“Billy the Kid (I)”


"I'll sing you a true song of Billy the Kid, I'll sing of the desperate deeds that he did." Billy "went bad" in Silver City as "a very young lad." He soon has 21 notches on his pistol, but wants Sheriff Pat Garrett for 22. But Garrett shoots Billy first


This song has been (falsely) credited to Woody Guthrie, who recorded it in the 1940s. - PJS

Might this be because the tune has come to be better known as (the verse of) "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You"?

This song, like so many "bad man" ballads, is a mix of the false and the true. Dale L. Walker, _Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West_, Forge, 1997, p. 112, writes, "Why Billy the Kid is among that handful of Old West names... that are instantly recognized around the world is not clear. The Kid had no significant history. He never served in a war, never blazed a trail, never traveled beyond a few hundred miles of his boyhood home, had no special talents, and knew no one of importance.... He rose to a brief regional prominence in an obscure regional power struggle [starting in 1878] and by the summer of 1881 he was dead."

Yet Walker believes that at there are at least 900 books, major magazine articles, poems, and plays about him (based on a bibliography which listed over 400 as of around 1950, with the number only increasing since).

According to Bill O'Neal, _Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters_, p. 4, only four deaths can be unequivocally blamed on Billy the Kid, even though he boasted of killing 21 "not counting Mexicans." O'Neal on p. 5 does credit Billy with five "possible killings or assists," and lists him as participating in 21 gunfights.

According to O'Neal's main entry on Billy (pp.198-203), the future Kid was born Henry McCarty, in Indiana or New York in 1859 (the _Concise Dictionary of American Biography_ lists New York only, with no hesitation, and lists Billy's birth name as William Bonney, the name he used throughout his later career. But Walker agrees with O'Neal in calling him Henry McCarty, of Irish ancestry, possibly born in New York City. How this is reconciled with the statement that he never traveled far I am not sure).

The family moved to Kansas when Billy was very young, then to New Mexico after Billy's father died. His mother remarried in 1873, but died in 1874 (Walker, p. 113).

Soon after, Billy (then still just Henry McCarty, or "Kid Antrim" after the name of his stepfather) started in on a life of petty crime. The song is right in accusing him of "going bad" in Silver City, in New Mexico; soon after his mother died, he was engaged in petty theft. Imprisoned, he soon escaped (Walker, p. 113).

His career for the next two years was obscure, but he killed a man in Bonito, Arizona in 1877 (Walker, p. 114). Again imprisoned, he again escaped, and took the pseudonym "William Bonney."

He was actively involved in a range war the next year. In the process, Billy's boss John Henry Tunstall was killed. Billy declared that Tunstall was the only man he ever worked for who treated him fairly, and so insisted on revenge (Walker, p. 116). Several people died in the next few months, though Billy was not responsible for most of the deaths.

In 1878, newly-appointed territorial governor Lew Wallace offered an amnesty, but Billy was under an independent indictment, so though he offered testimony, he then took off and formed an outlaw gang (Walker, pp. 118-119).

Captured and imprisoned in 1880 by a posse led by Pat Garrett (Walker, p. 120), he killed two guards and escaped in early 1881 (Walker, pp. 121-122). On the night of July 14, 1881, he paid a brief visit to a Mexican girlfriend (Walker, p. 122), then visited another house where Garrett was waiting in hiding, and Garrett shot him to death (Walker, p. 123).

For some reason, most famous outlaws seem to have had second lives, with impostors claiming to be the dead outlaws who somehow escaped their fates. (See "Jesse James (III)" for examples of the phenomenon). Walker, pp. 125-136, examines some of the Billy impersonators. In one case, he actually seems somewhat sympathetic to the claim. - RBW

Historical references

  • 1859 - Birth of William H. Bonney, the man most often labelled "Billy the Kid"
  • 1881 - Death of William Bonney at the hands of Pat Garrett, who traced him to the home of a Mexican girlfriend

Same tune

  • So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh (File: Arn165)


  • Vernon Dalhart, "Billy the Kid" (Columbia 15135-D [as Al Craver], 1927) (Brunswick 100, 1927) (OKeh 45102, 1927) (one of these recordings is on RoughWays2, but we don't know which)


  1. Lomax-FSNA 202, "Billy the Kid" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 137-138, "Billy the Kid" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Fife-Cowboy/West 96, "Billy the Kid" (3 texts, 1 tune, but the "C" text is "Billy the Kid (II)")
  4. Burt, p. 193, "(Song of Billy the Kid)" (1 excerpt)
  5. Silber-FSWB, p. 208, "Billy the Kid" (1 text)
  7. Roud #5097
  8. BI, LoF202


Author: Andrew Jenkins
Earliest date: 1927 (recordings, Vernon Dalhart)
Keywords: outlaw youth death police
Found in: US