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.