When it comes to literary genres, most people don’t automatically turn to cowboy poetry. Nor do many people think to travel to hear it. We book London show tours, travel to once-a-decade presentations of passion plays and visit great capitals to wallow in so-called “high culture” like ballet and opera. But a significant number of people regularly chose to travel to cowboy poetry festivals to hear cowboy poets share their earthy, personal, passionate reflections of life lived in the saddle or on the plains.
I don’t recall studying cowboy poetry in English class. In fact, I had never heard of cowboy poetry until I got cable TV and saw them on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, who amused his audience with annual visits from both competitive bird callers and cowboy poets.
I was fascinated by these characters. The cowboys always seemed to have
cliché nicknames, like “Slim” or “Tex”. As they lumbered, semi-bowled legged on to the stage, I imaged the dust trailing them. They sported big droopy mustaches, weathered hats, battered boots and shiny silver buckles.
Not to be outdone, Canada, I was surprised to learn, has our own cowboy poets. In fact, we have a thriving cowboy culture and a variety of cowboy poetry gatherings. One of the larger ones is the Stony Plain Cowboy Gathering, which has been held since 1992. Stony Plain (pop. 7,000) is 35 kms north of downtown Edmonton. It is where prairie meets boreal forest. The town has gained a reputation for the 27 large murals which decorate what would otherwise have been blank walls, turning the community into an open air gallery celebrating local history, agriculture, pioneers, native peoples, and the country doctor.
The Stony Plain Cowboy Gathering, which is the third weekend of August, is a weekend of music, storytelling, poetry, laughter and pride. The grounds of Exhibition Park on the edge of town fill with RVs, trailers, and a few tents (those who don’t care to camp can book into local hotels and motels or stay in nearby Edmonton). The Calgary Stampede supplies a tractor trailer outfitted as a mobile stage. Hundreds of cowboy hated/ball-cap wearing, booted people settle in on bleachers or lawn chairs to listen to men and women clad in hats, boots, fringes, plaid and denim, celebrating this rugged, romantic lifestyle. The program starts on Friday at 4 pm and is officially listed to go “till whenever”. The opening session includes a barbecue and a tall tale spinnin’ reel featuring “storytellers and bold-faced liars from across Canada and the U.S.” That is followed by a sing-along bonfire. Saturday and Sunday has “poets, pickers and singers” on stage, a Cowboy Church service, and ends with the Happy Trails Concert.
The Stony Plain Cowboy Gathering is a snapshot into a way of life I thought existed only in film. As a Maritimer with eight pairs of deck shoes, cowboys are an alien culture to me. Until I came here I wondered if they really still existed or were just ‘weekend cowboys’.
Performer Ed Brown, who has a small ranch in Oak Lake, Manitoba, said, “Yeah, cowboys still exist, but you won’t see them from the highway. There are actually a lot more than people realize.”
Bryn Thiessen, a preacher at the Cowboy Trail Church in Cochrane, Alberta, added, “Cowboy is a verb, not a noun. It’s what you do, not who you are. It’s an action word, not an identity. It’s a lifestyle you’ve chose and I suppose after a time what you do becomes what you are. So a fireman is by virtue of what he does, fights fires, a fireman and a cowboy is a cowboy by virtue of what he does with cattle.”
According to Cowboy Poetry Gathering organizer John Lindsay the message behind cowboy poetry “is about connecting with the land spiritually, about connecting with your community and your home and family. It is a very good message.” Which, he believes is why people travel “from across western Canada and North Western United States. These people all came from a long ways away for the Gathering. We gather to celebrate western lore.”
This three day event, which won a people choice award from RV Western World readers, draws 1,000 people for the opening day and tops out at 1,500 for Sunday’s Cowboy Church. Lindsay, smiling behind eyes red from several late nights, says, “The Cowboy Church Service is very entertaining. We have cowboy poet preachers, we have cowboy gospel singers, it’s a marvelous service. It is non-denominational. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious; if you’re spiritual at all, you’re going to get it. What we say in our program is come and share the prayers and blessings with some of the best cowboy artists in the country and that’s what happens at cowboy church.”
The service is more earthy than any Sunday service I ever attended. I can’t recall our ministers preaching that “chewin’, spittin’, and snortin’ are appropriate skills for a man.” But then this ministerial tag-team was more risqué than the traditional Baptist service back home.
Don Wudel, who preaches at the Boomtown Trail Cowboy Church in Elnora and Heartland Cowboy Church in Settler, Alberta, is like the Henny Youngman of the ministry, full of one-liners, short stories and epic songs. He sang about a miserable experience on “a rain-soaked horse on a rain-soaked trail” which involved losing his boot in the mud, his hat to the wind and getting kicked. This had the audience/congregation doubled over in laughter. He followed this with what he called the world’s shortest cowboy poem:
Wudel then recited the first poem he ever sold (as a child). Reader’s Digest paid him $7 for:
Mary had a little lamb
Her father shot it dead.
Now Mary takes her lamb to school
Between two slices of bread.
A few lines from the “The Empty Bunk” by S. Omar Barker, which is a favourite of Wudel’s, illustrates how a good poet can draw listeners into a story:
Old Charley’s boots with saggin’ heels,
Stand empty by his bunk.
