The White Cowboys

The iconic buttes of Monument Valley, AZ have been pictured in many western movies.

Non Stop Western Movies

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

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 and Maureen O’Hara  during the filming of McLintock.

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.

Tom Mix was one of the first Hollywood cowboys

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.

 

The Black Cowboys

A 19th century photograph of a group of working cowboys

The History

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.

Nat Love was a real 19th century cowboy, who in 1907 wrote his autobiography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Cowboy Poets and Storytellers

Participants in the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gatherings

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.

The Network

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.

Cowboys have been singing and telling stories for many years

A Real and Genuine West Texas Ghost Story

This WPA was done by Tom Lea and can be found at the Odessa, Texas post office

Stampede Mesa

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.

Stan Jones would have been an obscure C & W songwriter except for one massive hit, Ghost Riders in the Sky.

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.

A Real Texas Ghost Story

The story of Stampede takes place back in the 19th century during the heyday of the cattle drives. According to legend, a band of cowboys were driving 1500 head of cattle from South Texas to Kansas. While traveling along the Blanco River in West Texas, the group approached a flat-topped mesa that overlooked the river.

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.

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.

 

If Jesus Was a Cowboy

April 21 marks the beginning of Cowboy Poetry Week and is also Easter Sunday

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter Kickoff

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.

Final 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.

A Cowboy Author from the Old West

book cover on Will James
cover featuring a Will James painting from a book about the cowboy artist

Twentieth Century Cowboys

Contrary to popular belief, the “Old West” did not die with the beginning of the 20th century. If you ever saw the opening scene from the movie, “Seabiscuit”, there is a wonderful part, where a mounted rider chases down a wild horse. The brief spurt of action is set against a stunning backdrop of mountains. After reading Will James intriguing memoir, “The Drifting Cowboy”, I now know that there is more truth to this picture than I first realized.

6am339 by Will James
painting entitled 6 a.m. by Will James

Who was Will James Anyway?

Will James is the alias of Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, who was born in 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d’Acton, Quebec, Canada. As a young man Joseph traveled west to Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned to be a cowboy, but Joseph had to leave Canada and change his name ( to Will James) because he was wanted for cattle rustling. In the U.S. Will James traveled round the west working as a cowhand at various places, especially Montana. He even drifted south and worked in Hollywood as a stunt reader. This fascinating experience is well detailed in The Drifting Cowboy.

Learning to Draw

Will James learned to draw and paint at the early age of four when he was still known as Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault. Joseph grew up in a French speaking household, where such activities were encouraged at a very young age. Today, James artwork is scattered across the West with a large proportion held by the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, MT. This high plains Montana enclave is where Will James retired to after he finished his cowboy years. Part of his drawing and painting collection is on permanent display at the Montana museum.

portrait of will-james_117143925_std

Perhaps His Most Challenging Accomplishment

Not only was Will James an accomplished artist, but he could tell a good story as well. This is quite an accomplishment, for someone who learned English as a second language. In fact, Will James writing success brings to mind another famous Francophone, who also excelled when writing in English. That person is none other than Jack Kerouac, who was raised in a French-speaking household in Lowell, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Will James shared some of Kerouac’s  undesirable traits such as alcoholism, a transient lifestyle and death at an early age. Even though Will James published a score of books, had one successful Hollywood movie (Smoky the Cowhorse) and sold many drawings and paintings, he stilled died at age 50 from alcohol abuse. Today, his books are still available through the Tumbleweed Series put out by the Mountain Press Publishing Co. of Billings, MT. Check one out; you will enjoy the read.

Maynard Dixon painting
Navajo Land by Maynard Dixon

Artists of the Old West

Around 1920, James studied art at the California School of Art and Design. It is here that he met another painter, Maynard Dixon, who would go on to achieve much success with his painting. Despite Dixon’s dramatic artistic style, his personal experience with the “Cowboy Life” cannot match that of Will James. All in all, Will James was a very talented interpreter, who revealed many wonderful things about the life of the American cowboy in the not-so “Old West”.

Reading Instead of Writing

Good Day for Reading
What I Did This Summer

No, I did commit any murders along with a bunch of my friends. In fact, I did not do anything illegal except maybe for a small amount of public intoxication….But I wasn’t apprehended so that is that. What I did do is work at various labor jobs through a temp service and read a bunch of books. Most readers could probably care less what kind of work I did, so instead I am posting my reading list along with a few comments about each book.

