Patty’s Gone to Laredo” was first recorded as part of the warm ups for the Rolling Thunder Revue tour at S.I.R. Rehearsals in New York, NY on October 19, 1975. It was used as background music for a stretch of Renaldo and Clara, Dylan’s 1978 film which was filmed during the Revue. The song was copyrighted by Dylan’s camp in 1977 with the pending release of the film. A recording of the song can be found at the 4:44 mark of this video. Another recording of the song can be heard in this low quality version of the film Renaldo and Clara and skipping ahead to timemark 1:13:24:
Renaldo and Clara is a difficult movie to follow even when taking into account the low sound quality of this version. The dialogue is generally inaudible, but what can be gathered is inaccessible anyway. The scene in which “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” plays features Dylan playing Renaldo, Dylan’s wife Sara playing Clara, and Joan Baez as the mysteriously named Woman in White. The scene is trying to say something about truth and evasion before cutting to an incomprehensible exchange with Roger McGuinn and another woman. Beautiful shots of a winter landscape from a train are interwoven throughout the sequence.
But the song! If you have purchased the Rolling Thunder Revue box set, “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” is merely a song sketch, but is powerful on its own and holds a tantalizing promise of what could have been. The song starts with Dylan playing around on piano before eventually stumbling onto the main chord progression. Dylan tentatively starts to sing as a drummer attempts to follow along. An electric guitar comes in and out of the recording. Scarlet Rivera plays along with her far away, mesmerizing violin.
It’s unclear if the song is half-written or if Dylan simply can’t remember something he has already written. He certainly has the piano part and a beguiling melody which hints at so much more. It’s hard to make out the words he is singing, if he is actually singing words. A few phrases stand out:
Patty’s gone to Laredo
Everything in the blue
Patty gone to Laredo
On the [???]
Gonna fake in a barroom
Half the liquor is soon
In the high low
Don’t anything is a wedding for that old eyes
But the door is still locked
And it’s closed
Patty gone to Laredo
But she be back soon
Left Jamaica this morning
On a boat far and low
Born in [???] timber
Up where the eagles fly
That make you tell him never
But she don’t cry
And [???] slags for money on your reason why
She gonna try
It’s the doorway, the door is locked but the key’s inside.
This is poor transcription, so comment below with corrections and suggestions.
Despite the paucity of material, there’s so much loaded into this song sketch, not the least of which is the absolutely gorgeous melody that Dylan has crafted, generating much of the allure of “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” as it stands. The melody sounds a bit like “Joshua Gone Barbados” crossed with “The Water is Wide” and a great deal of border music flair. As for the lyrics that we can make out, there are some enticing leads. For years, there were rumors that Dylan had written a song about Patty Hearst. It’s unclear if the rumor is based on this recording of “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” or something else, but there are connections between what we have and what we know about Patty Hearst. She was a descendent of famed newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In 1974 at age 19, she was subjected to a horrific experience as she was kidnapped by a leftist terrorist organization called the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was subsequently brainwashed and forced to participate in criminal activities such as a major bank robbery and shootout. The public learned of her kidnapping and the ransom demands, but knew nothing of her ordeal and only saw the news about her participation in the group’s activities thinking she had crossed over to join them. After the bank robbery, her whereabouts and status were unknown and the cause of a great deal of speculation. She was eventually arrested on September 18, 1975 after being gone for 19 months. Dylan recorded “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” on October 19, 1975, a month after her arrest while media conjecture about Hearst’s story continued.
The questions that the public kept asking about Patty Hearst during the time that she was gone included: What happened? Did she really flip? Where is she now? Answering the last question is the central conceit of “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” with not only Laredo mentioned, but also her previous location being Jamaica. The lyrics that are the most significant in the song are the final words: “The door is locked but the key’s inside.” Dylan sings the line clearly with a great deal of feeling and maybe even regret. There’s not much context, so it’s hard to draw much, but the words could be allusions to Patty’s status as a victim of kidnapping.
Another song that is thought to be inspired by Patty Hearst’s story is Neil Young’s “Pushed It Over the End.” It was first played in public by Young during a surprise solo acoustic performance at New York’s Bottom Line on May 16, 1974. This performance happened three months after the kidnapping and one month after Hearst was caught “on surveillance video wielding an M1 carbine while robbing the Sunset District branch of the Hibernia Bank” and yelling, “I’’m Tania. Up, up, up against the wall, motherfuckers!” Two men were wounded in the robbery.
Young introduces the song as “Citizen Kane Jr. Blues,” which is a big hint as to who the song is portraying since William Randolph Hearst is the acknowledged inspiration for Citizen Kane and Patty Hearst is his granddaughter. He sings:
Good lookin’ Milly’s got a gun in her hand
But she don’t know how to use it
Sooner or later she’ll have to take a stand
And she ain’t about to lose it.
All the towns people gather around
They’ve come to see what’s going down
Although no one hears a sound
There’s another poor man falling down.
This verse certainly seems to be referencing Patty Hearst’s taking up arms for the revolutionary cause, but the uncertainty of her action is underlined in that she has the gun in her hand, “But she don’t know how to use it.” Young goes on to reference how Patty Hearst’s story had captured the imagination of the public: “All the townspeople gather around / They’ve come to see what’s going down.” Despite all of this, two men were wounded in the bank robbery as “There’s another poor man falling down.”
The song makes the public image of the radicalized Patty Hearst hinting that this was a choice by Hearst rather than as a result of brainwashing which the public did not know at the time. Young sings in the chorus:
On this noisy shore
Standing at the edge of you.
Could those dreams of yours be true
Or did you, did you, did you
Pushed it over the end?
How much time did you spend?
Pushed it over the end.
