An Oral-Tradition Recounting the Old and New West
When discussing the West, old or new, and the topic of an oral-tradition arises, most people automatically think of the Native Americans. It was the preferred method for tribes to pass down their history and beliefs, predominantly in the form of stories. Thus, many folks are surprised, even today, to learn that the common hardworking cowboy – the ones who rarely rated representation in dime novels – likewise recorded their history, traditions, and lifestyle (though not exclusively) through the oral-tradition of cowboy poetry and repeated retellings around campfires, the bunkhouse, rodeos, fairs, and any other location cowboys congregate.
For nearly two-centuries cowboy poetry has survived almost exclusively in and around ranching communities. Cowboy poetry is often presented in the standard four-line ballad format with rhymed couplets, similar to that utilized by other nineteenth-century poets like Rudyard Kipling. And the poetry is infused with a unique language inherent to cowboys, and never done justice by wannabes. And, though cowboy poetry is found in written form, the medium is rooted in the oral-tradition of performance in both the old and new west. And, more often than not, that performance took place not on a stage, but in a bunkhouse, around a campfire, or on horseback. In Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering, Hal Cannon claims cowboy poetry allows “the cowboys to speak for themselves, as they celebrate the huge sky, the rodeo, busting broncos, the cattle drive that still goes on, the land, and the life and the times of people who continue, spiritedly, to live that cowboy life” (Cannon). Cowboy poetry, the best of it anyway, gives you the same sensory input attributed to the Westward Ideal. The language, as Cannon states, “reflects light and smell and open places, hard times and soft evenings, a language coded with insider’s words, special phrases and meanings, and shared values” (Cannon).
You cannot remove the Westward Ideal from cowboy poetry. The unknown and unsung founders of the art form were men and women who came west. They lived the adventure. They pioneered. They homesteaded. They toiled and struggled, fought and died, to not only cut-out a place for themselves, but a way of life. And it became a way of life that is cherished and feared, praised and chastised, ridiculed and romanticized, depending upon a person’s perspective.
Cowboy poetry had traversed the West for nearly a century before pioneer folklorists John Lomax and Howard “Jack” Thorp compiled collections of poetry and songs straight from the horse’s mouth, so-to-speak (Cannon). Songs of the Cowboys, by Thorp, came out in 1908, and Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads was published two years later. And it would be another nine years before the next edition was published: Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cowboy Camps, again by Lomax. There would then be over two-decades without a serious attempt to compile collections representing the cowboy poet. Why the delay? Perhaps it had something to do with the honest look at cowboy life conflicting with the Hollywood image spewed forth through mass-marketing, like the Saturday serials at matinees. Cowboy poetry, though often humorous, is predominantly introspective; a far cry from the train-robbing, cattle rustling, town shoot ‘um up adventures in the William Hart and William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) style westerns. However, the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, both singing cowboys, seemed to inspire new interest in cowboy fare. The new interest, spearheaded by folklorists Austin and Alta Fife would span the 1940s thru 1960s. From then until the present several individuals have taken the reigns to insure that both the oral-tradition and written collections of cowboy-inspired and cowboy-created poetry are published and performed in various venues. No doubt, the ranching communities will continue to pass on the tradition from generation-to-generation; but it is good to know others have taken up the reigns as well. And, while the tradition continues unabated, it does not mean that cowboy poetry has never changed.
The nineteenth-century cowboys, accustomed to half the year spent on cattle drives, created poetry that reflected the loneliness in relation to the beauty of the vast natural lands crossed and re-crossed. Whereas, contemporary cowboy poetry is more likely to reflect or yearn for the Old West while lamenting the loss of the open spaces in the New West. Although, a fair amount of both the old and new cowboy poetry is injected with blistered humor, cactus comedy, or saddle-sore wit. The cowboy life is a hard life at best, but without humor it would be downright unbearable. Allen McCanless had his poem “The Cowboy’s Soliloquy” first published in 1885, and it is an excellent example of low-key humor blended with the love of the cowboy life and the West, as you can see in the first few stanzas:
All day o’er the prairie alone I ride,
Not even a dog to run by my side;
My fire I kindle with chips gathered round,
And boil my coffee without bein’ ground.
Bread lacking leaven’ I bake in a pot,
And sleep on the ground for want of a cot;
I wash in a puddle, and wipe on a sack,
And carry my wardrobe all on my back.
