Bette Ramsey, wife of the late cowboy poet and 1995 NEA National Heritage Fellow Buck Ramsey, says of Joel Nelson, "Now days, I believe if one were to ask almost any working cowboy about Joel Nelson, they'd likely respond saying, 'He'd do to ride the river with.' In cowboy lingo, that means he's the 'best of the best' and you could trust him with your life." After working for the U.S. Forest Service and serving in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, Nelson pursued cowboy work on Texas ranches. He spent 13 years at the 06 Ranch near Alpine, Texas, and as a horse breaker for the King Ranch in Texas and the Parker Ranch in Hawaii. An attendee at the second Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, Nelson was instrumental in founding the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the second-oldest of such events. As a reciter, he is known throughout the West for his delivery of the classic cowboy repertoire; and as a writer of poems, he has penned works that are rapidly assuming the status of standards. His The Breaker in the Pen is the only cowboy poetry recording ever nominated for a Grammy. He and his wife Sylvia work side-by-side horseback operating the 24,000 acre Anchor Ranch near Alpine where they raise Corriente cattle. As Charlie Seemann, Director of the Western Folklife Center, says, "Whether he is 'telling' his poems in an auditorium or a bunkhouse, his audiences are transfixed by the power of his delivery, knowing that here is a man who truly knows whereof he speaks."
NEA: I'd like to begin with you defining what most people mean by cowboy poetry.
Joel Nelson: I don't know what most people mean by cowboy poetry, but I think that they mean a poetry that is unique to the lifestyle of the working cowboy as we know him in America today. Most people associate cowboy poetry with classical cowboy poetry, writers like Bruce Kiskaddon, S. Omar Barker, and Charles Badger Clark who was at one time the poet laureate of South Dakota, maybe two or three different times. It's poetry that is closely connected to the lifestyle and the work of the working cowboy, the philosophy of the working cowboy -- their community with nature, their closeness with nature, and the work that they do with their livestock. So, a lot of it is humorous but it doesn't necessarily need to be. I think a lot of people when they hear the term cowboy poetry automatically think they're going to hear something funny or entertaining. It can be very deep and very introverted also. My own, I think is fairly introverted and fairly serious. I very seldom do humorous pieces. I have a few that I do but I tend to want people to listen rather than to laugh. I do it to inform or maybe get people to think rather than to laugh. I'm not particularly fond of the term cowboy poetry.
NEA: What do you think about that term and that classification?
Joel Nelson: I think that that term being used might tend to draw some people in to listen and it might turn some people away. The ones who are maybe thinking they're going to entertained or get a good laugh might be drawn in to listen when they hear that term used or see it on a poster. But other people think maybe they're not going to hear much worth listening to when they see that term. And they're very wrong in that way of thinking. And cowboy poetry, if you want to use the term, can be very much worth listening to. It's expressive of the values that America was built on and I tend to think poetry is poetry. Good poetry is good poetry and it spans oceans. It spans cultures. It spans working styles or lifestyles and has a general appeal to anyone and everyone if it's written well and if it's presented well.
NEA: Did you grow up in a house where there was a lot of poetry or story telling?
Joel Nelson: My mother read poetry to me when I was young. I remember her reading poetry to me when I was six, seven, eight years old, especially the poetry of Eugene Field's. I remember probably when I was seven or eight years old she read a poem to me called "Little Boy Blue" and that's a very serious poem by Eugene Field. It deals with the loss of a child and I couldn't really understand why she had read that poem to me because I was accustomed to her reading poems like "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" and, you know, entertaining little poems. And it wasn't until later on where she took me out to a cemetery and showed me the grave of what would have been an older sister who died in childbirth and then I understood why she had read that poem to me. And it's a poem that I still remember and still recite upon occasion. But I did have poetry in my life when I was a child and then later on when I was in school I grew to love poetry very much.
NEA: Can you talk about the process you use or what makes you decide this is a poem I want to perform or recite?
