Cowboy Poetry - The First Hundred Years
by Dr. James S. Griffith
Last year down near Patagonia in Southern Arizona, a cowboy was working a pasture by himself when his horse threw him and stomped on him, causing serious internal injuries. When his buddies found him the next day, he had he had removed his outer clothes, folded his trousers neatly for a pillow, placed his boots side by side, and died. An old story. Rather, an old song. And yet any day of the year one can read or be told that cowboying is a thing of the past. The great trail drives are long gone, of course, and working with cattle continues to change radically. But the point is that folks still eat beef, and a percentage of that beef runs wild at some point in it's life. And as long as that hold true, there will have to be people to work those animals… and a lot of the skills and knowledge required to do so have remained constant for over a hundred years. A whole life - a whole culture - has been transmitted from generation to generation in the Western cattle industry. Of course it has changed - what in the world hasn't over the past hundred years? The important thing is that a lot has been preserved. Cowboys still have to ride, rope, work for long hours, know horses, cattle and the country they work in, and rise to whatever challenge is presented in the normal course of affairs. And traditional cowboy culture isn't just concerned with getting the job done, either - there are certain leisure time activities that have remained constant as well. One of these has to do with reciting, singing, and composing poetry.
Cowboy poetry seems to have been in existence since at least the 1870's. By the 80's and 90's, verses were appearing in Western newspapers, cattleman's journals and elsewhere. A little later, they started showing up back east's as songs and fragments of songs in "Western" stories and novels. Then in 1908, N. Howard (Jack) Thorpe published the first collection of cowboy songs - "Songs of the Cowboy". 1910 saw the famous "Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads" by John Lomax. Although each of these books used the word "songs" in it's title, both were basically collections of poems - texts without music. Thorpes book had no music at all, and Lomax's had only 18 tunes. It seems likely that at least some of the pieces in each book were never sung, but rather recited from memory. Why has recitation never been given the place in the cowboy myth that singing has? The singing cowboy has become a commonplace in the Western image; the poetry - reciting cowboy is still a strange figure to outsiders.
There are several possible answers to this question. In the first and became less and less accessible to the general public. This was simply not the case in the first place, singing is a much more romantic occupation than recitation, which smacks, to outsiders, of the schoolroom and parlor. But even cowboys once went to school, and the skills one learns in one's youth may be put to use in a number of ways later on. Singing to the cattle on night guard caught the imagination of readers of western stories; ballad singing was what folklorists of 70 years ago were looking for. For these and other reasons, cowboy songs became an important part of the Western image, while cowboy recitations were (and still are) largely unheard of. But what is a song, if it isn't a poem that has been set to music? And what do you do if you like the story and words of the song, but "can't carry a tune in the saddle bag?" Some sing anyway, of course - we all know a few of these. But others recite.
A hundred years ago, reciting poetry was a lot more widespread than it is today. In the first place memorizing verses and reciting them was something school kids had to do. In the second, there wasn't the specialization we have in our society today. Poetry and many or the other art forms turned a corner in the early 1900's and became less and less accessible to the general public. This was simply not the case in the 19th century, Eugene Manlove Rhodes tells us that the Bull Durham tobacco company distributed the classics free to people requesting them. Shakespeare wasn't unheard of in a bunkhouse - and he wasn't the only one of his kind to show up there, And of course, the cowboys of a century ago were by no means exclusively a bunch of home-grown illiterates. The lure of the West brought a lot of English "educated fellers" who were for one reason or another gravitated to the ranches and cow camps. Quite a few of these folks recited - and wrote - poetry. And beginning in the 1880's and '90's, a whole school of poetry of the out-of-doors was being published by such men as Rudyard Kipling in England and Robert Service in North America.
So it appears that there were several models floating about for what became cowboy poetry. One was the old ballad tradition that many new Westerners brought with them from elsewhere - a lot of the ancient songs found themselves out on the range, and some got changed around to fit the new life and country they were in. New songs were composed, perhaps following the style of these cultural heirlooms. The popular poetry of the nineteenth century provided more examples - that was a time when a lot of events were memorialized in poems. Finally, the new poems of the outdoors were getting published and read, and got educated people interested in writing their own contributions to this genre, based on Western life.
Now let's look at some poems and poets of the West. First on the list of cowboy poems (and I've included songs as poems) are the old-timers left over from the Trail Driving days. "The Old Chisholm Trail" and " Utah Carrol" are well known examples of these earliest cowboy songs. While in most cases we don't know the authors, we do know a little about the ancestry of some of the songs. "The Trail To Mexico" an "Oh Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie," for example both seem to be rewritten from earlier poems or songs about sailors. Of course, even some of these earliest songs have known authors. For instance, D.J. O'Malley wrote "When The Work's All Done This Fall" and "The D-2 Horse Wrangler" (sometimes called "The Tenderfoot") when he was cowboying in Montana in the 1890's, and Jack Thorpe put "Little Joe The Wrangler" together on a trail drive from New Mexico to Texas in 1898. Many of these older songs dealt with incidents of the trail - often tragedies - or with the results of leaving home for long periods of time, or with noted bad men, like Sam Bass, or Jesse James.
By the second decade of the present century, many cowboy poems and songs were being written on humorous, or at least lighthearted, topics. These could involve non-fatal disasters, such as those in "The Strawberry Roan" and "Windy Bill," or tall tales in poetry, on the order of "High Chin Bob," "Yavapai Pete," or "Tying Knots In The Devil's Tail." With most of these we are dealing with known authors. Some, like Curley Fletcher, lived out their lives as cowboys. Others had a college education, like Gail Gardner, who went home to Prescott with his Dartmouth Degree and started running a "greasy sack" outfit in the nearby mountains. Or like John Grafton Rogers, Dean of the University of Colorado Law School, who wrote "Longside The Santa Fe Trail" in 1911. Badger Clark, author of "High Chin Bob" and "The Cowboy's Prayer," was in Arizona for his health, and Jack Thorpe came out West from New York City, where his father had been a successful lawyer. A pretty wide range of backgrounds, to be sure… but all these folks spent some time living the simple life they wrote about.
The West is still full of men and women in the cattle industry who write and recite poems about their world. A lot of them will be at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. And anyone who has spent a little time, as I have I and a double handful of my fellow folklorists, tracking these folks down and recording their poems and recitation, can tell you with no hesitation what tense they belong to. It's the present one. And, I believe and hope, the future as well.
Southwest Folklore Center
University of Arizona