It was premiered on October 16, 1938, in Chicago by the Ballet Caravan Company, with pianists Arthur Gold and Walter Hendl performing a two-piano version of the score. The first performance of Billy the Kid in New York City occurred on May 24, 1939, with an orchestra conducted by Fritz Kitzinger.
The story follows the life of the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid. It begins with the sweeping song "The Open Prairie" and shows many pioneers trekking westward. The action shifts to a small frontier town, in which a young Billy and his mother are present. Billy's mother is killed by an outlaw, and Billy himself kills the murderer, and goes on the run.
The scene then shifts to years in the future. Billy is an outlaw living in the desert. He is captured by a posse (in which the ensuing gun battle features prominent percussive effects) and taken to jail, but manages to escape after stealing a gun from the warden during a game of cards. Returning to his hideout, Billy thinks he is safe, but Pat Garrett catches up and kills Billy. The ballet ends with the 'open prairie' theme and pioneers once again travelling west.
^This October 16 premiere date is persistently but incorrectly listed as October 6 in many standard reference works and Copland biographies, but contemporary advertisements and reviews in Chicago newspapers confirm October 16 as the correct premiere date.