My ceilings the sky, my carpet the grass,
My music the lowing of herds as they pass;
My books are the brooks, my sermons the stones,
My parson’s a wolf on a pulpit of bones.
And the following few stanzas from “The Dude Wrangler” by Gail Gardner shows, in a humorous way, the contempt old-style cowboys feel toward the New West invention of the Dude Ranch:
Sez he, “I’m afraid that there ain’t nothin’
That you can do to save my hide,
I’m wranglin’ dudes instead of cattle,
I’m what they call a first-class guide.
“Oh I saddles up their pump-tail ponies,
I fix their stirrups for them, too.
I boost them up into their saddles, and
They give me tips when I’m through.
“It’s just like horses eatin’ loco,
You can not quit it if you try.
I’ll go on wranglin’ dudes forever,
Until the day that I shall die.
So I drawed my gun and throwed it on him,
I had to turn my face away.
I shot him squarely through the middle,
And where he fell I left him lay.
I shorely hated for to do it,
For things that’s done you cain’t recall,
But when a cowboy turns dude wrangler,
He ain’t no good no more at all.
And the sentiment portrayed regarding dude ranches and dude wrangling still hold true today among traditional cowboys. Traditional cowboys on legitimate ranches may have switched from trail-driving cattle across neighboring states to shoehorning them into cattle cars, but any “cowboy” who wrangles dudes and two-legged fillies instead of legitimate stock are looked upon as if they have a contagious terminal disease.
The drastic change from Old West to New West was felt more acutely by cowboys than almost any other profession. Although a small percentage have diligently strove to maintain the traditional ranch and cowboy life, most cowboys, from the beginning of the twentieth-century onward, have had to alter their lifestyle. Individuals like Curly Fletcher, one of the earliest rodeo promoters, believed he could celebrate the cowboy life through public events: which included cowboy poetry recitals (Fletcher). Other individuals, like Bruce Kiskaddon, overwhelmed by the frustrating changes to his beloved cowboy lifestyle, “quit the ranch in 1925 and spent the rest of his life reminiscing through poetry the life loved and gone” (Cannon 2).
Unfortunately, for the traditionalists, a slew of outsiders who never roped a doggy, notched an ear, or smelled the scorched fur while branding a calf; saw the potential for financial gain. And it did not take long for reality to succumb to the New West romance for Old West legendary lore in mythical proportions. The ideal overtook the truth. Traditional cowboying became immersed in all facets of western lore. Billy the Kid and the Cowboys, a faction associated with the Lincoln County War, took precedent over the solitary life on the open range. The quick-draw artist gained favor over the traditional cowpoke, which normally carried a gun for protection against snakes and wolves, or to ward off cattle rustlers. In fact, the traditional cowboy was relegated to bit parts and extra work in most film, stage, or media representations. Unless, of course, it was a cowboy elevated to mythical hero or legendary villain. And, on occasion, the traditional cowboy was slotted for comic relief; most often in the role of hapless sidekick: Gabby Hayes to William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, and Pat Buttram and Andy Devine to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. And the wit and wisdom of the traditional cowboy was often dispensed in a humorous fashion, such as the following tidbits from Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On by Texas Bix Bender:
Never take to sawin’ on the branch that’s supportin’ you, unless
you’re bein’ hung from it.
Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day.
Never miss a good chance to shut up.
A smart ass just don’t fit in the saddle.
And from Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On II:
The best way to set a record is to be a good ways off from any tape
measures, scales, or witnesses.
You can’t weigh the facts if you’ve got the scales loaded down with
If you want to liven up a conversation just say the right thing the
If you ain’t pullin’ your weight you’re pushin’ your luck.
And the cowboy humor is often served with a deadpan expression; as if to say, “I’ve survived grizzlies, wolves, and rattlers, why would a gag make me giggle?”
Yep, the traditional cowboy is a peculiar sort, and they are happy just as they are. So don’t ask them to willingly change, because if they do they pay a price. They pay a price that mirrors the loss of the Old West, the loss of a lifestyle, a loss they lament. Baxter Black describes one version of the lost lifestyle in the following poem:
A Time to Stay, A Time to Go
Ya know, I got this ranch from my daddy,
He came here in seventeen.
He carved this place outta muscle and blood;
His own and his ol’ perchion team.
I took over in fifty
And married my darlin’ in May.
Together we weathered whatever came up.
She had what it took to stay.
Last winter we finally decided
We’d pack up and leave in the spring.
The kids are all grown and city-folk now;
We never raised them to cling.