The List

1 & 2. Rum Punch and Cuba Libre

Since my first two books of the summer were novels by a novelist, who just passed away last week, I thought I would cover them both with the same passage. If you haven’t guessed the nwriter yet — shame on you — for it’s Elmore Leornard who just passed away last week. And the two books are Cuba Libre and Rum Punch.

And yes I did read these two fine novels back in May and June before Elmore passed away. Cuba Libre was fascinating romp by a couple of off-the-wall Americans mercanaries in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. It’s one of the books that put Mr. Leornard on the literary map, but I have to admit I enjoyed Rum Punch even more. The spicy Miami characters in this first-rate crime novel come to life convincingly in this classic Elmore Leornard novel. Perhaps one of his best.

3. Shakedown by Gerald Petievich

A suprisingly good read by an ex-law-enforcement officer. This book has a great opening and after the initial scene, the author never lets the reader down. Set in L.A. and Las Vegas, the Shakedown is some very good crime fiction writing.

4. How To Murder a Millionaire by Nancy Martin

The Blackbird sisters are Nancy Martin’s newest literary creations. There are three of them with Nora being the main focus of this mystery/comedy set in fashionable Philadelphia. There’s a lot to love here as author Martin leads the the reader through the cozy upper-class world of Philadelphia’s Main Line, looking for the person, who murdered the wealthy art collector and family friend. If the other Blackbird Sisters stories are as good as this one, they are definitely worth a read.

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Somehow I made it through high school and college withoutn being required to read this classic from “The Jazz Age.” This short novel (only 200 pages) has by now become an American classic. Centered around a destuctive love triangle, which includes a Mr. Jay Gatsby, this tragedy still stands tall among American literature. I read this novel as a prelude to the movie release, but never made it to the silver screen to catch the lavish tale from the “Roaring Twenties.” Guess I’ll have to watch the DVD instead.

6. The Drifting Cowboy by Will James

Though born as Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in Quebec, Canada, Will James came to the West in the early part of the twentieth century and lived a fascinating life as a cowboy, Hollywood stuntman, livestock rustler, author and visual artist. I found this book in the library of the Sioux Falls mission and enjoyed the short read immensely. For lovers of the “Old West”, there are a least a dozen titles put out by this unique writer and published by the Tumbleweed Press in Montana.

7. A Hole In Texas by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk published A Hole In Texas in 2004 at the ripe old age of 88. It is a fictional story surrounding the partial building of the Supercollider in Texas during the 90s. Ultimately, the project was abandoned, hence the title. The story surrounds one nuclear physicist, his wife and an old female colleague from China, who shows up in the USA to testify in front of Congress. Even a short visit from the world renown scientist is enough to create some serious marital discord the American physicist.

8. The House On Mango Street by Susan Cisneros

This super short book about the author’s childhood neighborhood in Chicago has become an international classic….and rightly so, for it is written in a beautiful experimental prose style that will enthrall the reader’s heart. Ciscerno’s short vignettes on growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood are priceless.

9. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

This is the my first book by the Japanese master and it definitely won’t be the last. Usually, I don’t take well to translated fiction, but Murakami’s writing reads like it was written by a native speaker. Actually, I have learned recently that this is not far from the truth, for Haruki Murakami sometimes works as an English to Japanese translator. He just doesn’t do it for his own writing. Through this collection of short stories, the writer takes the reader to some incredible places, even though they may at first appear very mundane.

10. From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman

This is my one non-fiction entry for this post. Even though the book was published 15 years ago, Friedman’s firsthand experiences in Lebanon and Israel still serve as excellent background material for understanding today’s conflicts in the region. I read this first person account of life in the two cities back in late July, but since then events in Syria and Egypt have made the information even more pertinent.

Reading Instead of Writing

Since abandoning most of my writing activities for the past several months, I have felt more relaxed and at ease with the world around me. Never mind that my online e-book sales have dropped right off the charts, and I have failed to sell any articles or short stories since April, for I still feel for refreshed and energized when I now look at a blank sheet of paper with pen in hand. Plus, I have enjoyed my extended reading period. I hope that when I again avail myself to the craft of writing, I will feel thoroughly refreshed by the summer hiatus.