I snapped a photo of these well-loved cowboy boots at Shangrila Guest Ranch during a lazy morning on the packhouse porch. They seemed to merit a poem, so I searched the Internet for something appropriate.
That’s how I learned about cowboy poetry, an oral tradition that got its start in western trail-driving days after the Civil War. After a long, dusty day of driving cattle, workers gathered around the campfire and swapped stories, poems, and songs. As folklore professor David Stanley writes in his essay “On the Trail of Cowboy Poetry”:
…some eclectically minded cowpokes with extra time on their hands took the ballad tradition from the British Isles and mixed it in with the poetry and songs of soldiers and sailors and lumbermen, threw in a dash of popular Victorian poetry that they might have heard recited in school or the front parlor, added a lot of their own true-life experiences and a little bit of romanticized cowboy adventure from magazine articles and dime novels, stirred it all up and produced cowboy poetry.
To my delight, I discovered that the cowboy poetry tradition is alive and well. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering website introduced me to a slew of modern-day cowboy poets and songsters, both male and female. I listened to snippets of all 50 individuals and bands who performed at the 2013 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Here are three favorites (click on the poem title to hear the poet read it):
“Passing the Mantle” by Vess Quinlan
“The High Country” by Jesse Smith
I doubt I’ll make it to Elko for the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 27-February 1, 2014, but it sure sounds like a lot of fun. When the gathering started in 1985, people described it as a gathering of tribes and a “Class A” drunk. Twenty years ago, Glamour magazine called it one of the best ten places in America for a woman to find a real catch. Who could resist?
While you ponder the idea of cowboy poetry, listen to the Quebe Sisters Band—which performed at Elko in 2013—sing “Roly Poly.” Guaranteed you’ll start tapping your toes. And then you’ll want some cowboy boots. And before you know it, that’ll lead to something else.