In reading about these gatherings—which have been described collectively, and more accurately, as a "movement"—we learned that these cowboy poets (comprised of men and women) highly value preserving the oral tradition of poetry and the Western way of life from history, as well as today's Western way of life. These poets speak of pride in country, pride in the craft of writing, performing and entertaining, and the reward of a hard day's work.
Recently, and just in time for the annual Cowboy Poetry Week during National Poetry Month, Blast Furnace had the pleasure of corresponding and, in at least one case, speaking directly with four of these contemporary cowboy poets: Baxter Black, dubbed by the New York Times as "probably the nation's most successful living poet"; Sam DeLeeuw, named the 2012 “Female Cowboy Poet of the Year” for the Western Music Association; Jessica Hedges, 2010 Columbia River Cowboy Gathering People's Choice Award Winner, and Red Steagall, official Cowboy Poet Laureate of the City of San Juan Capistrano in California and Poet Laureate of the State of Texas in 2006. Each of these poets has a busy performance schedule, at least one CD recording and other publications available, and is actively involved in the promotion of his and her own cowboy poetry and the overall cowboy poetry movement itself.
Following is the interview in its entirety.
|"Making Adjustments" © 2012, by Shawn Cameron|
Red Steagall: The image of the cowboy portrayed on the silver screen is not the cowboy that we write about. The early day westerns were exactly the same as today's cop stories. They are sensationalized to satisfy the entertainment value to millions of people. The cowboys that we write about are the men and women who still live on the big ranches, still work cattle on horseback and live an agrarian lifestyle just like their forefathers. These people still raise cattle, ride horses and rope and brand calves but they are the most wholesome, honest, respectful and dedicated people on this planet.
Sam Deleeuw: Wherever there are cows, there will be cowboys! The Western movies have redirected the viewer’s perspective away from reality. Cowboys were seldom clean on the trail, with creased jeans, nice Stetsons, unfrayed white shirts. Cowboys today vary from region to region in their apparel and the make and crease of their hats. From ranch to ranch (small or large), cowboys may be wearing the traditional jeans, wild rag, western hat with stampede strings of horse hair, and will be roping and dragging calves to the fire from the back of a horse. In other areas, the roundup will be from pick-up trucks, 4-wheelers and the cowboys could be wearing t-shirts, jeans, ball caps and tennis shoes. The ages will vary from the tiny ones swinging miniature, cut-down ropes to the patriarchs of the clan watching closely to make sure everything is done correctly. Cowboys include the wives and daughters who can also rope as well as the guys. They run the chutes, inoculate, brand and then at noon break, bring out the lunch they put together before the sun came up that morning. The “cowboy life” is not glamorous, but is hot, sweaty, dirty work. It is rewarding, however, when working the land and the stock. Many ranchers strive to do the work with their cattle as it was done a hundred years and more ago. The same traditions used by their ancestors are common in the “spring gathers” today.
Baxter Black: A lot of people write about the old days and cowboys as a vanishing breed. I write about today's cowboys, ranchers and farmers, as I am one of them. I don't think of [cowboys] as a vanishing breed.
Jessica Hedges: Although the adventures we saw during the Silver Screen era of Western movies have elements of fact, there are a lot of romanticized aspects portrayed. Horses don't go everywhere at a full run, the good guys don't all wear white hats nor the bad guys black, and most modern cowboys will never experience a gun fight at high noon. That being said, it's not uncommon to move cattle twenty miles on horseback, see a pistol on a man's hip, and the theme of pride still rings true.
Could you share a bit about what you know of the history of cowboy poetry?
|Red Steagall photo: Caroline Cruz|
BB: I realize now, years later after I'd read the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service and Banjo Patterson—my favorite—that many of the cowboy storytellers and poets from the 19th Century were probably inspired by those three guys. I still return to their poems when I want to know what good writing is. I started as a songwriter, and songwriting was a hobby for me. I'd been exposed to the classic poets and it didn't at first sink in as poetry; even when I was forced into it, I didn't think it was a way to make a living. But I always told stories to my veterinary clients as I made my calls. I would carry a story with me, and after telling it four or five times down the road, they became pretty good stories. Somewhere along the way I began making them into poems.
