Western Folklife Center: Cowboy Poetry Gathering Revives Traditional Art Form

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Rancher-turned-poet Waddie Mitchell entertains the audience at a Cowboy Poetry Gathering, presented by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. Photo by Chris Simon

With his ten-gallon hat, seated on horseback with lasso in
hand, the fictitious cowboy has captured the popular imagination as a strong, silent type. A group of Western folklorists set about to change that stereotype.

"The image of a cowboy has strayed so far from reality through negative images in the media and in movies, the cowboys felt they didn't have a forum for the expression of their true selves," says folklorist Hal Cannon. "Cowboy poetry is a way to connect and to express a way of life that's valued."

With Endowment support, Cannon and his colleagues began by surveying ranchers to identify and study contemporary cowboy poetry. Its ballad style has roots that stretch back at least to the 1860's. Since then, wranglers and buckaroos have been entertaining each other in bunkhouses and on trail drives with poems they've memorized as well as with rhymes they've made up on the spot. "We knew cowboy poetry still existed in isolated pockets but we didn't know it was such a widespread phenomenon," Cannon says.

The next step was to produce an event that would showcase the talent they'd unearthed. It wasn't an idea that had commercial appeal. "I approached 50 corporations and other organizations that were identified as using cowboys in their marketing and they all turned me down. Poetry wasn't something they saw as being part of the cowboy image," says Cannon. "The Cowboy Poetry Gatherings would never have happened without the Endowment. The NEA support was a very important indicator of trust and helped us to get cowboy poetry off the ground."

The Cowboy Poetry Gathering is so popular that memorabilia like these commemorative spurs have been created. Photo by Sue Rosoff

The first gathering in 1985, held in Elko, Nevada, drew five times the expected audience. Enthusiasm has continued to build and the gathering, presented by the Western Folklife Center, has grown into a week-long annual celebration of American cattle culture, attracting 8,000 enthusiasts and adding over $6 million to Elko's economy. Cowboy poetry's popularity in general has also multiplied, breeding books, radio programs and over 200 other gatherings across the country. Rancher-turned-cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, who performed at the original gathering, recalls his initial surprise at the tremendous audience response. "I hadn't thought anyone else would be interested in cowboy poetry. It was just how we used to entertain each other, telling stories around the campfire or in the barn. I think it's found its way into the American psyche because it's pure - it touches people's hearts and imaginations."