A performer recites poetry at the Cache Valley Cowboy Rendezvous March 3. Kristin Ladd/Aggie BluePrint
By Kristin Ladd
For Aggie BluePrint
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon on March 3. Fresh white snow on the mountainous Cache Valley landscape created a picturesque beauty of the West that could have been a Bierstadt painting or straight out of the fourth level of dreams from the film “Inception.” On the 20-minute drive from Logan to Hyrum that day, USU students like myself would have not only seen sublime hills and valleys, they also would have also seen two eye-catching signs on both sides of the road: “Cowboy Rendezvous: Music and Poetry March 1-4, 2012.”
Though the signs may have evoked curious stares, cowboy rendezvous are actually more traditional than many think. Cowboy poets and musicians, fresh-faced and rugged, novice and seasoned, gathered for their 2nd Annual Cowboy Rendezvous at Mountain Crest Valley High School in Hyrum to display their talents, pass down stories, and even hold “Cowboy Church” services. When many think of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, they may think of more laconic fellows, shooting first, asking questions later—not singers and poets. Contrary to what many popular Westerns may have us believe, however, cowboy poetry and music’s history and story slingin’ is as old as cattle ranching itself.
I sat down with Dale Major, the director of the event, and Ernie Sites, one of the event’s performers, to understand what cowboy poetry is really all about. Witty and quick to joke, both Dale and Ernie perform poetry and music regularly to educate youth about the traditions of cowboys and entertain audiences. After asking briefly what cowboy poetry was all about, Major immediately jumped into one of the first poems he ever remembers hearing and subsequently memorizing. “It was called ‘Buying a Bra.’ You ever heard that one?” he said, smiling with a familiar Wayne-esque glint in his eye. Without missing a beat, he recited the whole poem word for word. In that moment, it became my first cowboy poem, too. With a jesting, yet familiar storyline, the musically rhyming poem had me hooked instantly, and I told Major so. “You see what I mean then?” Major said to me. It gets you hooked, and “that’s how we pass on these traditions.”
With 47 years of performing under his silver belt buckle, Sites, a former rodeo cowboy who also sings, yodels, tells stories and performs trick roping, says that the history reaches back more than 300 years. “Cattle ranching goes back to just after the Civil War,” Sites reminded, giving a bit more context to the traditions. Teddy Roosevelt was not just a former president, but as the leader of the Rough Riders (though many still wouldn’t call him a “true cowboy”), he commissioned Alan Lomax to gather the stories and music of the cowboys for the Library of Congress. Without him, we would have still been around, but many of those stories would have been lost or at least not as well-documented, Sites said. Coming from an oral tradition, these cowboy artists still come to open mics or more organized events with their poetry and lyrics fully memorized. “The campfire was the perfect place, to gather around and share these stories,” Sites noted. “After the Civil War, it was a time when men just needed jobs.” Ranching gave those men the opportunities they needed to work, he added. “These men, though, came from all walks of life. There was no discrimination. If you could do the work, that’s all that mattered, not your race or education level.”
Thus, though many criticized cowboy poetry for its “rough or rugged” language that no one wanted to hear (even though those same critics had never actually heard the poetry), the poetry told a story of the working class. It told the story of every kind of race and class. Sites added that many of those men who decided to cattle ranch were well-educated, so their poetry and music was quite smart. “It helped … those cowboys get in touch with their, you know, their feelings,” he said with a laugh.
Yet cowboy poetry isn’t just about cowboys understanding their feminine sides or trying to salvage the oral arts. Major and Sites agreed it’s about “family and tradition.” It’s about passing on a way of life. With the phasing out of traditional farming and ranching, however, putting on festivals can seem futile or unnecessary. Why sing about work that not only seems “un-artistic,” but also is being replaced by mass industry? To Major, it is unnecessary for farmers to use gas-powered trucks, carting hay bales to cattle that can survive just fine on simpler means.
“That’s just it. We want to feed our cows grass because it keeps them healthy and it helps us produce quality cattle,” Major said. “Why not feed them what they’re made to eat? Farmers are harvesting solar energy when you think about it. We grow grass, feed it to our cattle, and sell the meat from the cattle. The practice is healthier for both person and cow when the animal is grass-fed. When cowboys ranch the traditional way—as their songs and poetry promote—it is far more productive and wastes less money on oil.”
In essence, as their “100 percent compostable” lunch cups and plates boasted, Cowboy Rendezvous promote a tradition that is good for more than just a cowboy’s feelings and humor, but also for his family, his cattle, the local community and the earth. The traditional cowboy hero didn’t rely on trucks and oil to get what he needed. He worked with what he had to make a living – horses, grass, and cattle. Thus, cowboy poetry isn’t about a commercialized or Hollywood “home on the range.” It’s simply about home. It’s about building a place, a set of traditions and stewardship, where people are attached to their land, their work and their families. We are “a culture within a greater American culture—a working culture,” as Sites said, that prides itself of doing the job right. Cowboy poetry and music, therefore, don’t just tell the story of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. These rendezvous let the world know as Sites describes it: “The great American hero isn’t the sports star or super hero. It’s the cowboy.”
For more information about the Hyrum, UT Cowboy Rendezvous visit: http://cachevalleycowboyrendezvous.com/
Missed the poetry round-up in Hyrum? There are more events this year!
Hagerman Cowboy Poetry Gathering, March 23-24 in Hagerman, ID
Cowboy Legends Cowboy and Music Festival, May 25-28, Antelope Island
Bear Lake Cowboy Gathering and all Horse Parade, July 13-15, Montpelier, ID
Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair, October 31-November 4, Heber City, UT
References: “Buying a Bra” http://home.tiac.net/~cri/2004/bra.html