JH: Long before we had phone, internet, tv, you had guys sitting in bunkhouses at night. As Waddie Mitchell says, 'People did the strangest thing at night, they talked to each other!' So they started telling stories and over time these stories took on a rhyme and they took on a meter. This did two things, it made it more entertaining and it made it easier to remember. Cowboying, especially during that time, was very migratory. So as these men would travel from ranch to ranch following the work, they would intermingle and so would their stories.
RS: I don't understand why academia does not consider what we write as an important part of American literature. In our poems and songs, we document the lifestyle of a great number of our fellow Americans. Our country was built on the backs of farmers and ranchers, not technocrats. Even today, the most important people in our entire society are those who continue to fill our stomachs with the most effective, efficient, economical, and safest food supply on this planet. It's extremely important that all of us support and celebrate the men and women who risk everything they have every day to put food on our dinner tables. Cowboy poetry celebrates the heritage, traditions, values and lifestyle of a particular segment of American society. It documents that lifestyle both of yesterday and today.
BB: The only people who make it an issue are the people who say 'Rhyming verse is not poetry.' The question I ask, then, is 'Are we not cowboy poets?' [This has been met with the response] 'No. You are cowboy versifiers.' But our [poetry] is much more commercial, much more available, and reaches many more people. Who's to say what's right or wrong when it comes to writing? I have three qualifications for myself [with poetry]. The first is perfect meter and perfect rhyme. That means anyone can pick up [a cowboy poem with perfect meter/rhyme] and read it and it always sounds like you intended. The second is original thought, which outweighs all the other [qualifications]. If you concentrate too heavily on perfect meter or rhyme, you compromise the original thought. There are some cowboy poets who made jokes they'd heard that someone else created into poems. That's not original thought. My third qualification is a strong ending. When you come to the end of a poem that you're performing, the audience should know it's done.
JH: I think cowboy poetry started to fade a because of our nation's removal from agriculture in general. The importance of personal interaction and that process of the older generation passing down their stories has broken down as well. Luckily, cowboy poetry seems to be making a comeback in a big way, and the longevity and continuing rising numbers [of performers and attendees] at cowboy poetry gatherings proves that.
SD: As movies have glamorized the West, cowboy poetry may tell the true accounting of this way of life. I describe experiences I have had while I was a rancher’s wife. The stories of running from a bull, the stories of families affected by drought and loss of land, tales of the trail drive told through the character of Hilda the trail drive camp cook, or of the contemporary rancher wife’s day-to-day trials with kids, stock and husband. The West is not dead! It is most certainly not the way it was in the late 1800’s, but then nothing is. But this is my (our) history, it is where I came from, these men and women blazed a trail that allows me to be who I am today. [My poem,] "These Women of the West," talks about those early women who came west to unknown futures. Their strength and courage helped open the West. I celebrate them as much as the cowboys!
|Baxter Black photo: Kevin Martini-Fuller|
BB: It's the world I live in. I raise cattle and I write about it. I have some serious poems but you can't make a living doing serious all the time. You have to be uplifting and entertaining.
JH: Cowboy poetry is a great way to celebrate the old and the new. By the same writer/performer you could hear a story that happened in 1880 and a personal experience involving their cell phone in 2013.
RS: I grew up in the cow country of the panhandle of Texas. I spent my childhood on the Canadian River hunting arrowheads, catching feral horses, and running coyotes and coons. Cowboys have always been my heroes. My musical heroes were Bob Willsand his Texas Playboys. Then in later years, I became good friends with JimReeves and Tex Ritter who influenced me musically and personally. The most important influence in my life was my mother. She gave me a sense of values and taught me how to speak and spell properly. She taught me how to see the world through the written word. The radio and books took me to places I never dreamed I'd get to see. I'm a lucky boy because she was my mother!
BB: The three poets I mentioned earlier. Also, Carlos Ashley from Llano, Texas. He wrote the book, 'That Old Spotted Sow.' I first heard it when I was having a hard time between jobs and in life. I'd spent some time with Red Steagall, and I was writing [and performing] my little poems. Red is a man of great insight. He said 'Come out on the porch with me,' and he started to read me Carlos' book. It was the first time I had a clue of what poetry really was and what I was doing. We took turns reading the poems to each other, and I felt for the first time here was where I belonged—here's someone who really knows.
