Gail Gardner and the Sierry Petes

by Katie Lee
Journal of Arizona History Vol. 15, No. 3: (Summer 1977): 209-222

Katie Lee is well known in the Southwest as a writer/photographer/actress/singer/musician who fights for the preservation of wild and remote places. Her first book, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, an epic cowboy chronicle told through the songs of cowboy songwriters, will be republished by the University of New Mexico Press in the Spring of 2001. Her award winning documentary film, "The Last Wagon," celebrates two cowboy songwriter legends of the West, Gail Gardner and Billy Simon, with rare footage of them talking and singing. Her record company has released 5 recordings of cowboy songs.

Her latest book, All My Rivers are Gone, is a paean to Glen Canyon, a paradise that was lost to the reservoir waters of Lake Powell. In conjunction with the book, Katie released two recordings, "Colorado River Songs" and "Glen Canyon River Journeys." For more information or a catalogue of books and music, contact Katydid Books and Music, PO Box 375, Jerome, AZ 86331.

Away up high in the Sierry Petes,
Where the yeller pines grows tall,
Ole Sandy Bob an' Buster Jig,
Had a rodeer camp last fall.

Oh, they taken their hosses and runnin' irons
And mabbe a dawg or two,
An' they 'lowed they'd brand all the long-yered calves,
That come within their view.

And any old doggie that flapped long yeres,
An' didn't bush up by day,
Got his long yeres whittled an' his old hide scorched,
In a most artistic way.

Now one fine day ole Sandy Bob,
He throwed his seago down,
"I'm sick of this cow-pyrography,
And I 'lows I'm a-goin' to town."

So they saddles up an' hits 'em a lope,
Fer it warnt no sight of a ride,
And them was the days when a Buckeroo
Could ile up his inside.

Oh, they starts her in at the Kaintucky Bar,
At the head of Whisky Row,
And they winds up down by the Depot House,
Some forty drinks below.

They then sets up and turns around,
And goes her the other way,
An' to tell you the Gawd-forsaken truth,
Them boys got stewed that day.

As they was a-ridin' back to camp,
A-packin' a pretty good load,
Who should they meet but the Devil himself,
A-prancin' down the road.

Sez he, "You ornery cowboy skunks,
You'd better hunt yer holes,
Fer I've come up from Hell's Rim Rock,
To gather in yer souls."

Sez Sandy Bob, "Old Devil be damned,
We boys is kinda tight,
But you ain't a-goin' to gather no cowboy souls,
'Thout you has some kind of a fight."

So Sandy Bob punched a hole in his rope,
And he swang her straight and true,
He lapped it on to the Devil's horns,
An' he taken his dallies too.

Now Buster jig was a riata man,
With his gut-line coiled up neat,
So he shaken her out an' he built him a loop,
An' he lassed the Devil's hind feet.

Oh, they stretched him out an' they tailed him down,
While the irons was a-gettin hot,
They cropped and swaller-forked his yeres,
Then they branded him up a lot.

They pruned him up with a de-hornin' saw,
An' they knotted his tail fer a joke,
They then rid off and left him there,
Necked to a Black-Jack oak.

If you're ever up high in the Sierry Petes,
An' you hear one Hell of a wail,
You'll know it's that Devil a-bellerin' around,
About them knots in his tail.1

You AIN'T HEARD that song, you ain't much of a cowboy," I once heard an old bronc rider drawl.

Most of them probably can't sing it, but they recognize it as having come from the horse's mouth and maybe one out of fifty can say who wrote it. Gail Gardner of Prescott wrote it, along with many more songs and poems, but that's not the point -for them. I've watched the frayed end of a burning shuck tilt up in sunburned lips as they smiled, relating to the lingo and to the happy thought that one of their kind finally put old Devil where he belongs . . . and maybe the happier thought that it took some forty-odd drinks to do it.

* * *

It is the summer of 1960 At dusk, when I walk in the front door of the old house on Mount Vernon Street to be welcomed by Gail and his wife Delia, the Old West flies right up and gives me a smack!

"You're Katie," lie says, "come on in here and park yer soogans. Chow's on the stove; what'll you have to drink? This here's Delia."

"Hello, Mrs. Gardner."

"Delia!" he says.

"Hello, Delia." From this moment, they seem like people I've known all my life.

The house is a territorial frame structure (Gail was a grown man when Arizona was yet a territory -this is the house where he was born) with a great front porch complete with gliders chained to the ceiling. Inside, heavy square-rigged oak and walnut furniture, wooden floors and Navajo rugs, sofas, glassed-in hutches, hall trees and cane racks, stuffed deer heads, antlers, libraries, six bedrooms, an upstairs kitchen as well as one down, two living rooms, a fireplace, dining room and screened back porch - all for the two of there now, kids all grown and moved away. When I try to describe the style and period he says, "I calls it Early Fred Harvey,"

"I want to know why the kitchen upstairs."

