Justin Bishop (r), a Colorado musician who performs traditional western songs, chats with Melvin Whipple after a performance. Photo by James McNutt,
courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures.
The Gathering also offered music,
films, a library display, and an exhibit
of cowboy illustrations, the result of
several years of field work by folklorists
from western states. Planning the
event itself was a cooperative venture
on the order of persuading western legislators
to agree on water rights. But
joining the cowboy poets were a wealth
of enthusiastic listeners, historians,
and a very active crowd of press reporters
and photographers. Elko is a
long way from just about everywhere,
and the midwinter temperatures seldom
broke zero, but people came anyway.
Even the folklorists who instigated
the whole thing were a little
surprised at the turnout.
After the Cowboy Poetry Gathering,
the poetry reciting cowboy may not remain
such a strange figure. The enthusiasm
at Elko spilled over immediately
into plans for another event next year,
organized not by folklorists but by
cowboy poets themselves. Ultimately,
however, the small everyday gatherings
that occur around a kitchen table,
at funeral services, or sitting around
thumbing an old issue of a livestock
journal, will be the ones that count.
The Gathering itself, as Director Hal
Cannon of Utah admitted at the outset,
was an experiment. It attempted to
focus public attention on a little-known
form of cowboy expression without
depriving it of significance for working
cowboys. The real measure of success
came in seeing the poets themselves
exchanging notes, or someone like
Melvin Whipple seated in the hall
reading poems to a knot of listeners.
Events like the Gathering may come
and go, but fortunately, cowboy poetry
and cowboy poets are both flexible and
Dr. James McNutt is a graduate of
the American Civilization Program at
the University of Texas at Austin and
Acting Director of Research at the Institute
of Texan Cultures, San Antonio.
1. Originally published in Chittenden's
Ranch Verses (New York: Putnam's,
1893). Quoted from Jim Bob
Tinsley, He Was Singin' This Song
(Orlando, FL Univ. of Central Florida,
1981), p. 145.
2. John A. Lomax, "William Lawrence
Texas University Magazine (January
1896), p. 112.
3. This and other quotations from
Open Range by Melvin L. Whipple.
4. See Dobie, The Longhorns
(1941; Austin: Univ. of Texas Press,
1980), p. 128.
5. Cowboy Poetry-The First
Hundred Years, Cowboy Poetry Gathering
program, January 31-February
Texas Historical Foundation. Texas Heritage, Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 1985. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth46809/. Accessed May 29, 2016.