Cowboy Poetry Week: “I Ride an Old Paint”

An American Paint Horse at a horse show in the Czech Republic, from Wikipedia, photo by Karakal

The Death of the Old West

Depending on who you talk to, rumors of the death of the Old West, may be somewhat exaggerated. Some say it died when the railroads started carrying beef on the hoof to places like Kansas City and Chicago. Others say it died when barbed wire was invented. Even today, there are those that infer that the Old West lasted until the automobile and paved roads became the norm for transportation. And finally, there are those that believe that the Old West may still exist in small pockets, where a few determined herders somehow manage to work what’s left of the open range.

The Search

Back during the Roaring Twenties, when speakeasies and Jazz music were the rage, Carl Sandburg went on a search. He was looking for genuine cowboy songs from the Old West. To do this properly, the young Midwesterner dropped out of college, crisscrossed the western mountains and prairies, looking for old remnants of years gone by. Somewhere in the high desert of New Mexico, he came across this beauty of a song.

What’s an Old Paint

First of all, an Old Paint is a type of horse common to the American West. Basically, it is a stock horse with a “pinto” pattern of color. The splotched color separates this breed from the solid, American quarter horse. Except for the color pattern, the two types of horses are similar in size, build and stock. Nonetheless, they are considered two separate breeds, which are both quite popular among American horsemen.

About the Song

Too many, “I Ride an Old Paint”, embodies the spirit of the Old West, as well as any folk song. There are many wonderful elements to the horseman’s tale, but perhaps the unusual method of burial is most telling about the special appeal for this Western lament. I seriously doubt that many (if any) cowhands were treated this way after leaving the world of the living. Yet still, there is a communion with the outdoor range, rarely expressed in Western music,when the corpse of the main character is tied to the back of his horse and then set loose into the bush.

Carl Sandburg at age 77

Who Was Carl Sandburg?

Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1878. After serving in the military in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, Carl returned to the Midwest, where he worked a variety jobs before he began publishing his own poetry in 1916. As an offshoot of his poetry, he put out a recording of folk songs (1927), gathered from traditional sources. This landmark album included such noted American classics, as the “Sloop John B” and “I Ride an Old Paint”. Over the years, the Old Paint song has one of the most recorded songs in American music.

 

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Silence

This man is unable to speak, photo by author

Silence

Today,there is silence everywhere.

Silence

The Longest Reply

Writer waiting for an e-mail reply, biblical painting by William Blake

In My Inbox

Today, in my e-mail inbox I received another form rejection. That in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, for I get these things all the time. But what set this particular reply apart from all the other replies is that it took the agent, two years and three months to return the e-mail. I’m sure in the overall scheme of things this is no record, but for my particular literary endeavors it is definitely a major milestone, for I have never had to wait so long for a rejection.

A Glimmer of Hope

And then from all the information conveyed to me by this agent, who I will allow to remain anonymous, there was this little glimmer of hope.

“Regarding your submission, while there’s much to like, I’m afraid I’m not connecting enough emotionally to your characters, which ultimately means I’m not connecting enough with the content of your story. “

This in itself wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that it was obviously part of a form letter. A few original words would have been greatly appreciated, but I guess it just wasn’t going to happen on this day. Maybe this agent would have been better off, if he had sent no reply at all. After all that seems to be the current form of saying no.

 

No More Yogi-isms

Yogi Berra, as remembered by Dave Granland

The Passing of a Verbal Yogi

Yogi Berra passed away this week. He lived to the grand old age of 90 until he succumbed a thing eventually takes us all. It’s called death. Though Yogi was a great player and manager, he also wrote books (nine by my count). Nonetheless, even though Yogi played in ten World Series (most ever), made the Baseball Hall of Fame and managed teams from both the National and American League that made it to the World Series, he will still be most remembered for his one liners. Now that’s testimony to the power of the spoken word. How many contemporary writers can claim to have had as much to say (and remembered) on the American psyche as Yogi Berra……Damn few.

Some Yogi-isms To Always Cherish

  1. If I didn’t make it baseball, I wouldn’t have made it workin’. I didn’t like to work.
  2. We made too many wrong mistakes.
  3. All pitchers are liars or crybabies.
  4. Little league baseball is a good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.
  5. You can observe a lot by watching.
  6. The future ain’t what it used to be.
  7. You can’t hit and think at the same time.
  8. It’s deja vu all over again.
  9. When you come to a fork in the road take it.
  10. I didn’t really say everything that I said.

And last but not least: “Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they won’t go to yours.”

Short Tribute

And as far as Yogi Berra’s funeral went, I haven’t read any press accounts, but I can only imagine that it was very well attended. And though we haven’t heard too much from the man lately (last book, You Can Observe a Lot By Watching, published in 2009) , nobody has captured the true essence of baseball as Yogi did with his catchy one-liners….that is…..back in the heyday before we had designated hitters and World Series games that are in competition with Halloween. Baseball just ain’t what it used to be.

Yogi Berra understood the true essence of baseball.
Yogi Berra understood the true essence of baseball.

 

 

 

Don’t Write What You Do Know, Write What You Don’t Know

Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today.
Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today. This illustration was first published in Treasure Island.

You might say that writing memoir is like pirating your own life.

Quotation From Toni Morrison

“When I taught creative writing at Princeton, my students had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.”  by Toni Morrison

Good-bye To The Memoir

Everyone seems to start out writing memoir,  and perhaps…….the unfortunate ones get successful at it. Look at Jack Kerouac. His second novel On the Road was a smash hit. It even got him on national TV……but at age 47, Jack was dead, victim of severe alcohol abuse. Jack London didn’t fare much better after his series of successful fiction and non-fiction titles. I’m sure everyone has read the short story, To Build a Fire, but how many know that he died at a young age of 40 from a complication of various medical problems including alcoholism.

