Cowboy Poetry Is A 150-Year-Old Tradition.
Will It Survive In The 21st Century?
Story and Photographs by Ryan T. Bell
On a January morning in northern Nevada, cowgirl Marinna Mori stood in a snow-covered corral beckoning her horse Hollywood with a bucket of grain. At age 10, Mori is the fourth generation to live on the Mori Ranch, located in the foothills of the Independence Mountains. The horse plodded over, obliging the offer by lowering its head so Mori could tie a rope halter around its neck. Thirty minutes later she was riding with her father, Michael Mori, across a cow pasture where sunlight glinted off the snow like fools gold.
Moments like these inspire the young cowgirl to write about her life on the ranch. Last year, on opening night of the 35th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, she performed her song “Country Cowgirl” for a sold-out audience in Elko, Nevada.
Now my horse is tired, from a long hard day,
Out gathering cattle, though they want to stay.
My rope is tan with dust, and my saddle, too.
Now I’m headed home, sky’s turning dark blue
I’m a country cowgirl, free as the wind.
I don’t mind the hard work, as long as I’m not penned.
I’m a country cowgirl, my horse is my best friend.
We go to work at sun-up, work cows until it’s dark again.
The audience of 300 people gave Mori a standing ovation, as much for the rarity she represented at the event—a youngster in a crowd of aging ranch folks—as for her performance.
This week, as cowboys and ranchers convened in Elko for the 36th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, there’s cause for concern that time is running out for American ranching. According to the latest (2017) U.S. Census of Agriculture, the median age of a primary ranch operator is 57.5 years. You have to look back to the 1970s to find a time when the majority of ranchers were in their 40s. At this rate, the median age will near retirement in 2025.
Cowboys and ranchers aren’t the same thing—one works for the other—but their fates are bound. I went to the 2019 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to find out what cowboy poets, as chroniclers of the American West going on 150 years, think about this looming question: Is ranching, and the cowboy way of life, in danger of disappearing?
The cowboys wrote away
Cowboys have written poetry for as long as there has been a need to herd cattle in the American West—which, folklorist Hal Cannon says, dates to the overland cattle drives of the 1870s.
“The trail was like a petri dish for growing a new culture,” Cannon says. “It brought together diverse strains of life: former slaves, Civil War veterans, Mexican vaqueros, Indian cowboys. They spoke in verse about the harrowing experiences they shared.”
The oldest known poetry anthology is the two-volume Songs of the Cowboys, published in 1907 and 1921. The collection was compiled by the New Mexico rancher Jack Thorpe who’d seen the arrival of barbed wire and the closing of the American frontier. Thorpe had worried the cowboy’s way of life wouldn’t survive the 20th century and wanted to document the poetry and verse he’d heard on the range. Many of these poems have become standards for poets performing in Elko, such as “The Campfire Has Gone Out,” an ode to the eroding forces modernization has had on cowboy culture:
Through the progress of the railroad our occupation's gone;
So we put ideas into words, our words into a song.
First comes the cowboy; he is pointed for the west;
Of all the pioneers I claim the cowboys are the best;
You will miss him on the round-up; it's gone, his merry shout,—
The cowboy has left the country and the camp-fire has gone out.
“It has been a slow dying process,” Cannon says. “At the time of the American Revolution, 90 percent of Americans made their living in agriculture. By the turn of the 20th century, around 40 percent did. Now it’s probably under two percent, and there are far fewer cattle on public and private land than in the history of the American West.”
Fast forward to the 1980s and cowboy culture as Thorpe would have recognized it was relegated to the remotest corners of the West, such as in the Great Basin. A team of folklorists supported by the National Endowment for the Arts searched for what remained of cowboy poetry in the West. The folk genre was still going strong, albeit without anyone publishing anthologies or poetry collections. The folklorists discovered cowboy poems printed in agricultural magazines, on feed store calendars, even on menus in greasy spoon diners. They tracked down the poets and offered to put on a cowboy poetry competition in Elko, Nevada.
The cowboy poets balked at the idea.
“A poetry competition didn’t sound as fun as simply getting together to share poems,” said Wally McRae, a rancher and poet from Montana who has attended the event for three decades. “There’d be only one winner. Why couldn’t we all be winners?”
He and the others suggested calling the event a cowboy poetry “gathering.” That started an annual migration of cowboys traveling by the pickup truck full to Elko, Nevada every year during the last week in January. The idea of cowboys writing and reciting poetry caught national attention, with several poets becoming repeat guests on the Johnny Carson Show. Two cowboy poets, Buck Ramsey and Joel Nelson, would be named National Heritage Fellows.
But by the dawning of the 21st century there were signs that maybe it was finally happening: With the average age of ranchers at historic highs, the cowboy life was dying out. And with it, the cultural institution of cowboy poetry.