Cowboy PoetryAn essay by Hal Cannon, Founding Director of the Western Folklife Center
In January of 1985 I stood with buckaroo, Waddie Mitchell in back of two hundred folding chairs we had just unfolded for the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Waddie looked at me and said, "Hey, pard, we should put some of these chairs away. This is going to be embarrassing".
I thought back to the thousands of back road miles my folklorist friends and I had driven to ranches asking for recitations; the letters to editors of a thousand rural western papers seeking ranch poets to step forward; the many ranch scrapbooks I had leafed through -- photos of prize bulls framed lovingly next to children dressed in stiff Levi's with eight inch folded cuffs going off to first days of school, followed by cut out poems from the livestock auction calendar by Bruce Kiskaddon. Who was this Kiskaddon? Why did the bull and kid faces change but the poems by Kiskaddon persist?
Just then ranchers and cowboy families started filling the chairs. We all stood back amazed as 1500 people traveled in the middle of winter, to the middle of no where for a poetry reading. These people had finally come together to say there own poem, tell their own story, and sing there own song. No longer did the expressive life of the cowboy need to be filtered through the professional interpreters.
It has always seemed curious to me that one occupation, that of a cowboy, is so charged with mythic qualities, so complete with its own language, dress, decorative style in tools, all persisting in the modern world. Where did all this come from? There are no historic narratives from the trail drives following the Civil War which explain the chemistry which mixed an incredibly diverse lot of men together, in the wilderness, relying on each other and animals for long and trying odysseys. From this experience came an amazing amalgam of language, style and code which forever would identify Americans. It was a jazz of Irish storytelling and lore, Scottish seafaring and cattle tending, Moorish and Spanish Horsemanship, European Cavalry, African improvisation, and a reluctant observation of Native American survival that can be heard and seen in this way of life, even today. The wealth of expression -- written and told, sketched and painted, braided and sewn -- in a single, relatively uncommon occupation makes for more questions than answers.
By the 1870's, books of cowboy poems started the trickle out, cowboy novels spread like prairie fire, and by 1910 cowboy songs started being collected. The cowboy image was set on its own course, a course of music, film making, and literature that as the years passed strayed increasingly from the reality of ranch life. By the early 1980s when our team of folklorists began a concerted effort to document cowboy poetry and music the commercial cowboy fire had burned out, the ranching community was adamantly suspicious of any and all interpretations of their culture by outsiders. At the same time most were shy in presenting their story to a larger world. The art of the ranching community was an insiders affair.
No longer is this the case. There is truly a renaissance of cowboy arts. This new artistic movement is powered by a way of life, which is under great social pressure. Grazing on the open lands of the West is being challenged by urban-based powers on every front. There is a fight for limited water in arid West, recreationalist and environmentalists want pristine and natural places where cattle now graze and trample the land. Small, rural, western towns are being strangled by economics which always favor the city. Beyond the cry from the wilderness, beyond the mere nostalgic look at a vanishing past, there is a strength and knowledge in this poetry, story and song.
Today there are over 300 scheduled poetry gatherings in small western towns wherever people raise beef cows. There are a handful of journals and magazines which publish cowboy poetry. In the genre of poetry alone there have been over five hundred books published in the past century. There is a revitalized cowboy singing tradition based on the singer- songwriter. The recordings come every day.
What does this mean to Americans, most of whom may question the very existence of the cowboy in today's world? To find pertinence I am asking you park the John Wayne imitation, slip off your pointy snakeskin boots and listen and look at the words, images, and sounds in this book and recording. What you won't find is the hackneyed version of the cowboy, the cowboy that Europeans invoke on American politicians and businessmen when we act with little regard for others. What we find is the vision of men and women who work on the land, on large expanses of the arid West. Ranch people have a tradition. It is supercharged with the popular cowboy image but it has also given them a legacy which expects vision, courage, nobility, and much more. The social tradition is of old-style rural values which puts high premium on good neighboring and a conservatism born of nature, not knee-jerk blindness. Ranch people are grounded. Literally, most people have lost their day-to-day reliance on living outside, being tied to what the ground can produce. This ancient need in man is not met in most of our lives. In the cramped conditions of city living -- a modern life -- we have lost our tie to animal intelligence. In places where the concentration of humans is negligible ranch people live with animal reliance, they live with wildness. In an expressive world cowboys have always had a tradition which puts premium on language and stories to instruct in the complicated seasons of hard work and a Spartan existence. Beyond tradition there is a kind of innovation which is accessible to people who are not obliged to uphold many of the institutions that most of us in the city are addicted to. Even though ranch people are good neighbors they also see themselves as independent thinkers.
The stories, songs, and poems that come out of this new movement are many things. At best they honestly recognize loss. They protest the way the modern world is going. They offer advice to a disintegrating world society. They make us laugh with the ridiculous. In short they span the human experience of life and livelihood on the ranch. Inherently, much of what is written is best appreciated by those who share the life. But the reason this book and other books, this and other recordings, are now being offered to a larger public is that we all believe there is vision here which can illuminate us all.