JH: My favorite classic cowboy poet would have to be Bruce Kisskadon. Contemporary-speaking, I have learned so much from cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, as well as singer/songwriters Ian Tyson, Dave Stamey, and Tom Russell. Outside of the fine arts? Men and women who buckaroo with everything they have, who continue to carry the traditions of the vaqueros, who are/have taught their children to respect, if not continue, this way of life.
|Jessica Hedges photo credit: Becky Kingen,|
Flying K Custom Cowboying
SD: I most admire the men and women of poetry and music who have been performing and entertaining for decades and have not lost the enthusiasm, energy and love for the Western life and genre. I have seen individuals come and go. Some after having traveling around for a time, find it tedious, too hard to coordinate or not financially satisfying enough to continue. It is not hard to see which of the poets truly love what they do. They are constantly creating new stories in rhyme for their audiences to enjoy. They have continued to hone their skill, worked with younger entertainers who will someday take their place and have given of themselves to enhance any venue to which they have been invited.
BB: Red Steagall is a personal hero of mine. He writes parables, has a great knack for it. He's also a great joke teller. All of his poems have a message. There's lots of good poets and lots of good poems, like Wallace McRae's 'Reincarnation.' He has won the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
JH: Waddie Mitchell, Randy Reiman, Joel Nelson, Leon Flick, all guys who have socks older than me and have really cowboy'd in big country. Their writing comes from the heart and is based in real experience.
RS: My music and poetry can be found on [my] website. On that same website, you can get the location of all of our public dates as well as a station list for our radio show on http://www.cowboycorner.com and the air dates of our television show “In the Bunkhouse.” You can also learn about the 23rd Annual Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering and Western Swing Festival in the Stockyards National Historic District in Fort Worth, Texas.
SD: Check my webpage for my products and my performance schedule. On http://www.CowboyPoetry.com is listed most of the gatherings and festivals in the United States. Also found there are many poets, a representation of their work and where it may be obtained.
BB: You can view a listing of events where I'll be performing at http://www.baxterblack.com or www.cowboypoetry.com.
JH: The easiest way for folks to see what I am about and to keep up on my adventures is by visiting my website, http://www.jessicalhedgescowboypoetry.com. They can also follow me on Facebook at @Jessica Hedges Cowboy Poetry.
What are some of your future poetry projects or what poetry projects do you currently have in the works?
SD: Future? Just more of the same. More gatherings, festivals, shows for as long as they keep inviting me! With each one will come new friends, experiences and fodder for new poems. I’m sure they’ll be a new CD in the next year and maybe a book of my original favorites. Just keep watching the web page!
BB: [Scheduled for several events out West and in Canada during National Poetry Month through the end of April and in Minden, Nevada in early May]
JH: I am currently in the planning stages of my first book, which would include cowboy poetry as well as lots of other features! Other than that, being a cowboy's wife, mom, accessories designer, and entertainer is pretty much a full time job and a half!
Special thanks to Margo for providing helpful information and numerous resources related to this edition of Blast Furnace. 'Like' cowboy poetry on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/cowboypoetryandmore and follow cowboy poetry on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/cowboypoetry. For continual updates on cowboy poetry, go to http://www.CowboyPoetry.com/sincenews.htm and for cowboy poetry E-news, http://www.CowboyPoetry.com/subscribe.htm.
Special thanks, also, to Vikki J. Drewel and Debbie Bowman who assisted in providing valuable resources and accommodations in interviewing Baxter Black and Red Steagall, respectively.
Others were covered with talkin’ red lips,
“Like what ya see??,” I heard them say.
For the issue of discussion has caused some disorder
So we are giving this problem the attention it’s due
And like it or not, it is just one of those facts of life
That comes out of their pockets and treats my washer quite rough
Vaccines, keys, staples, drill bits, pain killers, rocks and eye hooks
Shot my hand with 7 way meant for the cows of his aunt’s
Designing a new washing machine for us to invent
All us boys whooped it up when she rode the hair off that bay
We’d never seen a bronc ridden with that kind of style
Editor's Note: The preceding poems were posted by permission of the poets.