Joel Nelson: Well, I never go to the trouble of memorizing a poem unless it affects me very deeply. It has to be one that has a great deal of appeal to me for some reason. And when I stumble across one like that, I memorize it first for myself, maybe not even thinking of performing it anywhere, I want to have that at my fingertips at any time that I want it without the need of going to a book to find it. And so, when a poem affects me very deeply, that's when I decide to memorize it and then later on I may or may not perform it or recite it anywhere but I have the need to memorize one before I present it to an audience. I think something is lost when someone reads poetry. I hear of poetry readings -- some people call our poetry gatherings or poetry performances "poetry readings." They don't mean it in an offensive way but usually the people that I do poetry with recite rather than read and to see someone stand and read poetry is somewhat like maybe going to see West Side Story or Phantom of the Opera and have the actors and the performers reading their parts rather than knowing them and performing them from their heart, from the inside. I just don't think you can read something off a page and have it be as effective as if it comes from deep inside you.
People ask me sometimes how I keep all the words in my mind and am able to present them. And I tell people I do it from inside the poem. I'm in there and I'm not thinking about anything going on besides being inside of that poem and telling the story from way in there. It's a part of it when I'm doing it.
NEA: Where did you grow up?
Joel Nelson: My wife says I'm not grown up. But I was born and finished high school in a little town of about 3,000, Seymour, Texas. It's in north central Texas not too far from the Oklahoma border, very hot country. It's kind of borderland country between strictly farming and ranching. There's a lot of both. I had a lot of relatives, cousins and uncles and aunts who farmed and also ranched and it's a very rural little community, not a place I would ever want to go back to because it's so doggone hot up there.
I live near Alpine, Texas. We're a mile high in the mountains and the whole year round climate appeals to me so much more, but I didn't know there was anywhere else when I was a kid growing up there.
NEA: Did your father ranch or did he farm?
Joel Nelson: He did both. My dad was a ranch cowboy. He worked on some big Texas outfits when he was young, like the Pitchfork Ranch between Guthrie and Benjamin. He lived in bunk houses and was a sure enough, old time cowboy. Whenever he was released from the army after World War II, he tried to lease a little bit of country and farm and ranch together near Seymour and that's when I was born.
And my very first vivid memory is sitting in front of my dad, he was horse back and I was sitting in front of him with the saddle horn between my legs and we were riding down a dirt road and he was showing me tracks in the dirt explaining to me how I could tell a horse track from a cow track. And later on, we moved to a bigger ranch, the Boone Ranch, and some of my fondest childhood memories are from the Boone Ranch, riding with my dad when I was six or possibly seven years old. I helped the Boone Ranch cowboys drive a herd of cattle to the railroad to a little siding between Seymour and Wichita Falls and we loaded those cattle out on cattle cars and sent them out on the railroad. That was probably the last time anyone shipped by rail out of that particular part of the country. The next year when the cattle were ready to be shipped, the cattle trucks rolled into the ranch headquarters and I remember being totally furious because times were changing and we weren't going to drive them to the railroad anymore. I don't handle change very well.
NEA: Did you always want to be a cowboy?
Joel Nelson: No. My grandparents on my mother's side were of German and Swiss decent, both came from Germany and Switzerland to this country in their youth. My great-grandfather on my mother's side was a forester in Germany and I decided about fifth grade that I wanted to be a forester. And by that time, my dad had taken a job as a deputy sheriff and on occasion I would make a trip with my dad to deliver a prisoner to the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, which is deep in the pine timber of east Texas. And it was on those trips that I thought I was falling in love with the pine forest and so I focused on becoming a forester. I went through a forestry program at Stephen F. Austin State University in Agua Dulce, Texas, and graduated with a degree in forestry and range management. And for a while, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service marking and cruising timber. And I found that the timber was closing me in and I needed to get back in open country. And it was about then that I decided that I wanted to pursue the cowboy way of life and I pretty much done that ever since except for a brief stint in Southeast Asia with the 101 st Airborne Division.
NEA: You really changed what is known as cowboy poetry because you began reciting poems about your experiences in Vietnam. What made you decide that you were going to broaden this?
Joel Nelson: You know, I had a number of friends who started writing poetry from their Vietnam experiences, one was Rod McQueary from Elko County, Nevada, and another was Bill Jones. Rod and Bill coauthored a book of their poetry from their Vietnam experience titled Blood Trails. And I really think that that is what inspired me to write about my Vietnam experience. They beat me to it. I don't know for sure that I would have had it not been for hearing their work first, but that happened about 20 years after we came back from Vietnam and there's something about that 20 year mark that seems to be rather universal. A lot of World War II veterans didn't open up about it for 20 years and a lot of the Vietnam veterans didn't open up about it and start writing verse or literature about their experience for a good 20 years after they came back. I don't know what it is about that time lapse but it seems then you're able to kind of get it out. And so I have to credit Rod and Bill for helping me find the time and place to get it out and I admire their work very much and for several years there at Elko, Nevada, we had session of poetry that was related from our Vietnam and other war experiences. And they were very well received and very emotional. A lot of people gave us some good feedback from the poetry that we did there.
