|A cup of coffee and Richard Slatta's book Cowboys of the Americas (1990) means I'm fixin' to write about cowboys!|
|Typical Cowboys, American Heroes|
|Buffalo Bill Poster shows that cowboys are|
not even phased by bucking
Mustangs between their legs.
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.
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.|
The documentary is called Cowboy Poets (1988) and is made available thanks to Folkstreams.net, 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|
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!