Some items are worth preserving
For four days in January, I sat in Elko, Nevada and wondered what my love of cowboys and their poetry was all about.
Ever since I owned the Hotel Leger in Mokelume Hill, I have had a soft spot in my heart for cowboy music and poetry. Sometimes I’d hire a bluegrass group to play in the saloon on Saturday night, but most of the time, cowboys would tune up their fiddles or guitars and we’d all dance the night away.
When I started teaching poetry in the Bay Area, I introduced cowboy poetry to my students. Some of them balked but others found the form and subject a lot of fun.
I realized then that cowboy poetry and lyrics were a very important part of the history of our country.
In fact, cowboys, their way of life, their love of country and God expressed in their poems and music have created our country’s only original form of an art that’s truly American.
For years, I’ve gone to cowboy poetry gatherings. The first Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held in Elko, 25 years ago. Since then, Cowboy Poetry Gatherings have cropped up all over the country to more than 200 annual gatherings now.
We have an excellent one in Loomis each November. The one in Monterey each December is outstanding.
From North Dakota west to Montana, from Texas to Wyoming, from California to Utah to Colorado, cowboys gather to share their love of the open range, their joy at the sight of a setting sun over a snowy peak, their heartache when their horses have to be put down and their thrill at riding a trail where it’s just them, the coyotes, the cattle and God’s magnificent land.
Cowboy poetry brings the true American West to listeners or readers about a culture that is often misunderstood, more often ignored and certainly underrated.
When I was growing up in Washington State, my father read every cowboy book he could find.
I remember him saying, “I was born in the wrong generation. I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy.” He turned out to be an artist and architect . . . with cowboy dreams.
Maybe that’s why I bought a Victorian hotel in California’s Gold Country where cowboys filled my saloon. And maybe that’s where I got the love of cowboy poetry and music.
One of the reasons I enjoy traveling to these gatherings is that the cowboys who recite their poetry don’t mince words, even if it includes bunkhouse bull.
Waddie Mitchell, a buckaroo brought up in Nevada, says he got his start writing poetry from cowboys reciting to him when he was a kid.
“Of course,” he said, “they didn’t call it poetry” then. They’d just say, “You might enjoy this little story or here’s a wild one for ya.”
Mitchell used to think of his poetry as stories in rhyme.
Sarah Sweetwater, one of the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering originators, said that “John Wayne represents the cowboy but he’s not a cowboy.”
She has always been interested in preserving the folklore of the cowboy culture. Sweetwater asked a Montana cowhand once why his cowboy hat was sloped in the front. He said it was to let the snow fall off.
According to Sweetwater, the cowboy is “America’s national hero.” I agree with her when she says, “What I wanted (when starting the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering) was cowboy culture to be appreciated.”
One of my favorite cowboy poets is Wallie McRae from Montana. The first cowboy poem I wrote mentioned him, since we both have a Scottish background. I was taken by his reciting “Auld Lang Syne” at his last performance in Elko.
From Here to There, from Lincoln to Elko (or wherever there’s a cowboy poetry or music gathering), is a trip of a lifetime.
As Hank Real Bird, a Crow Indian who grew up ranching on the battlegrounds of the Little Big Horn said as he recited in Elko, “Blessings of Mother Earth - give those nice things away. When you let those blessings come into your lodge, nice things will go out of your lodge.”
That’s the way I feel about the cowboy culture’s poetry and music. It’s worth preserving.
Sue Clark is a literary agent, author, poet, co-publisher of ShortReads Press and an award-winning ghostwriter. She teaches poetry and fiction writing classes in Lincoln.