NEA: How did you start writing poetry?
Joel Nelson: I had a good background in poetry. I had two wonderful literature teachers in high school who caused me to really fall in love with the sound of the words written and rhyme and meter, just the way that poets like Robert W. Service and Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling assembled their words just fascinated me. They had such command of the English language and they could express an idea so eloquently and do it in rhyme and meter without detracting from the thought. And that takes a great command of the language to be able to do that.
And I think the way to learn to write is to read. And I had read a lot of poetry. I had a roommate in college and he and I would get out a book of Robert W. Service poetry and turn off all the lights and light a kerosene lamp and put it in the middle of the table. And we'd read by the light of the kerosene lamp Robert W. Service poems to one another. And later on when I was serving in Vietnam I had a pen pal or two at home and would write letters rhymed and metered and maybe just to get my mind off of what was going on or just express myself in a little different way. And that's where I really began writing poetry, was in Vietnam. But I kind of laid it aside after I got back and it was 10 or 15 years before I picked up a pen to write any more poetry. And a lot of that was because of the Cowboy Poetry gathering. I thought, "Gosh. There's guys here doing the same kind of work I'm doing and they're writing poetry about it. I believe I'll give it a shot, too."
NEA: Talk about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. What happened?
Joel Nelson: It was spiritual. The Elko experience is spiritual every year. I didn't go to the first gathering there in 1985, but I went to the second one. And just to be in the company of working cowboys and ranch people who were seriously writing poetry about themselves and what we do was spiritual. And a lot of it wasn't great poetry but over the 25 or 26 years that Elko has been going on, some of that writing has gotten better and better. My friend Paul Zarzyski, I think, is one of the most brilliant poets anywhere in the world and I read a lot of poetry. But his writing has improved. Wally McCrae's writing has improved. I hope my writing has improved. And guys that started out just doing some pretty simple poetry, they've gotten deeper and deeper and put a lot of effort into it and have grown. John Dofflemyer is one of my poetic heroes. I just am thrilled any time I get to read a John Dofflemyer poem and it's a real spiritual experience being there. I've often said that we sometimes get a little bit tired of maybe of doing what we do occasionally. Everybody gets maybe a little bit bored or a little bit bored with what they're doing. Maybe it doesn't last very long but there's always a little bit of boredom in practically any type of work. But when we go somewhere with words that we've written about our lifestyle and share them with other people, we come back from that with a little bit more pride in what we're doing and a little more enthusiasm for what we're doing. The poetry comes from our life and without the life we lead; we wouldn't have the experience to write that poetry. But then the work that we do is reentered with a freshness that we wouldn't have had we not gone and shared that poetry with our contemporaries. So, it's a symbiotic relationship. The poetry feeds the work and the work feeds the poetry.
NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about that life of a cowboy?
Joel Nelson: Well, it's a life of love. It's a life of passion for the outdoors. It's a life of passion for horseback work and taking care of cattle. It's hard to explain why we have that passion but I can't imagine without the horse in my life and I love taking care of cattle. I love seeing those baby calves when they are born and seeing them bounce around and running and playing around and finding their mamma and nursing and it's just so gratifying and so rewarding. And being in the outdoors all day, every day doing that is the only place I can imagine being. I have from time to time done other things but I can't stay away from it very long. My wife and I are fortunate enough to be managing a ranch and we do 90% of the work ourselves, just the two of us and occasionally have to get someone to help us move some cattle or work cows. But we're there every day and we're partners and we love every moment of it, even the 100 degree moments or the 20 degree moments.
NEA: Is there a horse that you felt closer to than any of the others?
Joel Nelson: Well, I guess I'm riding one right now that I feel that way about because he's 15 years old now and I've known him since the day he was born. I've raised him and he's a half thoroughbred horse and there's things about him that aren't just the way I would like, which is my fault.
NEA: What's his name?
Joel Nelson: Well, I call him Stony. A lot of cowboys get tickled because people ask them what their horse's name is and I've ridden horses for years that didn't have a name. Stony is a horse that has done so much work for me, I can't imagine being without him. We have a pretty good understanding between us and he gives me a lot and he doesn't ask for much.
