Sunday, December 27, 2009

I've been learning more about cowboys lately...

I’ve been learnin’ more about cowboys lately, cowgirls, too, I should add, from cowboy boots to cowboy poetry. There’s a cowboy poetry gathering about to take place: the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering will take place January 23-30, 2010 in Elko, Nevada. Baxter Black is one of the “cowboy poets” who’ll be there. There’ll be plenty of “cowgirl” poets, too. Famous women I’ve never heard of: Yvonne Hollenbeck and Linda Kirkpatrick among others. Dozens of cowpoets will be there celebrating their heritage. According to an on-line encyclopedia, "cowboy" is a term common throughout the west and particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, "Buckaroo" is used primarily in the Great Basin and California, and "cowpuncher" mostly in Texas and surrounding states.

There’s plenty of folklore to go around. Pecos Bill and Cowboy Jack and Annie Oakley, and Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane and Sweet Betsy from Pike. When I played in the Nebraska Wind Symphony, we played the John Williams score for the movie “The Cowboys” at one concert. That was a fun piece to play. Fast moving like river rapids and wild running horses and slow melodic phrases like the meandering streams of the west. What a great piece of music. Playing Aaron Copland hoe downs and rodeos are another piece of my cowboy education. And watching westerns on TV as a kid: The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Maverick, and Have Gun Will Travel, and Gunsmoke, and Bonanza, and many many more. I teach an essay by Tobias Wolff in my English composition classes of the importance of owning a gun for a kid in the west, “On Being a Real Westerner.” And the movies and literature are marvelous: from “How the West Was Won” to “Little Big Man” and from Mark Twain’s “Roughin’ It” to Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.”

In my later professional career as a union organizer, I even attempted to “organize” cowboys, once. Several years ago, a few Brand Inspectors were interested in organizing – it was like trying to herd cats. These guys were mostly ranchers who did brand inspection at cattle sales. Cows are a “herd” animal: cowboys aren’t. There’s a rugged individualism that runs contrary to “collective” action. Don’t fence me in. Go to YouTube and paste in Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers singing their version of Don’t Fence Me In at The Hollywood Canteen. Pretty cool. Fences were originally anathema to the west: the fence cutter wars between farmers and ranchers come to mind. Eventually, the “fencers” won that war. There’s even a barbed wire museum in La Crosse, Kansas. There were other “wars” too, not even considering the “wars” against the native populations; i.e., the Johnson County Wars in Wyoming that led to the writing of “Shane,” later made into a movie.

I lived Sheridan, Wyoming in the middle to late 1950’s. And cowboys were everywhere. That was before it was such a big coal town. I sold popcorn at summer rodeos in town one year, might have been 1958 and saw a guy break his collar bone riding a bucking bronco. “All American Days” is what I remember it was called.

People ranched around there and of course wore cowboy boots. And there’s a science to cowboy boot design: narrow toes to find the stirrup holes quickly, high heels to stop the boot from sliding through the stirrup endangering the rider, high leather uppers to protect from everything from brush to rattlesnake bites. They’re made of cow leather or more exotic leathers: alligator, snake, ostrich, lizard, eel, elephant, sting ray, elk, buffalo, and the like. I had a pair when I was about 10 or so, but I wore the heel out in an odd way so my foot turned at an awkward angle and my mother vowed never to buy me another pair. Every cowboy I’ve ever seen walks funny from all that riding so the odd angle seems more natural. If “bow-legged” can be more natural, that is.

So with this sparse and meager cowboy background, I’ve painted some “cowboy” boots for my own “cowgirl” who lived on her family’s ranch, Wearin Brothers Cattle Co., for a while, and now rides her Boogy around her family farms in the summertime in Iowa and gets up early in the winter and trudges through the 3 foot high snowdrifts to feed him. I shoveled through those drifts once or twice over the Christmas blizzard, but within 30 minutes, they’d be drifted over again.

Regards, Bud C


Blogger Bob Kinford said...

Elko is old hat. If you want good cowboy poetry and music from the next generation of cowboy poets and entertainers, check out

5:55 PM  

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