There is rhythm in the call of coyotes, in the sorting of cows, in the wind and the whistle of a train. There is balladry in boot heels that echo off dance floors, in hauling hay and in tall grass that bows in the breeze like a wave.
There is poetry everywhere on the Prairies, and there are poets, too. They recount the hardship and celebrate the joy of Western life through spoken and written words. It is an art form that took root during cattle drives from Texas a century ago and is sustained today by cowboys at hundreds of poetry gatherings across North America.
The oldest in Canada takes place in Maple Creek, a town of 2,200 in southwest Saskatchewan that prides itself on Western authenticity.
There is a worship service in a cowboy church in Maple Creek on Tuesday nights. There is a livestock exchange and agricultural grounds where three rodeos are staged in summer. A grain elevator, hard against the railway tracks, soars 10 storeys above maple-lined streets.
For three days in September, the community arena, town armoury and Elks hall overflow with fans of Western lore. Transported back to another time, the cowboy-hat and Sunday-best crowds become engrossed in poetry about hired hands and homesteaders and love and death and castrating bulls. They sway in their seats to the twang of guitars and two-step in the wings to classic tunes by Ernest Tubb and Guy Clark.
Performers are paid a stipend and are often billeted in the community. They don’t do it to get rich, but out of a sense of devotion to age-old traditions. Rural populations are falling. Family farms are getting swallowed up by giant commercial operations.
“It’s all about passing down folklore and keeping the cowboy lifestyle and culture alive,” says Diamond Doug Keith, one of the headliners at the 2018 Maple Creek Cowboy Poetry Gathering. “Cowboys will exist as long as there is beef, but their culture might not survive. That is what we need to protect and hold on to."
At the first cowboy-poetry session on Friday morning, all 225 chairs on the floor of the armoury are full. Dozens more people line the back wall and watch from a balcony.
Farm tools and an old-fashioned milk can are set up as props at the foot of the stage. A rusted container of Rogers Golden Syrup, collected long ago, hangs beside a kerosene lantern.
On stage, Geoff (Poppa Mac) Mackay, a preacher, poet and former chuckwagon cook from Manitoba, is bathed in light.
He wears a cowboy hat and has a kerchief around his neck as he recites a poem called Calving Time, about a young bull named Joe.
Stepping down from the stage, he tells his life story. It sounds straight out of the pages of a Zane Grey novel.
“They claim your body is a temple,” he says. “I treated mine like an amusement park.”
Poppa Mac has worked as a ranch hand and a rodeo clown. He was a hellion, and during one confrontation in his youth had a shotgun placed in his mouth. Now, he writes children’s books and poetry and preaches in pastures and behind bucking chutes.
“I preach the Gospel, only in a cowboy fashion,” he says.
He is 58 now and has lived all over Western Canada. He spends half the year on his acreage in Grande Pointe, southeast of Winnipeg. The rest he spends in Brownsville, Tex., running a ministry.
“I got stomped on and kicked and should be dead,” he says of his reckoning. “It occurred to me that I walked away from God, but He didn’t walk away from me.”
Soon, he will travel to Fort Worth, Tex., as a nominee for a Will Rogers Medallion in cowboy poetry. The awards are named after the late writer and philosopher whose work embodied the traditions of the American cowboy.
For three days, a roster of 40 poets and musicians rotates among venues in Maple Creek, an hour’s drive east of Medicine Hat. They also entertain at a seniors’ home and an assisted-living facility, and play at the Jasper Hotel, circa 1903, at night.
Along with poetry and music, there is a fashion show where beaver-pelt hats and elk-skin gloves are featured, and a Western gear and art sale where buyers can peruse steer heads painted by Summer Dawne Roasting.
“I am a banker and I paint skulls,” Summer Dawne says cheerfully.
Winter in the Barn
Steam rises off the backs of big horses.
The old Holstein in the second stall
shifts her weight from side to side
matching the rhythm of the milking
and flicks her tail at memories
of summer flies.
Across the width of the barn
I stand with mouth open
in my biggest five-year-old oval
catching most of the milk
squirted dead-eye straight
by the laughing hired man.
In the tack room
kittens wait by a tin plate
to put their morning mustache on.
In my memory, it is always warm in the barn.
– by Neil Meili
One of the few art forms original to Canada and the United States, cowboy poetry began as a way to while away the hours under starry skies at night.
With little else to do, hard-as-nails wranglers would sit in a circle around a fire and entertain each other by playing the harmonica and telling stories. When those tales began to get stale, they added rhythm and rhyme to make them more appealing.
Authors such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour helped romanticize the Old West, and Rogers’s anecdotes and folksy humour made him a giant of screen and stage. An appearance in 1986 on The Tonight Show by Baxter Black, the most famous cowboy poet of today, introduced the art form to a wider audience and opened the door for others.
Events are held in towns small and large, from Cartersville, Ga., to Walla Walla, Wash., with stops in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia in between. The longest-standing active gathering has been held in Elko, Nev., since 1985. The mustering in Maple Creek began in 1989.
A United Church lay minister and Western painter from Pinawa, Man., Diamond Doug Keith has performed cowboy poetry for 22 years. He draws smiles with a poem called A Mallard’s Tale, about a ranch hand and his sidekick, a one-eyed duck.
As a child, his grandfather enthralled him with stories about cowboys, and his mother recited verses by Robert Service to him in the kitchen. By the time he was 13, Diamond Doug was rounding up cattle at a beef and dairy farm. He, too, is 58 now and falls back on that experience when he entertains.
From one to the next, the cowboy poets in Maple Creek are a colourful lot. They are mostly older, and have lived fascinating lives.
