Back in early February I made this drawing poking fun at the Corona Virus that was just starting to cause problems in China, especially within the city of Wuhan. Now, some three months, we have a worldwide pandemic with this disease that is wrecking havoc in such civilized countries such as Spain, Italy, the UK and our very own USA. It hasn’t progressed to the point where pandas near face masks, but the extent of the global spread is quite troubling.
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A few months ago, back in the dead of winter, I found myself holed up in Southern Utah taking public assistance for a couple of weeks. As a result I had no control over what I watched on TV. This wasn’t a bad thing really, for I got a chance to watch a whole bunch of western movies, mostly from the 50s. Not only did I enjoy viewing the films, but also, I learned something about moviemaking and storytelling.
The movies I watched were Gun Glory (1957), The Last Wagon(1956), The Cattle King(1963), Fort Dobbs(1958), The Jayhawkers(1959), The Marauders(1955), The Sheepman(1958) and McLintock(1963). All except McLintock and the Cattle King were made in the 50s and McLintock differed significantly from the rest because it was a comedy, even though John Wayne starred as George Washington McLintock, the eccentric cattle baron. More about that particular film later.
A Common Theme?
What struck me most about the 50s Westerns was how quickly and easily the main characters changed partners. Even death of a spouse was often the catalyst for these changes. For example in the Jayhawkers, Fess Parker plays a man, just escaped from prison, who is headed home. Only problem is the woman in the house is not his wife, as she is buried nearby. No problem, for the moviemakers, because the homesteader, Nicole Maurey, ends of spending the entire film with Fess, as they try to find justice against the gangs of marauding men that are terrorizing the Kansas territory.
John Wayne In a Comedy
For the 50s movies, this seems to be a common theme among these Westerns, at least the ones reviewed in this article. Only with the sixties films of McLintock and The Cattle King, did I detect a more normal relationship between man and woman. The story of McLintock revolves around a powerful western couple, played by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and their humorous escapades, as they try to reconcile their differences.
What’s Going On Here
The rugged reality of life in the Old West is definitely at work in a lot of these Westerns. The dangers were real, life was hard, and men and women could die suddenly for no logical reason. When tragic events like this did occur, survival may have quickly necessitated the relocation with a new partner of the opposite sex.
The Wars of the 40s and 50s
From 1942 till 1953, the U.S. went through two costly military conflicts. World War II was by the far the most deadly, but we should not forget the 50,000 soldiers, who perished in the Korean Conflict. Perhaps, some of the resulting turmoil on the home front is reflected in the Western movies that were being made in Hollywood.
The White Cowboy
For just about all of our cinematic history, the Cowboy has been white. Mel Brooks put a crack in this myth with his landmark satire, Blazing Saddles, but even today, the hero of the Western tends to a white male mounted on horseback. Basically, the conquest of the West was told by the victor. Many good movies have been made using these parameters, but there still remains other stories out there that could be successfully brought to the silver screen, both real and fictional, or somewhere in between.
According to Smithsonian researchers, during the heyday of the Wild West, about one out of four Cowboys were black. To understand the rise of the black cowboy, one has to take a look at Texas in the decade of the 1860s, when war broke out between the states and during that war, The Emancipation Proclamation was passed.
For Texas ranchers, who went to war, this was a particularly difficult time, for if they survived the war (and many did), they only returned home to find affairs in disarray. For while away, the slaves had often been left in charge of managing the cattle herds, a task with which they took on with varying degrees of success.
It only took the ranchers a short time to turn things around. By taking on the now free black men as cow hands, they straightened out life on the ranch. And then as lucrative markets for beef opened up in the industrial north, the ranchers now had an opportunity to prosper. There was one catch; they had to drive their herds north to places like Kansas, where the product could be quickly shipped to market.
A Cowboy Autobiography
In 1907, Nat Love wrote his autobiography of his life as a cowboy. Born in 1854 as a slave in Tennessee, Nat eventually traveled West, where he found work on an Arizona ranch in the 1870s. In Nat’s own words, his first-hand accounts differ only slightly from many of the stories that we see in the movies.
In his book, Nat talks about huge cattle drives from Arizona to Kansas, fights with Indians and visits to the Wild West cow towns like Dodge City, where saloons, gambling joints and ladies of the night flourished. During his travels, Nat met the likes of Billy the Kid, Pat Garret, Bat Masterson and even earned his own colorful nickname of Deadwood Dick after winning a cowboying contest in Deadwood, South Dakota.
Everybody Wants To Be the Cowboy
Back in 1996 the Fugees, released a song called The Cowboys. The tune appeared on an album called The Score, which in many ways embraced the gangster lifestyle. A year later, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, borrowed a line from the popular Fugees number and released this video, titled “Everybody Wants To Be the Cowboy”. Filmed on the shores of Jamaica, the following music video takes a slightly different tack on the rapster/gangsta attitude, which today seems quite popular and successful, even finding its way into our highest political institutions.
Women definitely held a major role, not only in the Old West, but also today, as ranching country faces the challenges of a new and changing world. Traditionally, women have been the more active participant in literary activities. Yet, in the world of Cowboy poets and self expression, women are definitely in the minority. Nonetheless, the woman of the open range can still spin a good yarn that will keep the audience tuned in and wanting for more.
A Cowgirl at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Men tend to dominate the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, but does not stop the women from stepping up to the microphone.
Honoring a Canadian Songwriter
Ian Tyson is a well-respected Canadian songwriter, who has received special honors and tributes at the National Cowboy Poetry gatherings. One of his most famous songs, which is written from a female point of view, is featured here by Suzy Bogguss.
