Cowboy Poetry, now recognized as a full-fledged genre of American entertainment, has virtually soared in popularity during the past decade. Books, tapes and CDs are readily available in retail outlets everywhere. Cowboy Poetry festivals and gatherings attract thousands, and new events of this kind are springing up all over the country.
This phenomenon is refreshing in an age in which the entertainment industry is dominated by electronic technology. Commercial forms of entertainment are produced, processed and packaged. But Cowboy Poetry is meant to be presented live -- in small gatherings where one experiences an involvement with the poet. The Cowboy Poetry rage suggests that people still value the simple, intimate qualities inherent in the oral tradition of story telling.
As far back as man’s known history, and perhaps much further, humans have gathered together in the night around a fire, in caves or out under the stars, to tell the stories of life. For eons, in all parts of the world, tales have been passed on from one person to another, from one intimate setting to the next, from generation to generation, from age to age. Such stories were memorized. Perhaps initially, poetic forms emerged simply to aid the memory in preserving these stories.
Cowboy Poetry is rooted in the oral tradition of story telling, to which it brings another great tradition -- the rich, colorful tradition of the cowboy.
The heyday of the American cowboy was the latter part of the 19th century -- the days of the great cattle drives and the big roundups. The work was solitary. People created their own entertainment at the end of the workday -- around the campfire or in the bunkhouses. Cowboy Poetry was passed around the campfires, much the way jokes are passed around the schoolyards these days. Few claimed “authorship”; the stories were told, embellished, and told again.
Around the turn of the century, some of the more prolific cowboy poets came to be recognized for their stories. Among these were Badger Clark and Arthur Chapman. These men gradually became relatively well-known public figures and were often invited to speak at public gatherings.
But by the late 20’s and 30’s, with industrialization and the advent of motion pictures, Cowboy Poetry virtually disappeared from public view. The general public lost touch with cowboy life as it truly was, and adopted an image of the cowboy based on the way he was portrayed in the movies -- as a rough, tough gunslinger.
Meanwhile, Cowboy Poetry continued going strong in the cowboy camps and bunkhouses. During the greater part of the 20th century, Cowboy Poetry was pretty much the exclusive property of the cowboy and his world. Works of the original cowboy poets were memorized and recited, and often altered. At the same time, new poets came on the scene. They wrote about contemporary issues related to 20th century ranch life and cowboying. At the same time, they honored memories from the past.
In January of 1985, a folklorist named Hal Cannon organized an event at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. This was to be a gathering of cowboys. He called his friend Waddie Mitchell to help him. Waddie was a poet and cowboy, who worked on a ranch near Jiggs, Nevada. Hal and Waddie put up between 60 to 100 chairs, and figured they had way too many. But as it turned out, the place was packed with standing room only.
Word got out about the popularity of the event, and as a result, Johnny Carson invited Waddie Mitchell and Baxter Black, another contemporary cowboy poet, to be on his show. From there, the popularity of cowboy as a cultural art form reached unprecedented heights.
The Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada is an annual event, held each January. It draws more than 10,000 people to Elko. For more information visit www.westernfolklife.org
Works of contemporary cowboy poets often blend present-day issues and conditions with traditional themes. They often revive the legends, tales and myths that stem out of the old West, and they pay tribute to those who came before them.
In an attempt to preserve the lineage and underpinning of much of today’s writing, Greg Flakus has produced a recording with material dating back to the turn of the century and before, by some of the best of the old-time buckaroo bards. Titled The Original Cowboy Poets, this collection includes original works of Charles Badger Clark, Howard “Jack” Thorpe, Bruce Kiskadon, Sharlot Hall, Arthur Chapman and, of course, the most prolific of them all – “Anonymous”.
The Original Cowboy Poets is available on CD and audio cassette and can be purchased through: CMH Record, Inc., PO Box 39439, Los Angeles, Ca 90039; (800)373-8073.