He smiles. "When I was married to Delia, we moved in here with n my folks. Got along fine everyplace except the kitchen. Seems the fillies had different ways of doing things, so to keep the gals from lockin' horns, m'dad built a kitchen up there. After that things rippled along smooth as bear grass in the breeze."

Gail is not tall, about five-seven, and the first thing that takes you is a black patch over his left eye. He wears boots always, legs so bowed you can drive a freight train between them, a little eyetooth that sticks out and twinkles when he smiles. Sun has burned him full of holes and freckles. His knuckles are knotted from pulling on ropes and reins, his butt pounded to a flat, back straight, shoulders square. Whatever the patch covers shows up on the double in the other eye, alert and full of mischief (He now wears glasses with a black lens over that eye socket. The eye was removed many years ago, the result of radium treatments for sun cancer.)

I had written him from New York half hinting that he'd sent me all expurgated version of Sierry Petes, and gotten a reply which suggested a red-rumped steer bushed up and ready for a fight. When he found I was coming to straighten things out and reestablish authorship, printing his song as written with such stories as he might want to tell me, he came off the prod.

As he talks about living in Skull Valley, running his greasy-sack outfit, of roundup, branding, fogging strays out of the brush and roping wild cattle, the lingo drifts into his speech like the warmth of an old campfire. He tells of building cattle traps to hold strays- was one of the very first to do so - of when lie could get eleven calves out of ten cows, "but not now, cuz there's too many fences," and of the days before the cattle business went to hell, when they sold beef by the head instead of the pound.

"Hey, you guys," calls Delia, "come and get it!"

In candlelight the dining table is set with white linen, crystal, china and silverware - those heirlooms brought to the territories at all costs, to validate the Westerner's cultural heritage, to bear witness lie was not the heathen the Easterner described. "You get the full treatment first few times; then we hunker down in the kitchen like common folk."

During dinner lie proceeds to tell me how lie wrote the Sierry Petes. On a train in 1917, going back Fast to get into the Air Service in World War I, somewhere in Kansas lie saw a bunch of round-rumped cattle in the fields, not all earmark on one of them and farmers all round on foot! He'd just come from a camp gathering wild steers in Copper Basin, and the contrast between the lizard-tailed outlaws he'd been handling and those placid bovines set him to thinking about that camp.

"I was ridin' to camp at the old Dearing ranch near Thumb Butte one evening with the late Bob Heckle. We'd been celebrating in town and were pretty well jugged up, when one of us remarked that the devil got cowboys who did the things we'd been doing, and the other replied that if the devil monkeyed with us, we'd neck him to a black-jack oak just like a steer. Imagination took over from there, so I sat down at the desk in the club car and wrote on Santa Fe Limited stationery the verses of the Sierry Petes. Incidentally, the name comes from the Sierra Prieta Mountains, just west of Prescott. An old miner I knew in these mountains always called them the Sierry Petes, not peaks."

"I learned it as The Frisco Peaks. I've heard Chiricahua Peaks, Dragoon Peaks, Montana Peaks and any number more."

"Don't doubt it; it's a fearfully pirated song. She got plumb away from me"

The rest of its history he'd sent me in that salty letter:

After the war I showed that poem and some others I'd written to some cowboy friends, among them Billy Simon. Bill decided to cook up an old tune for it and started singing it around cow camps and rodeos. This was the first time I got the idea that a lot of my poems would do for songs. A Wickenburg dude wrangler by the name of George German was also a radio singer and he wanted my "Sierry Petes" and my "Moonshine Steer" to publish in a collection of old cow songs he was getting out for his radio station in Yankton, South Dakota, in 1929. George wasn't a cowboy so he bitched up the words somewhat to suit the sensitive cars of his radio audience, deleted the damns and hells and changed phrases he didn't understand. I suppose that is where those radio punks first got hold of it. I would hear it sung by some guitar plunker who didn't know which end of the cow gets up first- I would write the station a blast about copyright laws and the singing of a song without the author's permission. I stopped a good many of them but I couldn't stop them all. This will explain the different versions, together with the fact that one cowboy learned it from another without any written copies being passed around. Once I saw it in a college quarterly with the quotation: "A perfect example of early Western folklore, author unknown" - what the hell!

"You got m'tail all curled up with curiosity, now, Papoose. Where'd you learn it?"

