Story by Ryan T. Bell
In celebration of the 25th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, four longtime performers travel back in time, recalling the event’s roots.
Cowboy poetry as we know it today arrived in Elko on a train that departed from the Salt Lake City train station. On board were a dozen working cowboys, with names like Wallace McRae, Baxter Black, and Glen Ohrlin.
As the train rolled into the night, the cowboys discussed horses, ranch life and – surprisingly – poetry. They were a group of individuals like none the American West had ever seen, a collection of cowboy poets going to Elko for the first official Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Twenty-five years later, the influence of these men and other similarly talented performers continues to be seen and heard on the stages of cowboy poetry’s premier event.
The Western Folklorist
Recollections from Hal Cannon, Salt Lake City, Utah
Meeting the cowboys at the Elko station as a man dressed in a cowboy hat and blue jeans. Despite his dress, Hal Cannon was not a cowboy; he was a folklorist. The 1985 Cowboy Poetry Gathering was the culmination of many years of research and field work by his team of western folklorists.
“Cowboy poetry was an underground tradition. People recited it around campfires, and read it in magazines like Western Horseman. Cowboy poetry is the unpublished guide on how to become a working cowboy.”
Previous to Elko, there hadn’t been an organized effort to bring cowboy poets together, or even to recognize it as a folk genre. That changed in the 1970s when Arizona folklorist Jim Griffith invited Van Holyoak to perform cowboy poetry at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC. Holyoak’s performance caught the attention of Bess Lomax Hawes, an administrator for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The daughter of John Lomax, the famed musicologist who published the 1910 folk anthology “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads”, Bess Lomax Hawes became an enthusiastic supporter of the cowboy poetry movement. She approved NEA funding for Hal Cannon, Jim Griffith and company to scour the west in search of cowboy poetry.
“The basis of folklore is that you go out and beat the bush. You look for cowboy poetry where it exists. Our job as folklorists is to bring it together from all over the region. It takes some nerve to approach cowboys about poetry. A successful folklorist is able to build trust quickly with their subject. That’s not easy, especially with cowboys. They are suspicious because a lot of people have misrepresented their life and who they are.”
One by one, the western folklorists made their discoveries. Montana folklorist Mike Korn found Wallace McRae. Sarah Sweetwater in Nevada rounded up Waddie Mitchell, Ross Knox and Larry Schutte. And, David Brose in Colorado met Baxter Black. Today, these are the names of legends. But in 1985, they were anonymous working cowboys who dabbled in poetry.
“It was a big surprise to a lot of cowboys that there were others who wrote poetry. I remember one poetry session called Good Horses and Bad Rides. There were six cowboys on stage, all of them nervous because they’d never been in front of an audience. Coincidentally, each one recited a poem about the loss of a favorite horse. There was a sense of recognition between them, because it’s hard to love a horse and then lose it. Poetry brings cowboys together at a deep level. It’s kept guys coming back to Elko for 25 years.”
Birth of a Gathering
Recollections from Wallace McRae, Forsyth, Montana
Back at the Salt Lake City Amtrak station, a half-dozen cowboys stood around waiting to board the train to Elko. Among them was Wallace “Wally” McRae, a third-generation rancher from Forsyth, Montana.
“I was standing at the station, and all of a sudden there were a bunch of people with cowboy hats on,” McRae recalls.
McRae was among the few cowboy poets who had been published prior to Elko. “The first cowboy poem I wrote was inspired by the time that I borrowed money from the Production Credit Association (PCA) to buy a ranch. They sent out a calendar every year that included poems by Bill Greaves, a member of the PCA Board of Directors. When Bill retired from ranching and the PCA, I wrote him a poem thanking him for the enjoyment I got from reading his poetry in the calendars. At about that time, the cattle market improved. So, the punch line of my poem was: ‘You should have given it up 10 years ago!’”
“Bill sent my poem to the PCA, and they contacted me for permission to print it and asked if I would write another. That started me writing, and gave me an opportunity to have a small body of work by the time Elko came around.”
A couple years later, McRae received a phone call from Mike Korn, Montana’s state folklorist.
“You don’t know me, but I understand that you write cowboy poetry,” Korn said. Wallace McRae told him that he did. “Do you recite it?” McRae told him that he sometimes recited a poem when he announced at rodeos.
“He called back later,” McRae recalls, “and asked if I would like to go to the middle of Nevada, in the dead of winter, for a cowboy poetry contest. Capriola Saddlery was putting up a saddle as a prize to the winning poet. I told him that having a competition didn’t sound as fun as simply getting together to share poems. There’d be only one winner; why couldn’t we all be winners? That was the universal response from cowboy poets across the West.”