And yonder hangs his ol’ guitar;
We shore do miss its plunk.
We’ve done rolled up his soogans,
From the bunk he’ll use no more.
We couldn’t hardly sleep last night
For missin’ Charley’s snore.
In the written form, cowboy poetry lacks power. It needs to be heard. Speaking it gives it cadence and resonance. In the foreword to his book, Rhyming Wranglers, Regina writer and cowboy poet Ken Mitchell says, “to become infused with the Spirit of the west, it is best to read these poems aloud. Remember, it’s the sound that informs.”
Over the weekend that these poets and performers stood in front of us, we were taken to lush, harsh, lovely landscapes. We heard about a hard life in an unforgiving climate, of solitude and sometimes of loneliness. We heard about people of peace, people with inner torment, of misfits and gregarious, generous people. There were tales of unrequited love; of lost love; of grand passions so big that only an open prairie could hold it. We were taken down dusty trails, through scratchy bush, across bone-bleachingly hot desserts and dry river beds. We lived in empty canyons serenaded by crying coyotes. We survived cattle drives on mean horses and old horses, and were swept up in flash floors to be rewarded with views of snow-capped mountain, endless skies and painted sunsets.
Looking around the audience, I realized that for many of these people these stories are their family history. These stories and images and experiences are part of them. It reminds me that when people grow up in hard times, whether the dust bowl days of the Prairies or cod moratorium in Newfoundland, they respect work and understand suffering. They seem closer to previous generations and are more generous to those in need, because they have been there. Hardship, we often hear, is character building. Some of us, at times, might gladly do with a little less character, but these people aren’t, and never were, victims. They didn’t sit around asking, ‘why us?’ They didn’t have that luxury.
I also noticed that this crowd appreciated the barnyard-inspired ribald mischievousness of cowboy culture. This is a crowd which will giggle, like a class of first graders, when someone says the word fart.
One of Wudel’s short stories tells of a husband trying to be romantic. He says to his wife, ‘Let’s go to Jasper for our anniversary.’ Remembering the time when he used to put an arm around her, she asks, ‘Can you still drive with one arm and one hand?’ Smiling he says, ‘Yes.’ She replies, ‘Good, wipe your nose.’ That had the very-married crowd doubled over with laughter.
Brown explained, “There’s a cowboy way of looking at things. He’ll sit down and take a different slant on it.” Which helps explain some of the descriptive hyperbole we heard during the gathering, like “the cowboy who was so good he broke a buggy horse while milking a cow” or of “a place so rural the gophers packed a lunch” and the novel description “the man smelled like owl shit”.
The imagery, whether kind or not, is so vivid you are in the saddle with the poet. Sue Harris, an entertainer from Arizona says, “one of my favourite of the classic cowboy poets is Charles Bender Clarke, who came to Tombstone, for his health. He started writing cowboy poetry because he was writing letters home to his mother to tell her how much he loved the west and the cowboy life, and for him prose wasn’t good enough to describe how he felt about it, so he would use verse. He would write it when he was out on horseback and to help himself remember all these words until he got home he would put them to music in his head. A bit like when you learn the ABCs.”
Brown says, “Another influence is the rhythm of the horse because if you listen to a lot of cowboy poems there’s the rhythm of the horse walking.”
The two things that stand out about cowboy poetry are the dreams and self-sufficiency. Most cowboy poetry is about men. Women seem to play a secondary role, as the objects of love and for whom the men silently sacrifice and still feel they haven’t done enough. It’s very old west, and not at all sexist. In the introduction to one of her songs, Carmen Lindsay, from Stony Plain, speaks to the dreams of old cowpokes and young men everywhere. “Cash comes in handy cause you’ve gotta buy some land someday, to build a log cabin overlooking the mountains. A perfect place for a man.”
The enduring dreams celebrated in song and poems mirror the enduring manners I found on display. I noticed how the lanky lads offering free wagon rides around the exhibition grounds were positively chivalrous to women, children and the elderly. The way they helped them on and off the wagons showed a curtsey that seems almost antique. It is wonderfully archaic to see men of all ages, but especially young men, touching the brim of their cowboy hat in greeting to their elders. It’s a touch you expect in a film, not in real life. But here manners still exist.
I found a great pride at the cowboy poetry gathering. And I learned that cowboy poetry is like an oral history, just like that of the native and ancient peoples. I also relearned that this type of family-friendly gathering is the essence of Canada. On the east coast it’s a ceilidh, here it’s cowboy poetry and rodeos. In either situation, whether you wear deck shoes or cowboy boots, you’ll find a warm welcome, tons of food, some laughter and song. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.
Poetry gatherings roundup
Interested in connecting to Canada’s cowboy culture? You can start with these poetry gatherings and festivals. And check with provincial tourism departments for other smaller gatherings.
For Stony Plain:
100 Mile House Cowboy Concert is a one-day event in February
Kamloops Cowboy Festival is held over three days in March
The Canadian Rockies Cowboy Festival is a three-day event in May
The Willow Creek Cowboy Gathering is held over three days around the Father’s Day weekend in June
The Alberta Trail’s End Gathering takes place September 29-October 1, 2017 in High River. No website is given.
For information about any Cowboy Poetry related events contact the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association. Details are at: http://www.albertacowboypoetry.com/