When many of us think of the iconic Texas cowboy, we conjure up images of a rugged wrangler with a quick draw. We think of a man like Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, who said the best way to live life is to enjoy the everyday things "like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself."
But would you believe that a number of these colorful characters also spent many a night wrapped up in a saddle blanket, under the dim light of a kerosene lamp, thumbing through pages of Byron and Tennyson? It is volumes like these, some historians claim, that instilled a love for poetry among American cowboys and inspired them to create their own verse, with its unique style and rhythm.
The genre of cowboy poetry was born on the cattle trails of the West after the Civil War. Cowboys with spare time began developing this verse – combining the traditional ballad style with the songs of sailors and soldiers, and even a bit of Victorian poetry. They added their own touch, with personal stories and likely some "tall tales," too. The result was a genre that celebrated and documented life on the cattle drives—the sweethearts they longed for, the open spaces and natural beauty that embraced them, precarious encounters with shady characters, and the often rugged conditions they braved.
The earliest known book of cowboy poetry was penned by Lamar County native and Texas cowboy Lysius Gough (1862-1940). A runaway teenager, Gough did a little of everything during his lifetime – from cattle driving to teaching, and then onto real estate, farming and well drilling. Gough was one of the first settlers in Castro County and eventually went on to serve as president of the Texas Wheat Growers Association. He also helped form the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society. Somewhere in between, he published Western Travels and Other Rhymes, the original book of cowboy poems. Years later, when Gough was discovered dead in his Amarillo home, the poem that was found still scrolled in his typewriter was eerily titled "Gone."
Decades later, this slice of Americana is alive and well. Every February, Alpine, Texas—in the heart of Big Bend country—hosts the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the nation's second oldest gathering of its kind. Held at Sul Ross State University, the 2-day gathering (with a cowboy church service on Sunday) draws hundreds of enthusiasts and performers—cowboys and cowgirls—each year from across the country. Roughly 80 percent of the performers are authentic cowboys, who run or own ranches or work in a related industry. While some performers recite their own, more contemporary poems, many choose to pay homage to the original cowboy poets and stick with reciting 19th century works. Listeners can hear not only classical, traditional and contemporary cowboy poetry, but also musical performances and storytelling. Sessions are held throughout the day, awards are given, and everyone is invited to a traditional cowboy breakfast of eggs, hot biscuits and gravy, served from an authentic chuck wagon.
This year, organizers and attendees will celebrate the gathering's 25th anniversary, from Feb. 25-27. Tickets are available in person, at the University Center. More information can be found at: http://texascowboypoetry.com.
Thanks to these dedicated performers and their followers, this unique art form lives on—and with it, a request made by the original cowboy poet, Lysius Gough, in his poem "Reminiscing:"
"Many changes more have been,
in one life's fleeting span,
brought about by sturdy men,
who never failed to duty stand.
Historians, to thee this charge we give,
write for us three cherished words,
let them through future ages live,
cow boys, cutting horse, and herd."
Sources: Center for Cowboy and Western Poetry, Inc; Odessa American; "On the Trail of Cowboy Poetry" by David Stanley, Westminster College; Texas State Historical Association; Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering; Western Folklife Center