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.

 

How To Spin a Good Yarn

Sometimes it takes a little imagination to spin a good yarn
Sometimes it takes a little imagination to spin a good yarn

“Spin a Yarn”

I have taken this week’s Illustration Friday topic and expanded it from the original “yarn” to the more colloquial “spin a yarn”. This term is kind of aphorism for storytelling in general, so what follows is a short discussion on storytelling.

Step 1

A strawberry moon is a rare astronomical event that occurs when a full moon falls on the solstice
Spinning a good yarn begins with observing an actual real life event. This yarn  begins with the observation of a strawberry moon, a rare astronomical event that occurs, when the full moon falls on the solstice. In reality, such an event just occurred a few days ago.

Step 2

Spinning a good yarn begins with stretching the truth a bit.
Spinning a good yarn is enhanced when the truth is stretched a little bit. Maybe the man in the picture heard the owl or possibly just saw the bird fly by.

Step 3

Next you need to fib a little bit
Next you need to fib a little bit more. A flying canoe is definitely in the land of make believe.

Step 4

Finally there comes the big lie
Finally there comes the big lie. In this case it is the lake monster.

Good Writing Is Good Writing

Luke Skywalkwer has a deep conversation with Yodi
Luke Skywalker has a deep conversation with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back

“I’m telling an old myth in a new way. That’s how you pass down the meat and potatoes of your society to the next generation.”
George Lucas on creating Star Wars

Some Things Never Change

You don’t have to be modern to be a successful or influential writer. In fact, more often than not, it is the author than is able to keep one foot rooted in the past and one in the present, who succeeds in today’s  contemporary, mad array of movies, flash fiction, ebooks, graphic novels and online videos.

Take for example George Lucas, who looked back through the eyes of Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to create a popular, monumental, sci-fi epic, known as Star Wars. Not only did Lucas read from Joseph Campbell’s myriad of popular writings, but he also knew the gentleman personally and evidently learned a lot from his mentor.

Though the two men never met until after the Star Wars trilogy reached the Big Screen, Campbell publicly acknowledged how the Star Wars series follows the hero’s journey. In short, the hero’s journey is a narrative tale, where the hero (or heroine) goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed. Nowadays, many of our popular stories, especially those portrayed by Hollywood, follow this popular storytelling pathway. However, few seem to own the idiom as well as George Lucas does, which may in part explain the huge success of his blockbuster films.

 

For those who wish to view a short summary of the Hero’s Journey, this short animation by Iskander Krayenbosch says it all.

Thanks to the movie Rocky, the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are a popular place for sightseers as well as exercisers
Thanks to the movie, Rocky, the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are a popular place for sightseers as well as exercisers

 

“The road to success isn’t paved with gold—99 percent of the time it isn’t paved at all.” by Chris Orwig

The School of Hard Knocks

Despite the abundance of MFA programs and other advanced literary degrees, the proverbial “school of hard knocks” might be the best education of all for writers. In the past, this proverbial place has produced some of the most legendary writing. For example, what would have Tolkien written without his time in the trenches of WWI. The same can be said for Samuel Clemens and his life on the Mississippi River or Jack London’s journey to the gold fields of the Klondike……And the list goes on and on, continuing well into the present.

Perhaps Sylvester Stallone summed this attitude up best, when he wrote this line for his most famous movie character, Rocky Balboa. “It ain’t about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Elakala waterfalls from wikipedia
Elakala waterfalls, from wikipedia

 

“In the confrontation between the rock and the stream, the stream always wins – not through strength, but by perseverance.”  H. Jackson Brown

Is Baseball the Quintessential Writer’s Sport?

Thanks to an extended season, the major league baseball schedule often runs through the Halloween holiday.
Nowadays, baseball uniforms make for an appropriate and seasonal Halloween costume. Thanks to an extended season, the major league baseball schedule often runs through the Halloween holiday. This year game four will be played on October 31 at Citi Field in New York City. The game will feature the New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals.

It’s October Again

It’s October again. So, when all is said and done, there is no denying it, it is a great month for sports fans. Pro hockey and basketball are just getting going, while football players have been involved in professional competition for over a month now. But the climax comes when the National and American League winners meet after a lengthy post season of elimination games. In the final meeting at the World Series, tens of thousands will attend each game, while millions more will watch the popular  sporting event on TV.

The Humble Beginnings of Baseball

Most likely baseball began in settings similar to this prairie cornfield depicted in the popular baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The game was initiated in the 19th century and for years and years the sport attracted small crowds. As the sport became more popular, industrial and urban businesses often hosted teams and thus built playing fields and of course stands where spectators could come watch the game.

The actual field of dreams from the movie is a very non-descript midwestern cornfield.

A Field of Dreams

If you want to rate the many movies that revolve around the world of baseball, both professional and amateur, a handful of films come to mind. These include Bull Durham, Bang the Drum Slowly, A League of Their Own, Damn Yankees and The Bad News Bears. Another baseball movie that continually receives high ratings is Field of Dreams. This is also the quintessential story that equates baseball with the writing profession, for in this story, one of the major characters is a man by the name of Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones). Although Mr. Mann does not write about baseball, he agrees to attend a baseball game, after he is approached by the main character, Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner). This starts a liaison between the two characters that lasts for most of the movie.