It's a partnership just like my wife Sylvia and I have. We can't imagine being without one another. We get attached to these horses and for a lot of years I worked on fairly big cow outfits where I'd have maybe eight or ten horses in my string and would never ride the same horse two days in a row and that's the way most cow outfits operate. You switch horses maybe in the middle of the day and ride two horses every day. And maybe every three or four days get back to the first one and that's to save them and give them plenty of rest and also to help get several of them trained at the same time.
NEA: You write about horses a lot in your poetry.
Joel Nelson: I do. I recite a lot of horse poems that are written from, you know, a hundred plus years ago. I recite a lot of horse poems written by Australian poets like Banjo Paterson. It seems a common theme with the stockman and the cowboys and the drovers and any kind of livestock related work. Men tend to write about the horses they've ridden and so I do have a lot of horse poems that I recite, both my own and other people's poetry. I have such a passion for the horse that I can't help that.
NEA: How has cowboy poetry changed?
Joel Nelson: Well, that's a good question now. I don't know that it has. There are good poems written by authors like Knibbs and Charles Badger Clark that are just as timely with a cowboy of today as they were when they were written -- Banjo Paterson's poems, Henry Lawson's poems, Will Ogilvie's poems… These are just as appealing to a modern day cowboy as they would have been to the stockmen and drovers the day they were written and I would like to think that some of the better poetry that's written today would be just as appealing to them back at that time as their own poetry would have been. So I don't know that it's changed that much. There's cowboy poets now who might dabble in free verse -- Paul Zarzyski being the most prominent one of those maybe; but they're timely poems and they can step back a hundred years or they can go forward a hundred years and not be heard that much differently.
NEA: Wally McCrae said that one thing that was always amazing to him about hearing you recite is you have a mastery of cowboy classics and modern western poems but you're also just as likely to read a poem by Robert Frost or Edgar Allan Poe. Why is it important to you to also recite non-ranch themes?
Joel Nelson: Well, because good poetry is good poetry whether it's written about an experience in New England or whether it's written from an experience on an Arizona cow outfit, good poetry is good poetry and it crosses boundaries of culture and genre. Cowboys may do a type of work that's different from what many other people do but we have the same emotions. We have the same feelings. We live life just like everybody else does and we have an ear for something outside of our own environment and hopefully people outside our own environment will have an ear for what we have to say. So, if it's good poetry, I love it. I love reading Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poetry from Russia. It just touches me. It's wonderful poetry. And it doesn't have to be about the kind of life that I'm living or the kind of work that I'm doing to appeal to me.
NEA: When people talk about you, they often say you're a great horseman rather than a good cowboy. What is a good horseman?
Joel Nelson: A good horseman has to have a great deal of understanding about how the horse feels. He has to have a lot of consideration about how the horse feels. The horse to him is a partner and an animal to be considered rather than just used. So, you know, I don't know if I'm a good horseman. I would like to be thought of that way. There are a lot of better horsemen than I am. They're everywhere. Good horsemen are everywhere and I'm just somewhere in the mix I suppose but I have a great deal of respect and that's what it takes -- respect for the animal, whether it's the horse or whether it's a cow. I tell a lot of people when I'm talking about working cattle that I feel like a cow should be treated with the same consideration that a person would treat their grandmother. A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their mind around that but I honestly feel that way. I don't ever want to put pressure on an animal that's not necessary, whether it's horse or a cow. I like to try to think the way I figure the horse is thinking. I like to try to look at things from his perspective and consider what he might be thinking when I ask a certain thing and if he's not responding in the way that I want, I like to think maybe I could present that a little differently or present it a little more consistently so that he does understand and eventually we reach an understanding more often than not.
NEA: When you learned you had won the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, what went through your mind? What did you do?
Joel Nelson: Well, I was somewhat overwhelmed. I was overjoyed that I had received that honor. I had the Western Folklife Center to thank. I had Charlie Seemann, the Director of the Folklife Center to thank because as I understand it, he's the one that kind of arranged the nomination. And several of my really good friends were involved in writing letters of support and since that time I've received one or two of those letters -- copies of those letters just to have. I told my wife Sylvia that had I not ever received the award, just having those letters of support and recommendation from close friends who I respected so much would have been just as good. To be regarded among your peers is, I think, the greatest honor a person can have. But I'm highly honored and looking so forward to going to Washington D.C. to receive the honor and being a part of the scene.