Bud Stewart is 86 and flew bombing missions during the Korean War. He grew up in southern Alberta and drove a team of horses on the family farm at six years old. At 15, he had trouble finding work and headed south to Montana, where he got hired as a ranch hand for $2 a day and all the food he could eat. Three years later, he registered for the draft and caught a bus to Butte, where he was sworn in to the U.S. Air Force.
“So many went to Korea and didn’t come home,” he says quietly.
Noel Burles, another cowboy poet, is 68 and once lived in a tepee for a year in the Porcupine Hills of southern Alberta. He has worked as a mechanic and a millwright, ridden saddle broncs, operated a tow truck and did two tours of Vietnam as a sniper with the U.S. Army.
His late uncle, George Burles, was a model in New York for a time and served as the original Marlboro Man.
He comes from Cowley, Alta., a village with 200 people that’s best known as a shooting location for the film Brokeback Mountain, and for George and Noel Burles.
At one point, Noel travelled the cowboy-poetry circuit extensively, bouncing between burgs such as Chinook, Mont., and Slick, Okla.
“If you think Cowley is small, you should see Slick,” Noel says.
He has performed at 25 of the 29 gatherings in Maple Creek, and has memorized nearly 1,000 songs and poems.
“If you tell someone a story three times, they get tired of it,” he says. “If you put it to rhythm and rhyme, they will listen 20 times.”
Also at the Maple Creek weekend, Pat and Charlotte Gilmer are poet/musicians from Consort, Alta., hometown of singer k.d. lang.
Charlotte’s great-grandfather Pierre Léveillé was a Métis guide in the 1870s for the North-West Mounted Police. He is buried just outside Maple Creek, where the couple has performed as Barb’wire for 10 years.
“Every time you come here it is like going to a family reunion,” Charlotte says. “Only you don’t have anybody to fight with.”
A small woman who drives a big truck, poet Shelley Goldbeck grew up on a horse farm near Red Deer. She is descended from Saskatchewan homesteaders, and serves as editor of the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association’s newsletter, the Barbwire Dispatch.
She has been a writer most of her life, but only started to create cowboy poetry a few years ago after accompanying a friend to a gathering in Lewistown, Mont. “When I tell people I’m a cowboy poet, they look at me like I have a horn in the middle of my head,” Goldbeck says. She lives in Calgary and calls cowboy poetry a celebration of the traditions of the West.
“These people shaped our history,” she says. “We are doing these presentations so they will not be forgotten.”
Neil Meili is another cowboy poet. He grew up southwest of Moose Jaw and has been a rancher, stock broker and real estate salesman, and lives in Edmonton.
He quotes Kinky Friedman as he talks about cowboy poetry. The verses he writes are so cathartic that a U.S. psychotherapist, Bonnie Badenoch, used them to introduce the chapters in her book The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.
“Cowboy poetry goes right back to the very old oral traditions of the world,” he says.
In one session at Maple Creek, Phyllis Rathwell reads a poem about her father’s death called The Coyotes Call. Some in the crowd at the Elks hall, where a mounted elk head flanks one side of the stage, are near tears when she finishes.
“It was 10 years after my father’s death before I could write it,” she says. “It had to be far enough away.”
She was raised on a cattle and grain farm in Tompkins, a village of fewer than 100 people in southwest Saskatchewan. She met her husband at a cowboy-poetry gathering in Montana and is now a rancher’s wife in Elkwater, at the western edge of the Cypress Hills in southeast Alberta.
“I always think ranch women have the best sense of humour,” the 68-year-old says. “They put up with an awful lot. I tell my city friends it’s like hanging wallpaper with your husband on a daily basis.”
Cowboys, Heroes and Horses
I paused from cinchin’ my saddle’s riggin’
To feel the crisp wind out of the west
Brush against my exposed hands and face
Sendin’ my soul a shiver clean through my vest.
Its breath carried memories in vivid colour
From when I weren’t but a child half-grown
Great stories n’ tales that shaped my being
Of cowboys, heroes and horses I’ve known.
– by Diamond Doug Keith
The poetry gathering in Maple Creek ended with a cowboy church service on Sunday morning. So many people attended that it had to be moved from the Diamond C Cowboy Church to the armoury to accommodate them all.
A third-generation rancher, Ross Pollock, established the church in 2011 in a former army barracks and chicken hatchery.
“We went from hatching chickens to hatching people,” he says.
On the back wall is a photo from the early 1900s of his grandfather, Greg Pollock. Greg gathered a herd of wild horses in Winnemucca, Nev., in 1883, and drove them to Maple Creek.
“I’ve moved 15 miles in my whole life,” Ross, 75, says.
He is not an ordained minister but conducted worship services at rodeos and homecomings for a half-century before establishing his own church.
“I’m like Moses,” he says. “I spent 40 years in the wilderness and now I’m doing this.”
Pollock and his wife, Claire, preside over the morning service at the armoury. The building is jammed as the service begins with the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus. A yodeller, Mary Resek, stands to the side of the stage and sings along, eyes closed and hands clutched around her guitar.
Poppa Mac Mackay comes up to pray and asks everyone to remove their cowboy hats. He explains the service is a continuation of another old tradition: Saddlebag preachers once travelled the West on horseback to bring the word of God to cow camps.
“That is kind of what we are doing here today,” he says.
The service lasts 90 minutes, with cowboy poetry and music interspersed with prayers.
“Even if you’re not a spiritual person, you leave feeling better than when you came in,” Poppa Mac says. He muses that Prairie people largely have great faith. “When you rely on the weather and Mother Nature for your livelihood, it’s not hard to be spiritual,” he says.
Resek takes the stage and sings Lord of the Dance. No yodelling this time.
“Everyone is here to share what God has put in their hearts,” she says.
Cowboy church concludes with the congregation singing Amazing Grace. The voices of cowboys and ranchers bounce off the concrete walls.