Melvin Whipple behind the microphone at the
Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, Nevada.
Photo by James McNutt, courtesy of the Institute
of Texan Cultures.
dicates that the author has plenty to
say. A few are descriptive, like It's
been a Long Time Pardner, which recalls
the shared experience "back a
workin' cattle on that rocky mountain
range." Most often, however, they
have a story to tell about day-to-day
events like getting thrown from a horse
or chasing a steer through the bush.
Others are humorous, like one about A
Bad Night at the CL Ranch, when a
certain cowboy came close to kicking a
"tumbleweed" that turned out to be a
The rising and falling cadences of the
lines emerge strongly in Whipple's
own speech. Seated at the dining table
in his mobile home on a drizzly cold
winter evening, he delivers his words
in a voice conditioned by exposure to
dust and tobacco smoke.
The morning star is rising, I still
hear the old cook roar
"Roll out and get them horses, boy,
that's what you're hiredfor."
I'd crawl out of my blankets, always
put on my hat and britches, in the east
the daylight creeps.3
The cowboy poetry of Chittenden and
Whipple belongs to a lively tradition
which has carried on in the West for
over a hundred years, despite politics,
economics, and modern technology.
The term "cowboy poetry" covers a
broad territory, including verse that is
written, sung, and recited aloud, but it
refers generally to poems by, for, or
about working cowboys.
In form and performance, cowboy poetry
springs from the thirty-year period
following the Civil War, when local
poets imitated the regular meters and
rhymes of Longfellow and Lowell in
weekly newspapers, and schoolchildren
recited painfully memorized verses
aloud. In some places, at least, a few
cowboy poems managed to slip in beside
the exploits of Hiawatha. Both
John Lomax and J. Frank Dobie later
recalled the recitation of Lasca, written
by Frank Desprez, as a memorable
part of their school days.4
Since at least the 1870s, a relatively
small but steady flow of cowboy poems
has appeared in newspapers, magazines,
and books. Chittenden's Ranch
Verses (1893), N. Howard Thorpe's
Songs of the Cowboys (1908), Charles
Badger Clark's Sun and Saddle Leather
(1915), and Curley Fletcher's Rhymes
of the Roundup (1917) are among the
better known books.
Printed verse, however, is only one
side of cowboy poetry. The heart of
traditional cowboy poetry lies in recitation,
particularly when the poem recited
is one that has been around for
awhile and is well known to cowboys
themselves. Recitation does not imply,
as one might think, an exclusively oral
tradition. Oral and printed versions of
a poem circulate quite freely, and
many of the better known verses had
their beginnings in print. Aural tradition,
might be more appropriate to the
subject; printed or not, cowboy poetry
seems meant to be heard.
Melvin Whipple, for example, writes
his poems out in longhand and transfers
them to print on his portable typewriter.
But instead of handing the
typed pages to his guests, he reads
aloud. And, far from being limited to
reading, Whipple can recite lengthy
verses like The Zebra Dun with
scarcely a missed beat.
Another example of the value of recitation
comes from Utah, the home of
Melvin's sister Yula Sue Whipple Hunting.
Mrs. Hunting is well known in her
community for reciting a cowboy standard,
Badger Clark's The Cowboy's
Prayer, at funerals. Many of those attending
may already know the poem by
Arizona folklorist Jim Griffith (1), keynote speaker at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Nevada poet
Waddie Mitchell. Photo by James McNutt, courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures.
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 September 17, 2014.