Poets are sticklers for the way words are used. When a name for the 1985 event was finalized, “competition” was replaced with a word that was more pertinent to the spirit of Elko: the “Gathering” was born.
The Loneliness of Cow Camp
Recollections from Ross Knox, Benson, Arizona
Veteran cowboy Ross Knox drove to the 1985 Gathering in Elko from a ranch where he was working in Arizona. The Western Folklife Center was paying for the gas, so he figured, why not make the trip an excuse to visit friends along the way? Knox was a familiar face on many Great Basin outfits where he’d worked stints in various cow camps.
“I thought that the first Gathering was going to be a complete disaster. I couldn’t believe that someone would travel more than 20 miles to recite a poem. But, I was shocked at how many cowboy poets were there; I saw license plates from everywhere. I even knew some of the guys, but I had no clue they wrote poetry.”
The reason Ross Knox didn’t know about other cowboy poets was the same reason why he wrote poetry – loneliness.
“Being alone brings the poetry out in a person. When you’re in a cow camp, you don’t have anyone except your dog, a saddle horse and the cattle around you. While they’re great companions, they’re not much as conversationalists.”
The nature of cowboy work is that you spend long periods of time in locations far removed from others. Until Elko, cowboys didn’t know that when loneliness or boredom compelled them to write a poem, they were contributing to a larger body of work known as the cowboy poetry genre. After his initial surprise, the fact that others wrote poetry made sense to Ross Knox.
“When you’re stuck out in the middle of the desert for months at a time, you don’t have to be the most articulate man to sit down and write a poem. As it turns out, most cowboys have tried to write a poem at least once.”
Family of Cowboy Poets
Recollections from Joel Nelson, Alpine, Texas
Joel Nelson figuratively missed the train to Elko in 1985. Like many cowboy poets, he went undiscovered by folklorists during their initial search. The fact that undiscovered poets come out of the woodwork from one year to the next, however, has kept the Gathering fresh for 25 years. Joel recalls the route he followed to the stage in Elko:
“I saw an advertisement for the first Gathering in Western Horseman magazine, but I didn’t go. Afterward, I heard a lot about it and it made me want to go. Pat Jasper, a state folklorist in Texas, was scouting around in my area and I recited some of my material for her. The Western Folklife Center sent me an invitation to the next Gathering in 1986.”
Nelson has attended nearly every Gathering since. The few years he was absent, though, were for good reason. He told me a story about missing Elko in 1992:
“I had started a bunch of colts for the King Ranch, and I didn’t want to leave them to go to Elko. So I stayed in Texas. I agreed to work King Ranch colts for the next four years, but I made sure to put off starting them until after the Gathering was over.”
Joe Nelson is an introspective horseman, and it comes across in his poetry and outlook on the cowboy life.
“There’s rhythm and meter to everything when you work outside. Trotting across a grassy flat, working cattle, the day-to-day changes of the seasons – they all have a poetic cadence.”
“The horse is the lowest common denominator in cowboy poetry; it is what cowboying boils down to. I guess there are some guys that ranch because they like cattle, but I ranch because I want to work horseback. The horse has been at the forefront of every piece of cowboy poetry I’ve written. Without him, there wouldn’t be a piece.”
Joel Nelson’s authentic poetry has earned him the highest honor; the admiration of other cowboys. “I envy Joel because he comes up with poems I wish I had written,” Wally McRae says. The respect is mutual, because Nelson ranks McRae as one of his heroes. Their friendship speaks of something that Nelson holds sacred, the family of working cowboy poets.
“My whole family of friends is an offshoot of the Gathering. Outside of Elko, we get together to ride, and to work horses and cattle. Cowboy poetry has formed a bond between us that the work alone wouldn’t quite form. I owe it to Elko, the horses, and the words.”
25 Years and Counting
The fact that cowboy poetry arrived in Elko by train is proof of the genre’s adaptability. In the late 1800s, when cowboys were beginning to write poetry, the steam locomotive was considered one of the greatest threats to cowboy life. More than a century later, however, the locomotive is nearly obsolete, but cowboy life and cowboy poetry remains vibrant.
Guy Logsdon, an Oklahoma state folklorist, wrote it best in the 1985 Cowboy Poetry Gathering program: “As long as cattle and horses remain unlisted as an endangered species, and as long as humans maintain a taste for beef, cowboys will exist and will write new poems and songs about their lives, and it is safe to say that no other type of poetry is as universally written, read and loved by voluntary choice than that known as cowboy poetry.