Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cowpuncher Poets

A cup of coffee and Richard Slatta's book Cowboys of the Americas (1990) means I'm fixin' to write about cowboys!
Howdy, Petticoat Rustlers and Wranglers! Today I spent a good deal of time in my reader's studio, pursuing some of the books I have on Cowboy mythology and history. In a post I did several months ago, I promised that I would do a series on cowboy literature and lore. To keep that promise, I have three posts coming up this weekend that will each investigate different aspects of the cowboy narrative from both the United States and Latin America. Today's topic - Cowboy Poets!
Typical Cowboys, American Heroes
Buffalo Bill Poster shows that cowboys are
not even phased by bucking
Mustangs between their legs.
The cowpunchers of the United States elicit a sense of nostalgic wonderment in many Americans. Through film, music, and mythology, the American cowboy has come to embody the spirit of perseverance, honor, and heroism.

Beginning in the early 1880s, the image of the American Cowboy developed into the chivalric hero we think of today; the triumph of independence, courage, and a deep connection with nature came to represent not only the Cowboy himself, but the core of American values. Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show was instrumental in propelling the romanticized vision of the cowboy to a vast audience in both the United States and Europe. The image of the stoic, humble range rider - who possessed unimaginable skill - captivated audiences worldwide and eventually inspired dime novels, circus sideshows, radio, films, and television.

Much of the hardship of the range riding lifestyle was glossed over by whimsical notions of cowboy life. The poor pay and dangerous working conditions, the uncertainty of the future, and the rambling life of a man who followed cattle and spent many hours (sometimes many days) alone were renarrativized as a man living in harmony with nature and animals, and upon whom Nature bestowed bountiful gifts as a reward for his skill and tenacity.
The determined face of a cowboy who
knows he can harness (literally and
figuratively) the wildness of Nature.
The myth of the American cowboy has an incredible cultural significance, both historically and contemporarily. Richard Slatta describes its importance by tracing the development of the mythology through country-western music beginning in the 30s, the cowboy films of the 50s and 60s, Ronald Reagan's cowboy personae in the 80s, and so on. He says that "...cowboy culture is a constant factor in American life. Many Americans still believe in the efficacy of what they define as the frontier experience. ... The cowboy is one of the most potent shorthand cultural symbols in America."

At the end of this chapter on the "fictional" myth developed about the American cowboy, Slatta remarks on what he considers to be the "real" cowboys of today, saying: "...some of today's working cowboys object to the romanticized, commercialized distortions of the cowboy imagery. Cowhands are reviving traditional skills, such as making tack and... singers have kept traditional cowboy music alive."

I find these remarks ironic, as Richard Slatta reveals himself to be given to the same romanticized "distortions" he claims to be able to see through - he simply establishes his preference for cowboys who reject the "mythology" in favor of the "real" story of a cowhand. He solidifies his preference for contemporary cowboys over the "commercialized" ones of the 30s-80s by failing to mention any working cowboys who embrace the mythological vision of their lives.

So, is it possible to interpret the cowboy without being swayed by a deeply internalized cultural understanding of the American cowboy? And what about cowboys themselves? Do they adopt a romanticized vision of their own lives? Have they contributed to the literature written about them? Indeed, they have.
From left to right: Slim Kite, Wally McRae, and Waddie Mitchell. Legendary cowboy poets. 
Recently, I came across a wonderful documentary on cowboy poets. The documentary followed three generations of (unrelated) men who worked in different capacities as cowboys in the American southwest and who all composed poetry about their life, their work, their fellow cowboys, questions of mortality and eternity, and the uniquely mortal and eternal lives of cowboys.

The documentary is called Cowboy Poets (1988) and is made available thanks to, a website that serves as "National Preserve of Documentary Films about American Roots Cultures." (If you have not yet pursued this site, I highly recommend it!) It is a fascinating look at three different interpretations of the cowboy life, all from men who identify as cowboys and write/recite original and traditional cowboy poetry.

Cover for Waddie Mitchell's CD of recited poems
Each one of these men were born into very different circumstances- Slim Kite was born around the turn of the century and worked as a cowboy in the 20s, until he couldn't make a living doing it anymore and had to settle down on a ranch of his own (which he considered the end of his cowboying). The youngest cowboy poet in the documentary, Waddie Mitchell, works as a hired cowhand but dreams of being able to have his own ranch someday (what he would consider the beginning of his cowboy career). Wally McRae works as a cowboy alongside new coal mines, gazing with ambivalence at the progress of the world around him and continuing to recite poems that extol the open, untouched, virgin plains.

The three interpretations suggest a unification of both the realities of American cowboy life over the last century and the truth of the mythologies it inspired. It also seems to answer the question I posed above: the mythology and the reality of cowboy life has become inextricably intertwined. Furthermore, there is an interplay of presence and absence inherent in the American cowboy that seems to mystify even the men who have done the job, who have spent days covered in blood and manure, and who have laid on their backs, looked at the stars, and composed verse about their memories.

I think the most vivid example of this interplay coincides with the most poignant moment of the Cowboy Poets documentary. The filmmakers ask Slim Kite if there is any advice he can offer them, after leading a fully cowboy life. After joking that he'd offer advice they wouldn't want to take, he suddenly becomes very solemn, and recites a traditional cowboy poem  called "The Last Longhorn" that has been passed down to generations of cowboys since the 20s. Kite changes slightly the last stanza and recites it like this:

The cowboy rose up sadly n' mounted his cayuse, 
saying "The time has come when cowboys and longhorns are no use!" 
He rode off, a-gazing backward upon the dead bovine 
His bronco stepped in a foghole, fell down and broke his spine

Now you'll miss 'im at the round up,
It's gone - his merry shout...
The cowboy's left the country 
and the campfire's gone out. 

As he recites this poem about the death of the Cowboy, Slim Kite's eyes indeed fill with tears. He at once represents a mythical figure of the Cowboy in the poem and at the same time he is inescapably the very real old man who worked as a cowboy all his life. The original author of this poem is unknown, adding to its mythic and almost inherent quality, as if every American Cowboy that ever existed has thought these verse and considered himself to be living the last days of the true cowboy life.

What are your favorite cowboy poems? What do you think about the American Cowboy mythology versus reality? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this post and the documentary (it is only 50 minutes and well worth every second of your time!)

Until next time - keep ruffling your petticoats!

1 comment:

  1. This is great -- and follows a lot of the research I did for my own cowboy novel -- though I didn't read through poems (this was late 1880s) but a lot of songs sung to settle the cattle on the long rides. There is a huge Cowboy poetry festival in Nevada as part of the Western Folklife Center. ( I want to go some day!