NEA Arts Magazine

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25th Anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

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Country western band performing

Sons of the San Joaquin performing at the 25th-anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Photo courtesy of Western Folklife Center.

Photos by Jessica Brandi Lifland

The myth and legend of the cowboy is ingrained in American thought, from the Argentinean gauchos and Mexican vaqueros to the hands that handled cattle in the Canadian and United States' West. Rugged, stoic men, saddled to a horse for days at a time, sitting by the campfire with a good mug of hot coffee. What's usually not included in that picture of the cowboy is poetry, but cowboy poetry has been with us since the 19th century, and is still a strong force today.

Asked to explain his genre, cowboy poet Wally McRae replied, "When people think of poetry they usually think of academic poetry, which is very intellectual and pretty obscure. If you hear an academic poem, you get to the end and you say, 'What's it about?' The poet will say, 'It's whatever you want it to be about.'

"Well, when a cowboy poet recites his poem, you know what it's about," says McRae, a 1990 NEA National Heritage Fellow.

Known for its traditional meter, use of rhyme, and realistic themes, cowboy poetry springs from the poetic and ballad traditions of the British Isles. In 19th century United States, poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were bestsellers, newspapers regularly printed poems, and it was not unusual to have workers such as miners, railroaders, loggers, and fishermen write poems about the realities of their occupations. Cowboys were no exception, with this poetry of the American West finding its voice during the great cattle drives of the 1870s and 1880s.

Sandra Day O'Connor greeting a conference attendee

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the keynote speaker for the 25th-anniversary National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Photo courtesy of Western Folklife Center

Folklorist David Stanley explained, "What makes cowboy poetry distinct . . . is not as much its style as its subject matter. It's full of the settings, the vocabulary, the details -- things like saddle rigging and cattle behavior -- of cowboy life. And believe me, cowboys can tell what is authentic and what is not." This past January marked the 25th anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a weeklong celebration of cowboy culture. About 7,000 people attended the event, including retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who, having grown up on a ranch, served as keynote speaker. The calendar of events included musical performances and jams, a visual arts exhibit, a diverse array of workshops on everything from dancing the lindy hop to playing the mandolin to breadmaking, and, of course, poetry readings. To mark the Gathering's first quarter century, a special reunion stage featured "poets and musicians who [had] performed at the Gathering during any of the last 25 years."

The anniversary was particularly significant as, by the latter half of the 20th century, cowboy poetry had all but disappeared from popular consciousness thanks to changing mores in American poetry. In the early 1980s, however, Hal Cannon, a young folklorist hoping to revive cowboy poetry, approached major sponsors of rodeos and cowboy events, companies like Wrangler Jeans and Stetson, and asked them to sponsor a cowboy poetry event, all to no avail. "We had a heck of a time finding any funding," Cannon recalled, "I mean at that point it wasn't part of the cowboy stereotype that a cowboy could be a poet. 'Cowboy poetry,' I was told, 'is an oxymoron.'"

Lucky for Cannon, the NEA said yes to his proposal to host a conference on the genre. The Arts Endowment supported the project with a $50,000 grant that Cannon and a small group of folklorists used to research and contact cowboy poets. Supported by the NEA grant, Cannon was able to take a year's leave of absence from his job as Utah folk arts coordinator to work on what in 1985 would become the first Gathering. The founders chose the small town of Elko, Nevada, known for its ties to the Old West, precisely because it was a small town -- cowboys did not want to go to a city or a resort. It didn't hurt that Elko also had plenty of cheap hotels.

Night photo of the marquee and entrance to the Western Folklife Center

The Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, was host to the 25th anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Photo courtesy of Western Folklife Center

Dan Sheehy, now director of Smithsonian Folkways, was with the NEA when the decision was made to fund the event. "The first Gathering was planned to be a one-time event. Initially it wasn't 'annual' anything. We had no idea what a phenomenon it would be. The press ate it up."

At that first event in 1985, Cannon had set up about 60 chairs in the Elko Convention Center just before the opening ceremony when buckaroo Waddie Mitchell leaned over and said, "Pard, let's not go overboard. We don't want to embarrass ourselves." By the end of the weekend, more than 1,500 people had come out to see what was going on.

Major media outlets such as CBS News, New York Times, and People magazine all showed up to cover the then unusual idea of "cowboy poets."

"At the time we were sort of surprised that it resonated so much with people, but I think people are very interested in going to their roots," noted Cannon, now the founding director of the Western Folklife Center also headquartered in Elko. "[The first event] came at a time when people wanted to relate to something authentic that came from the cowboy experience, rather than the Hollywood makeover of what a cowboy was."

