The Gathering

Frances Phillips

It's January 26, 2000 and two sisters greeted each other happily at Elko, Nevada's small airport. Waiting at the baggage claim, they schemed about doing things they wanted to do together, and not giving in to their mother who had plans for a family snow outing. "I moved west to get away from all that snow," one said. "Well one thing for sure," her sister answered, "We'll want to get away. Those cowboy poets are in town and they're everywhere."

For sixteen years the Western Folklife Center has sponsored "The Gathering," presenting performances by working cowboys who are also poets writing in a literary tradition that has been traced back to the Civil War era. "The earliest printed collection of cowboy poetry is Western Travels and Other Rhymes by L. (Lysius) Gough, who cowboyed in Texas from 1882 to 1884 and wrote poems about 'actual life on the trail and ranch'" (Guy Logdson, "The Tradition of Cowboy Poetry," in Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry, ed. David Stanley and Elaine Thatcher). In the early 1980s Hal Cannon and other organizers chose Elko as The Gathering's site because of its large, comfortable Civic Auditorium, and late January as the time because that's when extreme cold slows down ranch work. It's a place and time that accommodates cowboys.

To attend The Gathering, one can purchase a $20 pass to attend most daytime events. Tickets ranging from $12-$20 admit guests to evening performances and dances, and there are variable charges for preconference workshops on such topics as Basque cooking, rawhide braiding, and horse gentling. Prices have increased over time as production costs and audience demand have risen. (Many events sell out.) To sustain its commitment to serving cowboys, the Folklife Center now offers free programs for schools and working ranchers preceding the formal Gathering.

Cowboy poetry is primarily an oral tradition. The poems have been collected and printed since the turn of the century, but more vividly they have been conveyed through memorization and recitation. Many poets at The Gathering perform classic cowboy works alongside their own writings. Some programs were dedicated exclusively to "old 'Uns and Good 'Uns." This "passing along" continues as many also perform works by their living peers.

Further, there is an almost seamless relationship between song and poetry. Historically the two evolved side-by-side. On the open range, the cattle were "gathered" (hence "The Gathering") at dusk, and through the night two or three cowboys circled them, singing to keep them calm. The banjo and the fiddle were the most common instruments because they were small. In the meantime, around the campfire and by the chuckwagon, the rest of the crew told stories and recited poetry.

Performances at The Gathering are made up of carefully timed, short sets of poetry recitation or prose readings alongside music by classic performers like Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Don Edwards and younger artists like Brenn Hill and Wylie (Gustafson) and the Wild West. While male artists predominated in the early Gatherings, women are now well represented, and a concerted effort is made to include young performers like sixteen-year-old fiddler Jake Miller and thirteen-year-old Shaun Perisho, the "official cowboy poet" of Placerville, California. Further, The Gathering has extended its programmatic reach to include herding cultures from around the world. 2000 featured cowboys from Queensland, Australia. Prior years have included herders from the British Isles. Future years will include herding cultures from Asia.

Recurring vocabulary in the poetry and music evoked isolation: desolate, coyote, lonesome, wide stretches, 'nary a, and silence. Keynote speaker, historian B. Byron Price (executive director, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming), described the experience of working the range as one of "...such intense solitude/one wonders if one is in another world.” Red Steagall (poet laureate, state of Texas) told of visiting old sod prairie houses and growing curious about the frequency of small wicker cages on the wall. He learned that caged canaries were dear to pioneer women as they brought vivid color into a world that otherwise was uniformly drab for long seasons. Steagall's humor was typical of the genre: “We were so far out in the country, our radio didn't get the Grand Ole Opry until Monday night.”

Several hosts of different events quoted Wallace Stegner as saying, “A place is not a place until a poet's been there,” and one writer said tenderly, “These are provincial poems, about places in the country we love the best.” Specificity of place is critical to each writer's identity. Terrain ranged from Wylie Gustafson's Dusty, Washington (where folks run indoors at the first sign of rain so that the optimum amount of water will reach the ground) and Joanie Harms' eastern Oregon homestead; to Ross and Patty Knox's pack-mule-driver views of the Grand Canyon, Georgie Sicking's “land too dry to plow” in Arizona and Nevada, Diane Josephy Peavy's south central Idaho sheep ranch, and Mike Beck's fog-laden Carmel Valley, California.

In addition to its evocation of solitude and landscape, this occupational poetry returns to several subjects: the drudgery and potential dangers of work; relationships with animals, including failed efforts at taming a particularly appealing wild animal; memories of fallen comrades and heroes; and bawdy poetry, most often misbehaving in town.

The Gathering is a great place to pick up vernacular phrases. Here are some of my favorites: “I was dumb as a gourd and as green” (Red Steagall). “I was as relaxed as a lizard in March” (J.B. Allen). “She looked run hard and put away wet...” (Ed Brown). “Remember you don't need to outrun the bear, just to outrun your partner” (Gary McMahan). “If we weren't supposed to eat beef, why'd the Lord make 'em out of meat?” (a poet in an “Anything Goes” session whose name I didn't catch). And life advice quoted by B. Byron Price, “...take a deep seat and a distant look.”