"From Shorty Mac McGinnis in Tucson. I've sung it in places as far afield as Mexico City and the Blue Angel in New York, believe it or not."

His boyish grin spreads clear to his ears as he muses, "New York, eh? We sure do get around! I know about that part of the country all right. My folks sent me back there to Dartmouth."

"You went to Dartmouth?"

"Sure. They thought I'd make a fine doctor or lawyer. But after I got a Bachelor of Science degree in math, I decided I'd druther count cows, so I come back, worked in my dad's store for a bit, then bought in with a little greasy-sack outfit in Skull Valley. When I finally quit cowboyin', I worked as postmaster. All ya got t'do to have a first-class postmaster is git yerself an old cowboy and punch his brains out.

* * *

"Gail's breakfast call rattles the latch on my bedroom door. "Come and get it or I'll feed it to the coyotes!"

A steaming cup of coffee waits on the kitchen table. One sip and I tell Gail, "Haven't tasted coffee like that since Shorty Mac's . . . strong enough to raise a blister on a rawhide boot."

"Yup, cowboys is fussy about the stoutness of their brew. When Bob Heckle and me was keepin' a brandin' camp fer strays near Thumb Butte one spring, we come down for supplies 'n found the whole dang town outta Arbuckle's coffee, the only kind we woulduse. Well, I bought another brand, fergit what, and heads on back t'camp by our little stream up in the junipers. Next morning I rolls out, makes the coffee and calls Bob. As I recall, he got a little fire-bellied in town and wasn't too spry come sunup. He takes a good round mouthful of that coffee and lets 'er fly -sprays all over me, the camp, the bacon 'n eggs, everything. I says, 'What the hell's the matter? You latch onto a scorpion?' He says 'Christ, where'd ya git that bellywash?' I told him they didn't have no Arbuckle's. 'Jesus,' he spits, 'I could stick a coffee bean in my hip pocket [language laundered by editor] and wade through the crick and git stronger coffee than that!' "

Gail puts a plate of golden hotcakes in front of me. "Those are extraordinary pancakes - guaranteed not to come apart in your stomach."

Today is a good day for staying inside - a restless spring wind whistles and whines under the eaves, swirling leaves and papers around the wide front porch - we sip coffee and get to the business I've come for, listening to the tapes and records of his much-pirated song. In his own collection he has but two printings and one record. I've brought a flock more. There are at least four Folkways albums,2 none of the singers giving him credit. In Folk Songs of Idaho and Utah is the Arizona song Tying Knots In The Devil's Tail, sung by Rosalie Sorrels. At the end of her version he says, "I can see how Buster jig got changed to Jinks, Gawd-forsaken to Lord-forsaken, and hell of a wail watered down to awful wail, but how in chiggers did she ever find Hell-brim-muck? An' she says, 'lopped off his ears.' Why, that doesn't mean anything! When you brand a cow you earmark him - ours was the swaller-fork."

"She also says, 'They sets her up and turns her around' most all the singers think that refers to drinks," I tell him.

"Well, it don't! The two front feet when training a cow horse are left unshod and are therefore tender. So when he stops, his front feet go up in the air and lie 'sets up.' If he slides on his front feet he'll split yer crotch."

"There are several lines that always get sung wrong, Cowboy; one's the line about dallies."

"My God, you'd think anybody lived west of the Mississippi would know what a dally is."

"Too many dudes living west of the Mississippi. I found a guy from Nevada who thought a dally was the pitchfork the devil carried."

"Hell he did! People should find out what they're singing. Dallie-weltie is the Yavapai cowboy's corruption of the Spanish dar la vuelta, to take a turn or twist around."

"They don't care; they sing it because they happen to like it, and because it's good."

"When they git done with it, it ain't no damn good."

"Gail, you've written on a universal theme-the devil out collecting souls - everybody's with those boozed-up cowboys, one hundred percent." I glance up at an artist's re-creation of the scene that hangs over the fireplace - "there's the essence in George Phippen's painting. You don't really have much to say any more about the way it gets sung; it's a part of folklore now. And in most cases even the cowboys didn't help you keep it pure - one takes a dally, the next a hard-tie, the next an anchor . . . ."

"Yeah, that Harry Jackson album I got, he calls 'em wrappies."

The old patch-faced cowboy listens peaceable to all botched and garbled versions until we come across one Peter LaFarge (now deceased), and at this point I think he's going to throw a wall-eyed fit. Pete claims authorship not only of Sierry Petes but of other well-known classics that were written before the kid was born.