Fifteen years later, at the turn of the millennium, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution proclaiming the Gathering in Elko to be officially known as the one and only National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Today the festival includes much more than poetry, addressing all sorts of traditional Western culture in many forms, such as crafts, music, dance, cinema, theater, and even environmental issues.

 

Two men at the conference talking

Cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski (left foreground) talks with Hal Cannon, founding director of the Western Folklife Center. Photo courtesy of Western Folklife Center

Over the years cowboy poetry has changed as well. Poets like 2009 National Heritage Fellow Joel Nelson have expanded the range of themes available to cowboy poets, including everything from war experiences to the evolution of the horse -- told from a cowboy perspective, of course. Women poets such as Georgie Sicking and Gwen Peterson are prominent on the scene. Though traditional rhyme and meter are still the norm for the genre, cowboy poets today also write in free verse and experiment with every style of poetic form available. "[Cowboy poetry] is poetry, and it is just as much of an art as any other style of poetry," says former rodeo cowboy Paul Zarzyski, who studied with poet Richard Hugo at the University of Montana.

From the original Gathering in 1985, a proliferation of cowboy poetry events has sprung up throughout North America. From more established gatherings like the 21st Annual Durango Cowboy Gathering in Durango, Colorado, or the 22nd Annual Rhymers Rodeer in Minden, Nevada, to lesser known festivals such as Scofield's Cowboy Campfire at the Red Mule Ranch in Fiddletown, California, or Them Cowboys is Trailin' North in Spruce Home, Saskatchewan, more than 200 cowboy poetry events are held annually in the U.S. and Canada. To receive up-to-date info on cowboy poetry gatherings in your area, you can follow @cowboypoetry on Twitter. Once unknown to the public, now most people are familiar with the term "cowboy poetry" and have at least heard cowboy poet and veterinarian Baxter Black on NPR or have a few favorite cowboy poems of their own. This once forgotten art form is definitely back in the saddle.

McRae on Nelson

An active participant at the Gathering since its second year, new NEA National Heritage Fellow Joel Nelson has the distinction of having recorded the only cowboy poetry CD -- The Breaker in the Pen -- ever nominated for a Grammy Award. Here's a reminiscence of Nelson from fellow cowboy poet -- and a 1990 NEA National Heritage Fellow -- Wally McRae:

"[ Joel Nelson's] knowledge of different kinds of poetry has added to his ability to focus and appreciate the kind of poetry that we're writing and trying to write and some of the emotions that we're trying to get across. I can remember one time on stage in Elko in the main auditorium. Joel was in a very reflective mood and said 'I'm going to do a poem for you now that -- even though you may be aware of the poem -- you may not consider it to be reflective of the cowboy philosophy. . . . I think it's dead center, right on target, telling people how we feel.' And everybody kind of sat up on the edge of their seats and talked, 'What the hell is Joel talking about?' He said, 'This is a Robert Frost poem called "The Road Not Taken."' And he [read it], and when he finished, he said, 'The poet, Frost, took the road less traveled by and that has made the difference. Each of us have also come to that fork in the road, and we had, each of us, individually and collectively, taken that path less traveled by.' That's pretty insightful, you know?"

 

Joel Nelson, wearing cowboy hat and western shirt, reciting into the microphone

2009 NEA National Heritage Fellow Joel Nelson reciting at the 25th-anniversary Gathering.

 

Awakening

by Joel Nelson

We cannot say what drew us here,
What piper's flute, what siren's song
In younger days -- another year
While sun was low and shadows long.

Her great high deserts lured us on --
We were but boys when we rode in
To live the life and chase the dawn
'Till evening sun shone down on men.

And nature was our friend and foe
She dealt us pain, she brought us bliss
Our Mother Earth we came to know
Was nurturer and nemesis.

Our cattle graze her hills and draws
Her August grain is rip'ning now.
For horseback men with horseback laws
May she be saved from park and plow.

We've seen her change since we rode in.
We've read her pages as they've turned
And worn our stirrup leathers thin.
We fear the lessons we have learned.

What hands would tear this place apart?
We are not all what we appearf
We can't afford the careless heart
That beat within the pioneer.

And red man's wisdom has been cast
Aside as savage -- yet we see
The noble savage doubtless passed
Much closer to His earth than we.

Are we her stewards, foes, or friends?
And who could better serve the earth?
We throw these questions to the winds
And ride toward answers' timely birth.

-- from the anthology Between Earth and Sky: Poets of the Cowboy West (W.W. Norton & Company). Used by permission of the author.