Cowboy poetry readings are usually called gatherings and may occur at any time of the year. For example, The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is held every winter (late January or early February) in Elko, Nevada at the Western Folklife Center. The get-together lasts for a long weekend and includes film and music performances, along with the traditional poetry reading and storytelling sequences. It is also a big social event, where members of the sponsoring organization have a chance to get together and share experiences.
Besides the big event at Elko, there are many other Cowboy poetry events that are held around the country. Not surprisingly, many are held in Western States, where ranching is still a way of life. For example, Texas, Montana and Wyoming all have such events on an annual basis. And then, on a smaller scale, fans of this venue can find numerous smaller poetry events, usually supported by interested municipalities, folklore museums and heritage sites. Add all this together and you have an extensive network that supports the colorful poets, storytellers and musicians.
The Bet at the Bar
Watch below, as Waddie Mitchell recounts his humorous tale, The Bet at the Bar. This performance is from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
Music and Poetry
Music is also an important part of Cowboy poetry gatherings. Here Michael Martin Murphy, a successful recording artist in his own right, performs a song at the Elko national gathering.
Somewhere in West Texas, there is a real place called Stampede Mesa. It is situated east of Lubbock, along the Blanco River on a private ranch. There is a ghost story attached to this high spot of grass that many researchers believe is the origin for the song, Ghost Riders in the Sky. Furthermore, it is completely, plausible that the lively story might have traveled by word-of-mouth from West Texas to Arizona, where the author was born and raised.
Ghost Riders in the Sky
The song was originally written in 1948 by a relatively unknown songwriter of the name, Stan Jones. At the time, Stan was a Death Valley National Park ranger, who wrote songs on the side. During his lifetime, he recorded over 100 songs with the Ghost Rider tune, being by far the most popular. Jones, who grew up on an Arizona ranch, claims to have heard the story while he was kid.
Burl Ives was the first major recording artist to pick up on the number. He did so in 1949, after being sent the song by Eden Ahbez, an iconic California folksinging character, who was best known for living under the grandiose Hollywood sign, before being discovered by Nat King Cole in 1947. Since its initial release, Ghost Riders has been performed by over 50 musicians. Styles vary from full out, loud rockin’ country as done by the Outlaws to a simple folksinger’s tale as Don Edwards does in the following video.
Since there was good grazing on top, they drove their heard up on the small plateau, being careful not to get too close to the large cliff that overlooked the river. Much to their surprise they encountered an old man, who was camped out with his own small herd of about 50 steers. Without much discussion, the drovers from the South decided to share the mesa with the old man.
Unfortunately, this decision did not sit well with the old man, for sometime in the middle of the night, he arose and deliberately started a stampede that killed 1200 head of cattle and two cowboys. Then, he hightailed it away from the mesa, but the cowboys tracked him down and brought him back to camp.
For his callous crimes, the old man was blindfolded, placed on a horse and driven off the cliff. From that day on, the hallowed place has been known as Stampede Mesa. Not surprisingly, the land is believed to be haunted with strange sounds and apparitions of cattle stampeding being reported by those who travel along the Blanco River.
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.
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.
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.
Earth Day was the idea of Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson, who came up with the idea in 1969, as a way to promote environmental awareness on a planetary level. In April 1970, the first celebration of Earth Day occurred with the majority of activities, occurring on college campuses and in large urban areas in the U.S. A year later, not only did President Nixon give Earth Day official recognition, but he made April 22 part of Earth Week.
Earth Day is still celebrated today, as over the years, the global challenges have changed and environmental legislation is nowhere as universally popular as it was back in the 70s.
Richard Nixon: Our Greenest President?
Richard Nixon was not much of a cowboy, but as an environmentalist, he did pretty good, signing 14 pieces of Environmental legislation during his tenure.This little known fact about our 37th president may come as a surprise to many political observers of that era, especially since he showed little or no interest in environmental issues before becoming president.
Nixon began his environmental legacy in 1969 by signing into law The National Environmental Policy Act, which created environmental impact statements.
Then in 1970, Nixon proposed and pushed through Congress the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was quickly followed by the Clean Air Act and the creation of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration}.
By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, he had also passed the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (actually signed by Ford in 1974).
Yes, folks that’s quite a legacy.
Cowboys and Environmentalists
Today, the rancher (and the Cowboy) have their backs against the wall financially, as they face increasing pressure from a changing world to their way of life. Loss of grazing land is just one challenge, as other threats can come from growing populations in the New West and the a new kind of activism arising from radical environmentalists.
Nonetheless, the Cowboy poets are thriving, as larger audiences thirst for the old storytelling skills of bygone eras. Even though these modern-day bards may be out of sync with the urban reality of rap and slam poetry, they have caught the attention of many, who have never saddled a horse or roped a calf.
Today is not only Easter, but also the kickoff for Cowboy Poetry Week. Since the former event is well covered by the churches and press, I will devote the next seven days to the ridin’, ropin’ poets of the Old (and New) West.
If Jesus Was A Cowboy
The present calendar year presents a small dilemma and unique challenge for fans of the Cowboy poetry genre. Since the first day of the poetry week coincides with the Easter holiday, the question might be asked, “What if Jesus was a cowboy?” On a preliminary note, this sounds kind of fanciful, but in reality a variety of Country and Western singers have pondered the idea and over the years recorded tunes with similar titles.
The short list includes Jesus was a Cowboy (Brady Wilson Band), Jesus Was A Country Boy (Clay Walker) and God Must Be a Cowboy (Chris Ladoux). All of these songs are find and dandy for a listen on Easter Sunday, but instead, I have chosen a sincere and thoughtful tune from an obscure singer/songwriter named Kevin Reid. Furthermore, the song is performed by David Glen Eisley, a California rocker of some note.
This blog has been also posted at my alternative site, Bluefoxcafe, which can also be found at WordPress.com. I am currently undertaking an experiment to decide which place gets more traffic.