The specificity of the occupation's language lends mystery to many of the poems, such as the classic (anonymous) “Windy Bill:”

and take your dallywelters
to the California law
And your Sam Stack tree and
new magee
won't go driftin' down the draw

I'm grateful to James S. Griffith's essay, “Why Cowboy Poetry?” (in Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry) for deciphering the “Windy Bill” lines:

The poem describes a cowboy who fails to catch a wild steer because his insistence on tying his rope “hard and fast” to the saddle horn — the Texas-Arizona technique — results in the snapping of his cinches and the loss of his saddle and rope. Instead, the poem advises using the California method of wrapping the rope several times around the saddle horn and letting it “run” against friction (“dally-welters,” like dozens of other cowboy terms, is from the Spanish — in this case dale vuelta, “give a turn”). A “Sam Stack tree” is a particular kind of carved wooden framework for a saddle; a magee is a rope made from the maguey, or century plant.

A lot of the writing — both in ballad and more contemporary forms — is plaintively evocative or brisk and refreshing. Rodeo rider Paul Zarzyski writes terrific, tightly-wound, high-energy, funny poems, while J.B. Allen's poems are eloquent in their slow, tempered quality. Linda Hussa's prose work — an oral history about a legendary horse tamer — is quiet in tone but richly layered. There is a lot of good writing here and — within the tradition — a lot of variety.

The Gathering is good fun and it's also poignant as a rallying point for a fiercely independent community, honoring a vanishing way of life. The “cows to condos” movement, beef demand and prices, and new challenges from the generational transfer of land endanger true ranching. B. Byron Price's keynote address on January 27th followed the history of cowboying at the turn of the previous century, tracing the shift from open range ranching to stock farming that occurred between the 1880s and 1940s. If at the millennium today the cowboy life seems endangered, historians were writing of “a bygone West” and the “passing of the cowboy” one hundred years ago.

Another lecture about context — “Why Western Words Matter” by famed ethno-botanist Gary Paul Nabhan — drew analogies between gathering and protecting native seeds and honoring the vocabulary that has evolved in western places. Working in the Sonora Desert of Arizona, Nabhan has been involved in an effort “to rescue place names that don't appear on official maps” and to help Native American tribes regain control of and rights to name their traditional sacred places. “Language loss and land loss often go hand-in-hand: cultural groups seldom maintain their mastery of regional crafts past one generation when they are displaced.”

A morning workshop addressed bridging the gap between the environmental movement and ranching. It pointed to new cooperative projects that highlight the importance of ranching in protecting scenic landscapes, watersheds, endangered species, and natural habitats; and to the role cattle have played in restoring regions decimated by strip mining. At the same time it addressed ways of restoring land that has been “cow-burnt” (over-grazed) or damaged by fire suppression.

On The Gathering's final day a workshop on “Securing Ranching's Future” delved into the complexities of preserving open space through creating a rangeland trust or — on individual ranches — conservation easements. Panelists spoke of IRS regulations, appraisal values, valuation factors, and estate planning.

Rancher John Dofflemeyer told of the challenge of working his family ranch of which one family member sold 150 acres to a rock and gravel operation that is destroying the watershed. He asked those present, “How are you going to keep your ranch in tact?” As developers are willing to pay more and more for open space, not only will ranchers' children be tempted to sell off their parcels, appraisals will far exceed the land's value for ranching. If the children inherit the land to ranch, they cannot afford the inheritance taxes.

Conversation turned to forms of estate planning and management that could alleviate inheritance taxes. The Internet was mentioned as a valuable tool for keeping up on funding available for watershed planning or endangered species protection. One rancher in the room spoke for many, “I'm in Idaho. I need to get up to speed. But don't talk to me about the Internet, I just got a telephone. And it's a rotary.”

Over my four days at The Gathering, I'd grown steadily aware of its power. It seemed a charming sentiment on the first day when B. Byron Price said, “The Gathering is the glue that ties together a life that is isolated,” but the theme of its social and spiritual significance was reinforced throughout my stay. On Thursday night, riding in the Folklife Center mini-van after the “Prairie Prose” reading, the cowboy sitting next to me asked if I'd liked the reading, and when I said that I had, he murmured — without any trace of irony — “food for the soul.” The next night, riding in the same mini-van a young couple sitting behind me was talking over worries they had back home when the woman suddenly snuggled up to the man saying, “But we made it to The Gathering, so everything's going to be okay.”

At the closing of the “Ranching's Future” workshop, a woman asked if anyone in the room were interested in helping her to create a mini-conference on rangeland conservation and financial planning in conjunction with next year's Gathering. There was an immediate, positive response. A rancher from eastern Oregon said slowly, “It's a great idea to do it with the Western Folklife Center, because I count the days to The Gathering. And I don't go to another meeting all year.” He paused. “I just have one request: could you present it
as a song?”

Frances Phillips is program officer, Walter and Elise Haas Fund and co-editor, Grantmakers in the Arts Reader.