NEA: Tell me about how the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering began in your town of Alpine.
Joel Nelson: I was involved in it and I've served on the committee that hosts it and puts it together for many, many years now. We just celebrated our 23 rd Annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering. We like to think we're the second of its kind in the country; Elko being the first. But we began this one in 1987 and it's held on every year and we've had some incredible entertainers and poets and musicians here every year that we've had it. And it's a big draw for the little town of Alpine. It takes a lot of dedication to put it on. We're fortunate enough to have some really, really good committee people who have been with it for a long, long time and without their dedication year after year, it never would have survived the economic ups and downs. We have quite a bit of trouble sometimes funding it. Other years are not quite so hard. But we believe it's worth struggling for.
NEA: Is it true that more people come to it from year to year?
Joel Nelson: I think so. I think this last poetry gathering in February was probably the best attended one that we've ever had. We've only got a certain amount of rooms available in the area and we fill them all up and fill up the RV parks and a lot of people make their arrangements a year in advance so that they can be here.
NEA: Do you find that it goes across generations? Are there younger people there as well as older people?
Joel Nelson: In the early years, there were more younger people than there are now. I'm not sure about the reason for that. We're always drawing a lot of older people, a lot of retired people who I think maybe are traveling through the area and stopping and staying a few days for our event. But I would like to see more young people involved in it. We do have a young people's poetry contest connected with it and the public school students throughout the area submit poetry that we judge and the winners of it come and recite at our evening performances. So, we hope we're inspiring a little bit of interest in poetry that way and our musicians and poets all visit the public schools and perform during that weekend or during the last day or two of school before the weekend. So, we hope that maybe young people will get kind of drawn toward the poetry enough to want to at least come and listen or pursue it later on.
NEA: Would you recite one of your own poems for us?
Joel Nelson: Well, the year 2002 on the Chinese calendar was the year of the horse. It rolls around every dozen years if I'm not mistaken. In 2002 the summer of that year I began trying to put together, I guess what I would call to a tribute to the horse because he's been so important to me throughout my life. I stalled out on the piece and then later, in the autumn of 2002, I finished this and I titled it "Equus Caballus", which is the genus and species of the horse. To maybe help a little in the understanding of the piece, I'll talk about the ancestry of the horse a little bit. Evidence that scientists have unearthed over the years would indicate that the horse was not always as he is today. He was at one time a little terrier-sized animal trotting around the face of the globe with toes on all four feet. And it wasn't until probably the Eocene Era that the middle digit of each paw had evolved into what we think of as the horse's hoof. And the digits to either side diminished and are now what we refer to the splint bones in the horse's leg. But this poem is a tribute to that great animal that I ride.
I have run on middle fingernail through Eolithic morning
And I've thundered down the coach road with Revolution's warning
I have carried countless errant knights who never found the grail
I have strained before the caissons, I've moved the nation's mail
I've made knights of lowly tribesmen, kings from ranks of peons
I've given pride and arrogance to riding men for eons
I've grazed among the lodges, teepees and the yurts
Felt the sting of driving whips, lashes, spurs and quirts
I am roguish -- I am flighty -- inbred and lowly
I'm a nightmare gone wild I am
Gallant and exalted -- stately and noble
I'm awesome -- I am grand -- I am
I have suffered gross indignities from users and winners
I've felt the touch of kindness from losers and sinners
I have given for the cruel hand and given for the kind
Heaved a sigh at Appomattox when surrender had been signed
I can be as tough as hardened steel -- fragile as a flower
I know not my endurance I know not my own power
I have died with heart exploded beneath the cheering stands
Calmly stood below the hanging noose of vigilante bands
I am roguish -- I am flighty -- inbred and lowly
I'm a nightmare gone wild -- I am…
Gallant and exalted- stately and noble
I'm awesome -- I am grand -- I am
So I'll run on middle fingernail until the curtain closes
I'll win for you your triple crown I'll wear for you your roses
Toward you who took my freedom I've no malice or remorse
I'll endure I'll last forever I am
Joel Nelson: Thank you.
Photo courtesy of Joel Nelson
Joel Nelson talks about how he grew to love poetry and how he writes and recites poetry, as well as growing up on a ranch and his love of horses, among other subjects. [27:00]