Oh sure, I wished they’d have wanted
To ranch and carry it on,
But they did their part, I thank ‘em for that,
And they chose. Now all of ‘ems gone.
The last thirty odd years we’ve collected
An amazing number of things!
Bonnets and bottles, clippings and letters,
And Dad’s ol’ surcingle rings.
We’ve spent the winter months sorting,
Our hearts would ache or would jump
As we looked at our lives in trinkets we’d saved,
Then boxed up or took to the dump.
We cried sometimes in the attic,
I’m not ashamed of the truth.
I love this ol’ ranch that we’re leavin’.
We gave it the strength of our youth.
I love this ol’ woman beside me,
She held me and stayed by my side.
When I told ‘er I’s thinkin’ ‘bout sellin’,
She said, “Honey, I’m here for the ride.”
The new fellers movin’ in Monday
Are nice and I wish ‘em good luck.
But I’d rather be gone, so Ma, get yer stuff,
I’ve already gassed up the truck.
Lookin’ back over my shoulder
At the mailbox, I guess that I know
There’s a time to be stayin’, a time to be goin’,
And I reckon it’s time that we go.
And in the following poem by Ernie Fanning, we see another version of loss; not just a homestead, but a vast amount of range:
The Vanishing Valley
Out on a Nevada mountain
While lookin’ for his stock,
A cowboy stopped to rest his horse
A-top a big rimrock.
And as he sat and looked
At the valley floor below,
He asked himself this question:
Where the hell did the valley go?
Whatever happened to the fields of spuds
And the onions that the old degos use to raise,
And where have gone the lush green meadows
Where the fat cattle use to graze?
For as he sat and looked down
Through the smog in the shimmering summer’s heat,
What filled his vision most
Were mounds of steel and gray concrete.
And he knew there was no way to slow,
Much less halt,
The spreading of the buildings
And the ribbons of asphalt.
He could still remember when every man
In the valley helped pull his neighbor’s load,
When Kietzke Lane was nothing more
Than a gravel country road.
When they drove fat cattle from the Humphrey lots
to the shippin’ pens at Stanford Way.
Oh yeah, Cowboy,
But that was yesterday.
Well the cowboy stepped across his horse
And he started to the valley floor below,
And once more he asked himself a question:
Why the hell did this valley have to go?
The words of the cowboy poets, most of them traditional cowboys, reflect the golden years on the open-range, the frustrated jeers during the old-to-new west transition, and the lamenting tears for a substantial loss of a cherished lifestyle. It is an art form steeped in oral-tradition and, for the most part, unspotlighted performance that has successfully been passed from one generation to the next within the ranching communities. And even though the art form has seen some mainstream success in the last few decades the majority of traditional cowboy poetry continues to ride the range in rural communities. And the art form, with few exceptions, continues to perpetuate the lifestyle of the traditional cowboy.
In parting, enjoy one last look at the spirit of the traditional cowboy.
A Cowboy’s Prayer
By Badger Clark
Oh Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow.
I love creation better as it stood
That day you finished it so long ago
And looked upon Your work and called it good.
I know that others find You in the light
That’s sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.
I thank you, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That you have made my freedom so complete;
That I’m no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.
Just let me live my life as I’ve begun
And give me work that’s open to the sky;
And make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high.
Let me be easy on the man that’s down;
Let me be square and generous with all.
I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town,
But never let ‘em say I’m mean or small!
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hoss between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!
Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said,
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.
Bender, Texas Bix. Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On! Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1992 Print.
Bender, Texas Bix. Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On! II Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1997 Print.
Black, Baxter. “A Time to Stay, A Time to Go.” On the Edge of Common Sense. Denver. Coyote Cowboy Co. 1983. Print.
Cannon, Hal. Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.
Cannon, Hal. New Cowboy Poetry: A Contemporary Gathering. Layton. Peregrine Smith Books. 1990 Print.
Clark, Badger. “A Cowboy’s Prayer.” Sun and Saddle Leather. Boston. Chapman & Grimes. 1942 Print.
Fanning, Ernie. “The Vanishing Valley.” Cowboy Poetry. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.
Fletcher, Curly. Songs of the Sage. Los Angeles. Frontier Publishing. 1931. Print.
Gardner, Gail. “The Dude Wrangler.” Orejana Bull. Prescott. Prescott Printing. 1980. Print.
McCanless, Allen. “A Cowboy’s Soliloquy.” Cowboy Poetry. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.