Now it’s also very possible that having the name of Jack may have lead to the early demise of these successful authors, but no matter how you feel about this premise, I still think that evolution beyond the first person narrative is a good thing for a writer. Just by looking at the lives of famous authors, you might postulate that writing the truth can be a difficult thing to outlive.

Recent picture of Toni Morrison
Recent picture of Toni Morrison

Say Hello To an Octogenarian Novelist and College Professor

Her name is Toni Morrison and she teaches fiction writing at Princeton University. She is also a Nobel Prize (1993 for Literature) recipient and her 11th novel, called God Help the Child, is due to be released this month and is probably already on the bookstands. (Sorry I haven’t been to a bookstore lately, so I can’t verify this.) In a recent interview with her old editor and collaborator, Alan Rinzler, Toni delves into how it is important for young writers to get away from the old concept of “write what you know” and venture into the brave new world of “write what you don’t know”. This may be an invaluable piece of advice for writers regardless of age or experience level.

Maybe It’s Better To Fib A Little

So, what’s the moral of the story here. Well, it goes like this. If you fib a little bit, then you might live longer. It’s kinda like eating hard candy and drinking red wine. That is when done in moderation these things, which are supposed to be bad for you actually relieve some of your stress, thus leading to a longer life.

A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant
A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant

This surreal painting is simply called Giant. It was done by the master illustrator and painter, N.C. Wyeth. Just in case you’ve never heard of Newell Convers Wyeth he is the first generation of that famous American triad, which also features Andrew and Jamie. If you ever get a chance to see this painting in person, go do it. You won’t regret it, for this is an impressive, large oil painting that will most likely completely take over any space where it is exhibited.

A House Made of Sky

A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author
A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author

A Montana One-of-a-Kind Passes Away

Since noted Montana writer, Ivan Doig, passed away this pass week, I deciced to honor the famed author of This House of Sky with some comments and a series of sunset photographs from the West. Though Ivan spent most of his adult life in the Seattle area, he did grow-up in the shadow of the Montana Rockies and wrote extensively from that experience. One of his best known books was This House of Sky. It was a memoir of his Montana youth that became a finalist for the National Book Award.

Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM
Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM

Western Childhood

Ivan Doig was born in 1939 in White Sulfur Springs, not too far from the Big Belt Mountains and the state capitol at Helena. He grew up in a family of homesteaders and ranch hands. His mother died at age six, so after that tragic event, Ivan was raised by his father and grandmother. Soon thereafter they moved north to a different part of the state, where the family’s main occupation was sheepherding. Doig stayed in Montana until educational pursuits drew him away from the state, first to Northwestern University in Illinois and finally to the University of Washington, where he obtained an advanced degree in American history. Ivan would remain in Washington for the rest of his life.

Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author
Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author

Last Bus To Wisdom

Even though Ivan Doig just passed away, there still is one more book on the way. The novel is called Last Bus To Wisdom and it will not be officially released until August of this year. The publisher is Riverhead Books and this autobiographical story revolves around an eleven-year old boy from Montana, who is sent to the Midwest to stay with some friends of his caretaker, a middle-aged woman, who needs to undergo an emergency medical operation.

The visit to Minnesota does not go well and soon the boy from Montana is back on the bus home with a surprise companion. This posthumous traveler’s tale falls in line with a lot of the western tales that Ivan wrote during his lifetime and should consolidate his well-deserved reputation as one of the best Western storytellers of the 20th century. The book is definitely on my reading list for this year.

 

Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author
Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author

The Storyteller’s Art (according to Jack London)

Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell......In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum
Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell……In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum

To Build a Fire

In case you don’t know who Jack London was, just go backtrack a few years to your American Lit class in any basic English course. Chances are you will come across a story about the Alaskan frontier titled, To Build a Fire. That story was written by Jack London, based on his adventures and prospecting up on the Klondike trail way back at the end of the 19th century.

To Build a Fire was first published in 1902, then released in 1908 with a slightly different plot
To Build a Fire was first published in 1902.

More London

But there was a lot more to Jack than that one short story, for the man from the West Coast was a well-rounded traveler, hobo and adventurer. Unfortunately, he was also a very accomplished drinker, for like too many great writers, alcohol consumption killed him at age 40. Still, in his short time on the planet, the author from Oakland, California left numerous novels and short story collections for readers to consume, long after he passed away in 1916. Some of Jack’s best know novels include Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf.

The Road

One of my my favorite Jack London books is his hobo memoir, called The Road. Here, he recollects his rough and tumble days of the early 1890s before he went north on the Klondike Trail in search of wealth and gold. In The Road, Jack recounts the hard times brought on by the financial crisis of 1893 and how he survived the difficult times by riding trains, begging for a meal and trying to stay clear of the police, who were always throwing bums in jail. (Jack actually landed himself in jail and fortunately he recounts his jail time in The Road.)

The Storyteller’s Art

From The Road comes this little gem of a quote. “I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tall tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story.” In order words Jack often had to lie his butt off in order to keep from starving to death. Times must have been quite difficult in those days, before it became commonplace for charitable groups to provide food and shelter for those without a place to live or food to eat.

More Words of Wisdom

Incidentally, Mark Twain, who had his own share of mis-adventures and times on the street, said the same basic thing quite succinctly. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So does this mean that to be a successful story-writer, you need to drop out of school and devoid yourself of all worldly goods. Of course not, though the life of asceticism could give you some memorable life experiences to write about. Then again you don’t want to end up like Christopher McCandless, where you end up as the subject of a book (Into The Wild) rather than an author. But even in these early decades of the 21st century, there is a lot to say for taking risks both in lifestyles and written content.

Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia
Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia