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Verses from a Changing Frontier

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Photos by Michelle Min

Zydeco musician Geno Delafose, left, with barbecue chef Kelvin Arnsworth at the 2020 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

The first thing you should know about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is that you won’t be able to see all of it. That was my first mistake, as a newbie to both the festival and the genre, furiously circling as many events in the program as I could. I wanted to hear all the music! All the workshops! All the poetry! This way madness lies.

By my third day at the annual festival, which took place Jan. 27-Feb. 1 in Elko, I’d remembered the value of a power nap and afternoon snack, and I was in my stride. I might be a city girl from Las Vegas, but the song and myth of the West is embedded deep down in our culture, too, and I was here to learn more. Why is it, after all, that a road named Rancho runs through the heart of our city and Vegas Vic sports a Stetson?

Now in its 36th year, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is a celebration of both cowboy verse and rural life. It’s run by the Western Folklife Center, a nonprofit cultural hub whose mission is to “celebrate the wisdom, artistry, and ingenuity of Western folkways.” What started as a small gathering of poets and folklorists in 1985 has since grown to a weeklong jubilee of feasting, dancing, and the arts. The festival’s headliner poets have become international celebrities.

Cowboy poetry has its roots in the oral tradition of stories and songs shared among the working people of ranches and cattle operations throughout the United States. As such, its themes are typically rural and Western, with many an ode to a horse, and refrains that honor the hardship and beauty of frontier life. Traditional rhyme and meter is common. Take these lines from Elizabeth Ebert’s poem, “Rich Man’s Lady,” for example: “I’ve Hereford cows for rubies, / They graze on emerald grass. / The winds, my private orchestras, / Serenade me as they pass.”

But the Gathering isn’t just a place to indulge in nostalgia. It also seeks to represent the West that is, is becoming, and actually was. In that vein, this year’s theme — “to explore and celebrate the often under-represented historic contributions and contemporary culture of Black cowboys” — was especially relevant. Film screenings, panels, and musical performances throughout the week highlighted the pasted-over history of the black cowboy; one historian estimates that a quarter of all American cowboys were black, despite the prevailing Hollywood image of blond-haired and blue-eyed icons on horseback. In fact, The Lone Ranger might very well have been based on Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. Marshall west of the Mississippi. Here in Nevada, at the turn of the century, we had Henry Harris, a cowboy from Elko County so revered, they named a railroad station after him.

Musician Dom Flemons, who recently released a Grammy-nominated album titled Black Cowboys, served as a consultant to the Gathering this year along with his wife, Vania Kinard. “Now is a time to repatriate this information to the mainstream,” he told me on the phone a few days after the festival. “Ultimately, the goal is to create awareness of this wider history.”

Guests of honor at the event included the legendary bull rider Myrtis Dightman, Sr., the first black man to compete in the National Finals Rodeo, and his son, Myrtis Dightman, Jr.; zydeco musician and Louisiana rancher Geno Delafose; country singer Miko Marks (pictured below); and barbecue chef Miko Marks, based out of Oakland, California, performs at the "California Dreaming" showcase, dedicated to celebrating the cowboy and cowgirl culture in California. Photo by Michelle MinKelvin Arnsworth, who led a trail-cooking workshop early in the week.

As Arnsworth showed us his special blend of spices, his barbecuing recipes (“always cook brisket fat-side up”), and how to fry up corn hoe cakes in a griddle, he also regaled us with his stories of growing up on a ranch — how there wasn’t such a thing as going to McDonald’s back then, and how they ate everything they grew and slaughtered on their land.

“Back then, a black man wasn’t supposed to own a Hereford (cow),” Arnsworth told us in his Texas drawl. “My grandpa owned five.” He paused, then told us that sometimes they’d ride through their land and find a cow strung up with just the hindquarters gone. An audible gasp came from the room. This was cow country, I remembered, and that story struck a particular, painful chord.

Over the course of the week, I met many more cowboys, poets, and Western life enthusiasts — there’s not one easy umbrella (or wide-brimmed hat?) to tuck them all under. What little I heard of politics ran the gamut. Some came from old ranching families, others had caught the cowboy bug all on their own. They came from Canada, California, and Texas, just about anywhere you have enough space to ride a horse. Their sense of fashion, whether their headgear was the angled Gus or flat telescope hats, was impeccable.

All levels of participants enjoyed the communal aspect of square dancing, with the help of square dance caller, Alex MacLeod, of the band RattleSnail. Photo by Michelle MinI knew I probably stood out as a cityfolk from a mile away, but I never did get the sense that I was an unwelcome gawker or awkward outsider. Instead, the gathering felt like two overlapping and commingling events, one where a rancher might splurge on an intricately carved saddle after attending a panel led by horse trainers, and one where I could slip into an audience dotted with Stetson silhouettes to sit back and listen to seasoned poets speak.

If you’re headed up to the Gathering next year for the first time, take it slow: Pick out the headliners you really want to see (like poets Waddie Mitchell, Henry Real Bird or Yvonne Hollenbeck, perhaps), take in a few musical numbers, and highlight that one cooking or rawhide leather workshop. Get your tickets early. Then, once in Elko, wander through the artistry and handiwork on display at the Convention Center. Stop for lamb chops at The Star, a real Basque boarding house, and chat over a Picon punch with folks who’ve come here from all over the world.

Getting to Elko from Las Vegas is not easy: It’s either a six- to seven-hour drive through the desert northward, or an hour flight to Salt Lake City, plus a three-hour drive westward. It’s for this reason, I reckon, that you’re just as likely to meet someone from Saskatchewan as you are to meet a fellow Las Vegan at the event.

More than once, when I revealed that I’d come up to Elko from the Valley, a gentle ribbing ensued: “Now, that’s not real Nevada.” “Las Vegas? You mean East L.A.?” But when I stood with a guy from Reno and a gal from Elko at a bar and joked that we had all three corners of the state together, we clinked glasses and grinned. “Home means Nevada” rings just as true up here, it turns out.

See our March/April issue for a feature on the tradition of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and its role in reflecting a changing West.

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