Gail's first encounter with the thieving of his song happened back in 1931 when the old pirate Powder River Jack Lee took it, along with Curley Fletcher's Strawberry Roan, put them in a songbook, and claimed them for his own.3

"That dude come swingin' into Phoenix thirty years ago packin' a steel guitar and a hula skirt fer his wife, Kitty. They found a rather sorry reception for that sorta music on the radio, so he bought hisself a fancy cowboy outfit, loaded him and Kitty down with belt buckles 'n boots and began singin' every cow song he could wrap his tonsils around. Curley and me got pretty damn sore about his liftin' our songs without so much as a by-your-leave, but when we got together to see what we could do about it, we found our only recourse was to sue him. Hell, he didn't own the clothes he stood in, and of course neither of us wanted Kitty."

In the mid-twenties, when dude ranching became a profitable business, song publishers in New York and Chicago moved to corral as many Western songs as they could, lifting them from cowboys, pulp nags, newspapers, and bunkhouse scribblings with little effort to find out whose they were, slapping them into song folios, copyrighting them and changing enough notes to get by the law. If they were caught by the author, often as not lie couldn't prove ownership since he didn't think in the vein of profit for his verse. The songs could be sung on the range for years before a cowhand'd wake up, jingle into town and try to brand his brainchild, only to find that somebody else had rustled it - some radio singin' dude who didn't know a singletree from a whole forest!

Curley Fletcher, one of the most popular cowboy song writers and composers of Western verse from Gail's era, had over half of his songs stolen before he got wise to copyrighting. And I happen to know that Gail, as of this writing, hasn't been half compensated by Folkways Records for all the times they've taken "Sierry Petes." They have known all about his copyright and renewal since I told them in 1960 Gail has allowed many persons to use his songs for nothing more than acknowledgment to the author, but fur flies when someone burns another brand on them.

* * *

Things settled back to a walk for Gail and his old Devil that summer of 1960 He didn't shake out any more rustlers and I didn't hear from him until fall, after I'd returned East for the last time. Before Christmas I sent him a copy of Alan Lomax's new book, Folk Songs of North America, which contained a new printing of Sierry Petes with no credit, plus an inference of plagiarism:

Tying a knot in the Devil's Tail . . . is a ballad from the dude ranch period and the sort of haywire song the guide serves up to his Eastern charges around some nice comfortable camp-fire in the mountains. A ranch poet, desperate to find something to match the tourists' idea of the wild and woolly West, remade the Charles Badger Clark poem, which began,

Way high up in the Mokiones....4

Of course the beginning is not from the Badger Clark poem but from the corruption of it called "High Chin Bob." Clark knew how to spell Mogollon.

Knowing Gail, I well knew what was going to happen. Meanwhile I wrote Alan, tried to tell him what was coming, sent him the correct Sierry Petes lyrics and background, and protested that in no way did it resemble Clark's poem - to call it a "remake" was stretching the point even farther. They resemble each other not at all (one's about a lion; the other a devil) outside the first line, which has been used as a beginning for a score of Western poems. The only similarity is the music, another working-over of "Polly Wolly Doodle," and even that is not identical because of a three-line rhyme in the chorus - some cowfolks sing all three, some only two. Clark's poem, printed in 1915, begins:

'Way high up the Mogollons,
Among the mountain tops,
A lion cleaned a yearlin's bones
And licked his thankful chops.

When on the picture who should ride,
A-trippin' down a slope,
But High-Chin Bob, with sinful pride
And a mav'rick-hungry rope.

"Oh, glory be to me," says he,
"And fame's unfadin' flowers!
All meddlin' hands are far away;
I ride my good top-hawse today
And I'm top-rope of the Lazy J --
Hi! Kitty cat, you're ours!"

A week or so later came Alan's answer:

I enjoyed your letter and look forward to hearing from Gail Gardner. It's going to take a long time to convince me that the Sandy Bob poem is not a rewrite from Charles Badger Clark's "High Chin Bob." . . . It's hardly likely that two cowboy poets would have picked this rather unusual theme and treated it in such a similar way completely independently of each other. Literary history contains very few such cases. I'm also not convinced Gail's text is the parent of the one we printed. Anyway, if lie writes me I'll certainly give him co-credit in the next edition of Folk Songs of North America. Thanks for telling me about this.

