“Cowboy” poetry is as old as the trail driving days following the Civil War when young men working horseback in the great American West brought with them elements of the British ballad tradition.
Using the form of poetry they had learned to recite in school, kitchen, or parlor they recorded events and passed on traditions. Favorite songs and stories about experiences on the cattle drives or ranches became their unique way of sharing experiences — past and present.
It was not strange to hear many different versions of old ballads revised to hold new personal experiences. Nor would it be unusual for them to write lines to old songs and spirituals using the rhyme and meter presented therein.
Now and then, when an old cowboy would pass on, friends or family would find scribbled lines of poetry and songs on old calendars, grocery tabs, paper bags or sometimes in a journal or “tally book.” As “cowboy poetry” was brought into the limelight, the extent of just how many ranch families still practiced this time-honored tradition became evident. It had become a part of the culture of the working cowboy and ranching families — not unlike other genres!
It took a collaboration between cowboy reciters and folklorists in the western states to bring cowboy poets together in early gatherings devoted to this art form.
Folklorist Hal Cannon is recognized respectfully as the “grandfather of the Gatherings.” If that is so, then Sarah Sweetwater, a teacher from Elko, Nevada, would be the “grandmother.” She was among the first to draw a group of poets and families to share in the cultural tradition of reciting poetry in a public arena. Others like Warren Miller, Barney Nelson, and many more began the yearly duty of gathering people from the working cowboy and ranching element to present their poetry and music.
The poets and reciters, many of whom only knew a handful of other cowboys who wrote and recited poetry, were amazed to find themselves in a community with others who loved, created and recited poetry. Within that community they also found a healing quotient in “war poetry;” sharing that with other cowboys and ranch people was a turning point for many.
What is so unique and interesting about this genre of poetry? It is surely the pleasure of laughing and sharing life with others who have lived the lines we are sharing. An emotional, stimulating element rises by placing four or five poets, and singers of poetic lines, together in a given venue and letting them share and laugh and cry and draw audiences into their world and their lives. All of them are lovers of the West and living there.
There is, however, one focal point that makes all this “work together.” It is the love of poetry and words. It is the love of crafting a story into an entertaining presentation. Some of the poets and singers hold college degrees and others never graduated from high school. But all have a love for words and the crafting of the best they can offer. It is not unusual to hear them recite words from Edgar Allen Poe, Eugene Fields, Robert Service or even lines from Shakespeare, as well as from what we consider the “classics” of Kiskaddon, Clark and Knibbs.
Stanley Kunitz, winner of both the Pulitzer and Bollingen prizes wrote these lines in his book, Passing Through: “If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn.” Perhaps this draws so many to listen to what it was — and is — like to live and work in the ranching world of the West.
The diverse generations of those who love this tradition are the living, breathing evidence that this has been and will remain part of the tradition and culture of the American West. Visit the Sharlot Hall Museum on April 29 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the “Working Cowboy” event to hear cowboy poetry and music and see demonstrations of boot, saddle and reata making, as well as a farrier making horseshoes.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at email@example.com for information.