James Earl Jones and Kevin Costner attend a baseball game in Field of Dreams

Stage To Big Screen

Though Damn Yankees was a successful and popular Broadway play, the story was also developed into a popular and entertaining movie. The original story revolves around a timeless Faustian tale, where an avid Washington Senators fan makes a deal with the devil, so that his team can beat those “Damn Yankees” and win the American League pennant.

Not many baseball stories make it on to the NYC stage, but this popular tale about the Yankees ran for several years on the popular Manhattan venue. The subsequent movie followed closely to the stage production, including many of the same musical numbers. Reportedly, a new version of Damn Yankees is in the works, starring Jim Carrey and Jake Gyllenhaal.

 

Locker room scene from Damn Yankees

Writing and Baseball

Nowadays, there are a large number of sports and athletic contests that either produce a host of enthusiastic participants and/or bring in many spectators to witness the event. Strangely enough, none of these gatherings seems to summon forth the storytelling instinct better than baseball. Why is that? Certainly, there are more action-packed sports, but a good story does not succeed on fast action alone. It needs a good setting, strong characters and perhaps most important of all, conflict. And then somehow that conflict must be resolved before the tale ends.

Perhaps it is the structure of baseball that attracts the writers. Everywhere you turn, the game is measured. A baseball game consists of nine innings, where each team gets a turn to bat. Three outs ends one teams turn to come to the plate, hit the ball and perhaps score runs. Each batter gets three strikes before he strikes out and four bad pitches before he might move to first base. All of this is fine and dandy, but I guess the real essence in the contest, turns on how small incidents can determine the final outcome, where one team is victorious over the other. Just a dropped ball, a stolen base or a timely double play can change victory into defeat or vice versa. And that, my friends, is also the essence of many a good story.

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

Stolen Stories

illustration by Henry Kane of North country canoeist
illustration by Henry Kane of North country canoeist

Before the Internet

Before the internet came rolling around way back when, books were an important way of discovering strange worlds that were unknown to us in our day-to-day routines, which most of us lead. And as you go further back in time, before the TV network news, movies and the color photographs, you might find that the written word had an added importance in telling people about the strange worlds that existed across the seven seas and into the interior of some of the most isolated spots on the planet. Our world would have been a whole lot poorer, if it wasn’t for the likes of such writers as Jonathon Swift, Jules Vernes, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley or William Shakespeare.

Cache Lake Country

For me, one of the most vivid books of my youth was Cache Lake Country, which was written by John J. Rowlands and illustrated by Henry B. Kane. I grew up in central Maryland where the winters were not so severe and not all too long. So to read about two men who spent an entire year in the North Woods of Ontario, Canada was spell-bounding to say the least. The most fascinating part of their tale was their life on snowshoes, which lasted approximately from December till April. The fact that no photographs are part of this book, only adds to the mystique of time and place, even though the manuscript was published in 1947, when cameras were well in fashion.

Stolen Stories

When I wrote Le Loup de Garou (see previous post), I borrowed from two parts of the Cache Lake book. One part of the short story is influenced by the account of a real-life lumberjack, who gets turned around on one of the coldest nights of the winter and spends most of the night outdoors attempting to gain his bearings. Finally, he comes across a lighted cabin, but not before developing a minor case of frostbite. And then there is the title, which comes from a French-Canadian legend in regards to a wolf-man type of creature that haunts the North Woods at night. So there it is in a nutshell, on how to be influenced by real life experiences, even though they might only appear in book form.

Cache lake woodlore as illustrated by Henry Kane
Cache lake woodlore as illustrated by Henry Kane

Advice from Writers

Planetary Nebula NGC 2818 from Hubble  Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)
Planetary Nebula NGC 2818 from Hubble
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

1. “There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people….mystery writers and serial killers. I’m the kind that pays better.” Richard Castle

2. “The best time for planning a book is while yo’re doing the dishes,” by Agatha Christie

3. “I think film had a terrible effect on horror fiction particularly in the 80s, with certain writers turning out stuff as slick and cliched as Hollywood movies.” Poppy Z. Brite

4. “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” Groucho Marx

5. “I prefer dead writers because you don’t run into them at parties.” Fran Lebowitz

6. “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.” by Andrew Jackson

7. “A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor.” by Ring Lardner

8. “A good novel tells us the truth about it’s hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” by Gilbert K. Chesterton

9. “Television has raised writing to a new low.” by Samuel Goldwyn

10. “Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman’s name out of a satire then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer–and if so, why?” by Bennett Cerf

11. “If it has horses and swords in it, it’s a fantasy, unless it also has a rocketship in it, in which case it becomes science fiction. The only thing that’ll turn a story with a rocketship in it back into fantasy is the Holy Grail.” by Debra Doyle