“The noisy shore” could be a reference to Milly/Patty Hearst taking up revolutionary politics. Young invents a narrator who is closely connected to Milly/Patty Hearts; he is “standing on the edge of you.” The narrator dares to think that “those dreams of yours” could actually come true. The narrator’s dreams turn to nightmares as he asks: Is this about to happen? Are we actually going to commit these crimes, these acts violence? Has the Milly/Patty Hearst character taken it all too far? Young certainly thinks so as he hauntingly sings, “Pushed it over the end,” repeating the phrase over and over again. Young is saying that there are some lines that should not be crossed and she has left that line far behind.
This isn’t the only time that Young attempted to transform a decidedly public news story into a personal reflection through his songwriting. In 1974, which is the same year as he wrote “Pushed It Over the End,” Young attempted to take on the persona of an acolyte of a Charles Manson-type figure, recording the seriously spooky “Revolution Blues” from the album On the Beach. It ends with these bone-chilling lines:
I got the revolution blues, I see bloody fountains
And ten million dune buggies comin’ down the mountains
Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars
But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars.
In both of these songs, Young is considering the horrific, often unspoken product of the counterculture. In some cases, the mixture of drugs, guns, and radical politics resulted in violence and the loss of innocent life, which are in direct contrast to the ideals and vision of the so-called “Woodstock Generation.” In both songs, Young explores the cognitive dissonance of these competing viewpoints and contends with the true darkness of the times.
Young’s Bottom Line performance of the song is only available on bootleg. He played the song a number of times with a full band during the CSNY 1974 tour, but never released a studio version of the song. Perhaps as details of Patty Hearst’s ordeal were revealed, Young realized that he had gotten the story wrong so left the song behind.
In Dylan’s song “Patty’s Gone to Laredo,” the other key component to consider is Laredo, the Texas town situated on the U.S.-Mexico border. The town doesn’t appear to be referred to in any way besides the title phrase. We know that Dylan feels a connection to the border as it has been the setting for a number of songs over his career (see previous posts on “Brownsville Girl” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”). Dylan’s familiarity with cowboy songs is also apparent, so despite differences in the melodies of the two songs, it is not too far of a leap to connect “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” with the old cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo”:
This is a version by Marty Robbins from 1960, but “Streets of Laredo” has been recorded numerous times and has become a folk music standard. First published in song collector John Lomax’s 1910 book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, the song tells the story of a dying cowboy. In the Robbins version, the narrator comes across a young cowboy “Wrapped in white linen, as cold as the clay.” The young cowboy wants to share his story with the narrator, though asks for a cup of water first. When the narrator returns, the young cowboy has died. The chorus goes:
Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly
Sing the Death March as you carry me along
Take me to the valley, there lay the sod o’er me
I’m a young cowboy and know I’ve done wrong.
There’s a neat trick with the chorus as the lines express the desires of the young cowboy telling the narrator of the song how he wants to be memorialized after he has died. The young cowboy calls for a “Death March” to be sung as he is carried along; his instructions for the playing of this song is to “beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly.” The implication is that the “Death March” that is to be sung in the young cowboy’s honor is “Streets of Laredo,” the very song that we are hearing. In a spin on the old cliché, this isn’t a voice from beyond the grave, but rather this voice is barking out commands while in the process of dying, a voice from before the grave.
The source of the song “Streets of Laredo” is an even older folk ballad called “The Unfortunate Rake,” which tells the story of a young man who is dying of a venereal disease after not heeding the calls of his father to change his lifestyle. The song also has instructions as to how the song’s subject would like to be memorialized. “The Unfortunate Rake” has many variants beyond “Streets of Laredo” that utilize the same song structure, themes, and mournful melody. One version is “St. James Infirmary Blues,” the jazz standard made famous by Louis Armstrong, which is also the inspiration for another Dylan song, “Blind Willie McTell” (written about here on Recliner Notes).
Another variant of “The Unfortunate Rake” — this time, “The Unfortunate Lad” — was used memorably in the final story in the Coen Brothers film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film is an anthology of stories from the American West all contending with death in different ways. One story tells of a character portrayed by James Franco who escapes a hanging only to be captured again. As he is being prepared to be hanged again, he looks over at his neighbor despondently sobbing on the gallows, and says, “Hmm. First time?” The Coen Brothers have been accused of using gallows humor in their movies before, but now are literally depicting gallows humor in this scene.
In the last story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the actor Brendan Gleeson sings his own acapella version of “The Unfortunate Lad” as his character and his companions slowly realize that the stagecoach ride that they are on has a different destination than originally intended:
Gleeson’s character sings a song in which a character tells another how to prepare for his death as Gleeson’s character and his fellow stagecoach riders are accepting their own fates. It’s a clever and highly affecting piece of filmmaking, made complete by Gleeson’s manner and voice in his rendition of the old folk ballad. Gleeson’s character sings, “But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.” The grief made clear in that line is matched by the last line in the chorus of “Streets of Laredo”: “I’m a young cowboy and know I’ve done wrong.” These are lines heavy with regret, the young cowboy lamenting his actions that have resulted in his death are also shared by the unfortunate lad. The emotion embedded in both songs may be a possible connection to “Patty’s Gone to Laredo.” Perhaps Dylan is attaching that same regret to Patty Hearst. By placing her in Laredo and associating her with “Streets of Laredo” and thus with “The Unfortunate Lad,” Dylan envisions her having the same misgivings and perhaps even a desire for repentance as shared by the young cowboy and the lad.
Alas, we as listeners have our own regrets with the song “Patty’s Gone to Laredo.” There is so much potential from a slim song sketch that is hardly even performed from a few scant lines that can barely be overheard in a movie that is available on scratchy bootleg recordings. The other option is purchasing an expensive box set.
Image: Henry Wellge (attributed) (1850-1917)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons