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From Elko to Ulaanbaataar

From Elko to Ulaanbaataar

by David Stanley

Cowboy Music and Poetry Around the World


Professor of English David Stanley is a folklorist as well as a teacher of literature. In the last few years, he has been researching the folk tradition of cowboy poetry in the US as well as in other parts of the world. Here’s his story.

Grasslands of Mongolia.My interest in cowboy poetry was a fluke, really, based entirely on happenstance and luck. Not long after I arrived in Utah in 1978, I got acquainted with Hal Cannon (brother of education professor Carolyn Jenkins), a fellow folklorist with interests in traditional arts and the American West. Seven years later, I was crammed into a tiny booth at the top of the Elko (Nevada) Convention Center, trying to aim a spotlight at the stage where Baxter Black, cowboy poet, humorist, and former large-animal veterinarian, was trying to recite a poem in the dark—on horseback.

That was my first Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an event held in the dead of winter (before calving began) in the middle of the cattle-raising parts of the American West. Hal asked me to help out as a volunteer staff member, which led to the spotlight fiasco—but it also led to my getting acquainted with cowboys, ranchers, and horse people from all over the West.

As I got to know them, all of my East Coast childhood stereotypes about these “strong, silent types” quickly got dispelled. These were working cowboys with a love of story, song, and poem who saw language as a supple tool for invention, creativity, and social interaction.

As I returned for subsequent Gatherings—we recently completed #23—I learned a lot of unusual skills: how to change hellaciously hot carbon rods in those ancient spotlights, how to eat fried Rocky Mountain oysters and pretend that they were the seafaring kind, how to talk weather and grass but not ask how many cows or acres a person had. I also learned that “cowboy” is not a noun but a verb, and that a woman can cowboy just as well as any man.

As a teacher of literature as well as folklore, I quickly got intrigued with the wonderful verbiage of cowboy poetry as well as its recounting of the trials of ranch life, its tediousness, its dangers, and its surprising humor. The rhythms and rhymes were a lot more sophisticated than I had expected, and I came to admire especially the great poets of the past, poets like Bruce Kiskaddon of Colorado, who spent half a lifetime as a working cowboy and wrote long, beautifully descriptive poems of exacting rhyme and rhythm about his experiences. To my amazement, I discovered that many contemporary cowboys had committed to memory dozens of “classic” poems, many of them hundreds of lines in length; the memorization skills of these men and women are equal to those of ancient bards.

Over the years, the Western Folklife Center, producers of the Gathering, had brought in as special guests a tremendous variety of performers from outside the contiguous US: Canadian plains poets, Hawai‘ian paniolos, Australian drovers and bush poets, shepherd poets from the British Isles, and vaqueros and charros from Mexico and Texas. Fisher and logger poets from the Pacific Northwest, sheepherding poets from Utah, Basque poets from Colorado and Idaho, Native American rancher poets from Montana and Alberta, and Spanish-language poets and musicians from New Mexico and Texas all added to the mix and triggered my interest in cowboy poetry from around the world.

When I discovered that Westminster was going to suspend classes during the 2002 Winter Olympics, I realized a wonderful opportunity awaited me down south—way down south. In the ranching country of southern Brazil and Argentina lived a tradition that paralleled that of the US, a culture of cattle, horses, and herders with a fascinating heritage derived from Spain, Moorish North Africa, and Arabia intermixed with Native practices and local adaptations.

In Argentina, I found a strong surviving gaucho tradition in the countryside but also in urban areas, where gaucho clubs are popular among middle-class professionals. Here people in gaucho outfits dance, play music, eat barbecue, and drink mate (pronounced MAH-tay), the traditional herbal tea of the region. I visited the countryside outside of Mar del Plata, including the rancho where José Hernández wrote the Argentine national epic, El Gaucho Martin Fierro. The poem, epic in length, describes the trials of a humble gaucho who is forced to join the military and fight Indians on the Argentine frontier.

I also had a memorable visit to San Antonio de Areco, where Ricardo Güiraldes lived when he wrote one of Argentina’s favorite novels, Don Segundo Sombra, about a boy taught the gaucho way of life by an old man. After watching a demonstration of gaucho music, dance, and horsemanship—one event involves riding at full gallop and spearing with a wooden stick a small gold ring suspended by a thread from an overhead crossbar—I toured the gaucho museum and emerged just as it closed, late on a Saturday afternoon.

Across the street from the exit was a small pulpería, a kind of Argentine convenience store selling snacks and drinks. On the porch was a cluster of local gauchos, playing guitars, singing, and drinking wine. Of course, I went over and sat down with a miscellaneous collection of townsfolk, all totally focused on live music that celebrated a way of life stretching back to the 16th century.

In southern Brazil, I found a parallel tradition, though, in Portuguese, gaúcho comes out pronounced something like “gow-OO-sho.” The rodeo I attended was very different from ours; cattle roped in the competitions, for example, were not thrown to the ground but simply released after the roper had shown his skill. Young women competed in a rodeo queen event, demonstrating their singing and dancing skills; men played guitars and declaimed poetry. Gaúchos mingled with urban folk; working cowboys barbecued and drank beer; musicians gathered in improvisational groups. It all felt very familiar, like a county fair combined with a bluegrass festival—in Portuguese.

The next day, I drove out to the seaside not far from the city of Porto Alegre, where I encountered the Cavalgada do Mar, an annual event in which thousands of horseback riders, working gaúchos and city dwellers alike, ride for a week along the Atlantic shore. Each night, they camp out, eating traditional foods from catering trucks, playing music, singing songs, and reciting poetry. As I gradually learned, the cowboy way of life is integral to southern Brazil, so much so that the residents of the province of Rio Grande do Sul are referred to throughout the country as gaúchos, whatever their profession.

South America was just the beginning. Three years later, I was on the Mediterranean coast in southern France in an area called the Camargue, a giant wetlands in the delta of the Rhone River. Friends from the US—a cowboy musician, a folklorist, and a rancher-turned-filmmaker—had told me about the place, where white horses, black bulls, and pink flamingoes are featured symbols in the landscape. I joined my friends in time for the annual pilgrimage of European Romani (gypsies), who come to the little town of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer on May 24th to honor their patron saint, Sara-li-Kali, “Sara the Black,” also known as Sara the Egyptian.

When the Romani come to town, Sara’s statue is carried in procession to the seashore, where prayers are said and the statue is blessed before she is returned to her crypt beneath the floor of the church. The procession is escorted by mounted gardians, the cowboys of the region, with their flat-brimmed black hats, colorful shirts, and tridents, long wooden poles with three metal points on the end that are used to move the bulls from place to place.

It was intriguing, I thought, that these very traditional-minded ranchers would go to great effort to assist and support the Romani, still one of the most despised and negatively stereotyped ethnic groups in Europe. During the three days of the festival, the streets are full of musicians and dancers who perform in the flamenco style and whose musical heroes are the local group called the Gypsy Kings. As I later found out in interviewing gardians like Patrick and Estelle Laurent at their ranch, Romani musicians are often hired to provide the music at local weddings and parties, so the region boasts a fascinating synthesis of cultures. I also discovered a local poetic tradition: Patrick gave me copies of poems composed by his father, Henri, praising the great bulls raised on their ranch.

In the fall of 2005, I was off once again. I took advantage of a sabbatical leave and hitched myself to a cultural exchange program with US cowboy musicians touring Mongolia. After a few days in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, we trekked westward on the only paved highway in the country, eventually settling down at a ger camp—ger is the Mongolian term for yurt. Mongolian musicians from the area drifted in; before long, a jam session began with fiddle-player Stephanie Davis improvising tunes with a fellow who played something that looked like a clarinet on steroids. Meanwhile, a Mongolian throat singer and a cowboy yodeler showed off their vocal abilities.

The next day, we chose horses and embarked on a five-day cross-country trek, staying in tents or in ger camps along the way. We climbed mountain passes, forded rivers, and rode across rolling grasslands that reminded us of the Old West before railroads and barbed wire. At every stop, curious herders showed up to play their beautifully carved horsehead fiddles, to sing, and to listen. We gradually came to realize that in Mongolia, homemade music is a huge part of everyday life, as it also is, for example, in Cajun Louisiana and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

We visited Karakoram, the ancient capital city built by Ogodei Khan, son of Genghis and uncle of Kublai. We stopped at Buddhist monasteries that had been closed by the Communist government for 70 years (Mongolia is now a democratic republic). And wherever we went, there was music in the air: women singing as they milked their yaks and horses, herders singing to their flocks of goats and sheep as they rode across the steppe. When we finally got back to Ulaanbaatar, the American cowboys did a farewell concert at the improbably named Genghis Khan Irish Pub, for mass culture has descended on Mongolia as it has throughout
the world.

It’s remarkable how widespread the affection for music and poetry has been in cattle cultures throughout the world. I have collected gaucho poetry from the nineteenth century, traditional Mongolian praise songs recorded in the 1950s, and recent poems to great bulls of the Camargue. In all of these herding cultures, poetry and song are still vital, and I’ve been lucky to have been able to observe them on their home ground. In the face of modernization and agribusiness, the future of all these cowboys is problematic, but I’m confident that their music, song, poetry, and other traditional art forms will continue to flourish.

David Stanley has taught at Westminster since 1991. He teaches American, Asian, and Native American literatures, in addition to folklore and environmental studies. He has co-edited a collection of essays, Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry (University of Illinois Press, 2000) and produced a CD, Cowboy Poetry Classics (2003) for Smithsonian Folkways. Formerly a Peace Corps volunteer in India and a Fulbright scholar in Japan, he is currently assembling an anthology of cowboy poetry from around the world. During fall semester 2007, Stanley will be teaching American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright fellowship. While there, he hopes to do research among the csikós, the horsemen of the Hungarian plains. He is also planning a May Term trip for students, staff, and alumni for 2008, which will visit China, Mongolia, and Tibet. For more information, contact him at dstanley@westminstercollege.edu .