Sincerely yours,

"Hot cowpies!" I says to myself, "you gonna find out who is the parent all right, boy!" And I wondered if Alan had read Badger Clark's foreword to the 1952 edition of Sun and Saddle Leather, where lie expresses some surprise at the Lomax family trait:

The Glory Trait is a versatile kid and seems equally easy with cowpuncher and intelligentsia. He even developed a sort of dual personality a few years ago when he turned up among New Mexican cowboys as a song under the name of High Chin Bob, and John Lomax, meeting him under those circumstances, put him into Poetry as an 'indigenous Western folksong, author unknown,' which jolted leis fond father for a moment.5

Alan's statement, "It's hardly likely that two cowboy poets would have picked this rather unusual theme," etc., is quite naive, considering the number of them who've gravitated to this sort of fantasy. It would be more accurate to say that any cowboy who ever rounded up wild brush cattle could convince himself he'd latched onto a bear, a lion, a wildcat, the devil, or the whole city of Hell, to say nothing of the top screw.

To the contrary, literary history is full of such similarities. Loneliness and isolation draw imagery from the same allegorical pipe, simultaneously and independently of one another, in all parts of the world. Emerson reminds us: "There is one mind common to all individual men. Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same. She casts the same thought into troops of forms, as a poet makes twenty fables with one moral."6 In cowboy lingo these fables are called "big windies."

Having sent Gail the letter, I could smell hair burning two thousand miles away from the powder keg. When she blew, it was a dilly!

Dear Sir:

I refer to one of my poems printed in your recent book, inaccurately, without permission, and without credit to the author. Since most of my writing is done for fun rather than profit, I have paid little attention, but now, when you make the libelous insinuation that I have plagiarised from the work of Mr. Badger Clark, I make vigorous protest .... I have ample proof of my authorship and a very little research on your part would have led you eventually to the Library of Congress and the copyright entry Class AA, No. 192120. I won't bore you with how and why I wrote the poem, be it sufficient to say when I wrote it in 1917, I hall not seen the work of Badger Clark.

Professional singers of cowboy songs and editors have much in common, neither knows which end of a horse the hay goes in or which end of a cow gets up first ....

If and when you reprint your hook, I do not request, I insist that: (1) you leave it out entirely, or (2) you print it correctly as it was written with due credit to the author and without that slanderous and smart-alecky reference to plagiarism. And let's have no loose talk about coauthors; the poem is mine and mine alone.

Yours very truly,
Gail I. Gardner

Gail sent me the following from Alan's answer to him a couple of weeks later:

I will correct the note in the book and properly credit you for the song at the first opportunity. I certainly sympathize with the problems you've had with the whole thing.


In a sense, Gail's songs don't belong to him any more. As we talk away the morning in the old Mt. Vernon Street house and he sings for me, I can see them as much more than something fun to listen to. His songs are a symbol of personal and territorial freedom - things we creatures enjoy less and less with the passing years. In spirit they belong to everyone who loves the legend, are as rooted in it as if they'd been planted with the cactus and the cedars.

I believe they are far more than regional songs. Akin to the ballads of England, they'll be handed down ad infinitum. We must admit that ranches and cowboys, as we know them, are going fast. With his cracked and ragged voice, Gail Gardner brings back to us the world he lived in - stretching out steers, hunkering over campfires, crashing through brush on fiddle-footed horses, watering at stock tanks, trailing in to the home corral, sore and tired after a day of wrestling muley cows . . . or up to some cowboy devilment with tongue in cheek the vanishing world of the pioneer West. Cowboys, I am convinced, are the antitoxin for our space dizziness, reminding us of past freedoms and a severed partnership with the earth. When we are jam-packed cheek-to-cheek in the not-too-distant future, these songs will rise to recall the empty distance we once knew and leave us with the same feelings that possess us when we stand looking out to sea.


1 Gail I. Gardner, "The Sierry Petes (or, Tying Knots in the Devil's Tail)." First printing was in Orejana Bull-for Cowboys Only (Prescott: Gail Gardner, December 14, 1935). It was copyrighted, number AA 192120, in that year. Second printing 1950; third printing, 1960. The copyright was renewed in April, 1963, number 313825. Fourth printing, 1965.

2 Rosalie Sorrels, Songs of Utah and Idaho (recording). Folkways, FH-5343 (1961). Harry Jackson, The Cowboy (recording). Folkways, FN-2533 (1957). Peter LaFarge, Songs of the Cowboys (recording). Folkways, FN-2533 (1963). Cisco Houston, Cowboy Ballads (recording). Folkways, FA-2022 (1952).

3 Jack Lee, Powder River Jack Lee and Kitty's Song Book (New York: Melrose Music, December 18, 1936).

4 Alan Lomax, Folk Songs of North America (New York: Doubleday, 1958).

5 Charles Badger Clark, Sun and Saddle Leather (Boston: Chapman & Grimes, 1952).

6 Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History," in The Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Random House, Modern Library, 1950), p. 123.

Permission to present this electronic version of "Gail Gardner and the Sierry Petes" was granted by the author and the Arizona Historical Society.

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