Cowboy Poetry Shares the Language of the West Through the Eyes of Those Who Live Closest to the Land

The ethos of the West is the sum of many parts, from its stunning landscape to strong-willed inhabitants, especially its cowboys. Whether during cattle drives or around campfires, cowboys have been telling stories for generations about their lives on and off the range.

Those stories evolved into poetry, as noted on the Book Riot website, and in 1907 were collected in Songs of the Cowboys, what many consider the first cowboy poetry compilation. As Book Riot notes, some of the poems became songs. Home on the Range, for example, was first recorded in 1908 by John A. Lomax, a Black cowboy and saloon owner.

The Story of Baxter Black

So Baxter Black was far from the first cowboy poet. But by the time of his death this past June at age 77, it was hard to argue he wasn’t its foremost representative. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Black had an authentic western upbringing in Las Cruces, NM, where he was the Future Farmers of America president in high school and rode bulls in rodeos through college. But after getting tossed around during competitions, Black figured the safer path was to get an education, which included veterinary school at Colorado State University. He practiced as a large animal veterinarian starting in 1969, but in the early ‘80s began to gain notoriety as a public speaker who shared his cowboy poetry.

Black’s radio career began in 1988 when, in response to the destructive wildfire that ravaged Yellowstone National Park, he shared what he called “a big tumultuous poem about range fire” with National Public Radio (NPR), which liked it enough to interview him. That led to Black being a regular commentator for decades (read some examples here) on NPR’s Morning Edition. He also hosted his own radio program, wrote a syndicated column (On the Edge of Common Sense), and published 30-plus books of poetry, fiction, and commentary, selling scores of books, CDs, and DVDs. (Learn more.)

His perspective was distinctly western and always entertaining. Consider Black’s commentary on “How to Pick a President,” in which he wrote: “Given the opportunity to poll candidates, there are several questions that I would proffer, i.e.: Do you consider Miracle Whip and jalapenos essential nutrients in the food pyramid? Number two: do you prefer Copenhagen or Skoal? Number three: do you have any nieces, nephews, cousins, or children named after [coon hounds] — Blue, Jake, Badger, or Whoop?”

Folklorist and musician Hal Cannon, a longtime friend of Black, told NPR that “Baxter was sort of a Will Rogers kind of a character in that he saw things clearly and he knew how to say them in a humorous and nonthreatening way.”

Black was often asked what made him decide to become a cowboy. Characteristically, his answer was simple: “You either are one, or you aren’t. You never have to decide.”

Cowboy poetry as a genre flourished alongside personalities such as Black, Doris Daley, Henry Real Bird, Dom Flemons, Waddie Mitchell and Dave Stamey. The 1985 launch of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering – the 38th edition will be held this coming January — is considered by many the first event dedicated to cowboy poetry. Nowadays, they can be found virtually every month of the year. I’ve included a selection of events over the coming months, so find one near you to learn more about the West.

Western Heritage and Cowboy Poetry Events

Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering

Aug. 11-13, Yavapai College in Prescott

The 34th annual gathering will feature more than 40 cowboy poets and musicians. Nighttime, ticketed shows will feature Dale Burson, Floyd Beard, and Joni Harms among many others. All daytime performances are free.

Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous

Aug. 11-14, Lewistown

This event  describes itself as a “celebration of the heritage of the American Cowboy of the Upper Rocky Mountains.” This year’s theme is “Cattle Drives North.” Western Music Association Hall of Fame member Dave Stamey will perform in the Grand Stage show.

National Cowboy Symposium

Sept. 9-11, Lubbock, Texas

The goal of this event is to preserve Western heritage and cowboy culture both for those who know and love it, as well as new audiences. Visitors can enjoy live music and sessions like Sure ‘Nuf Cowboy, featuring past and present cowboys telling stories about their experiences.

Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Sept. 29-Oct. 2, Durango

This gathering in southwest Colorado will feature popular musician Dave Stamey as well as cowboy poetry presented by the likes of Skylar Hardwood and Jay Snider. On Oct. 1 they will stage what they declare is the “largest non-motorized parade in Colorado.”

Old West Days and Nebraska Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Oct. 20-23, Valentine

The town in the historic Sand Hills of Nebraska will host modern-day cowboys, ranchers, and craftsmen. They’ll be entertained by a melodrama, Western art, and free poetry and music sessions. Visit the website for more details on performers.

Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering and Western Swing Festival

Oct. 28-30, Fort Worth

The event held in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards includes musicians, poets, a cowboy trappings and trade show, a chuckwagon competition, ranch rodeo and roping events, and multiple performances by Red Steagall and the Boys in the Bunkhouse.

Texas Hill Country Cowboy Gathering

Nov. 4-5, Fredericksburg

The event in this Texas Hill Country town features music, storytelling, and poetry. Performers announced so far include Mike Blakely, Pipp Gillette, Andy Hedges, Brenn Hill, Andy Nelson, Joel Nelson, Brigid and Johnny Reedy, Randy Rieman, Trinity Seely, and Sourdough Slim.

38th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Jan. 30-Feb. 4, 2023, Elko

The theme for this year’s annual event in Nevada is “Across the Generations.” The week-long event gathers those steeped in the poetry, music, and arts of cowboy country. You’’ find great food, art, gear, film, discussions, dance, music, verse, and more. Aa they say, “It is the place to talk cowboy poetry.”

Looking for more events? Find them here.

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