Texas is known as the cowboy capital of the world, and there is a rich history of songs about cowboys and cowboy culture, and poetry as well. And we get a taste of both on the podcast.
Season 3 Episode 4
Under the Texas Sky--S3E4: Cowboy Poets
Texas is known as the cowboy capital of the world, and there is a rich history of songs about cowboys and cowboy culture. In fact, in the 1930s and 40s Cowboy Singers like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Slim Rinehart romanticized the cowboy lifestyle through song, and found music the perfect backdrop for storytelling.
It’s been said that this unique brand of storytelling through song was born out of an even earlier art form; cowboy poetry. Cowboy poetry is believed to date back to the overland cattle drives of the 1870s and has been defined as rhymed, metered verse written by those have lived life during the Western North American Cattle Culture.
The life of the cowboy during cattle drives was often filled with adventure and experiences worthy of great storytelling, and poetry was the perfect vehicle for documenting those stories. But with the invention of barbed wire, windmills on the prairie, and the coming of railroads, the era of the cattle drive would soon come to an end. And along with it, the possibility of losing a unique part of our history.
[DAVID] Now if you’re sittin’ around the campfire on a cow camp, you don’t have somebody up here standing up here going hey, you just don’t.
For over 25 years, David [Day-vid] Owens [Oh-wins] has been keeping the cowboy heritage alive in Texas. He is the Assistant Park Superintendent and Interpreter, among other duties, at Lake Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway. On occasion he has the opportunity to tell a story or two, sing a song and even recite some pretty interesting cowboy poetry.
On the podcast we'll join David as he tells the tale of cowboys and cattle through poem and song.
Stay with us.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
[DAVID] I am what you call the park interpreter. (crowd cheers) And most of the time we talk about the nature of the park. And the Cross-Timbers, and we’re right in the middle of the Cross-Timbers of Texas. But we also interpret the history. And so tonight, I want to do a little bit of our heritage that we have in this part of Texas, cowboy heritage. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty much all over Texas.
David Owens has a natural love for teaching. And when it comes to the history of cowboys in Texas, he enters into a new dimension. Dressed in knee-high boots, a long-sleeved shirt and vest, and a cowboy hat on his head, David sits comfortably on a haybale in the warm glow of lanterns and a campfire. On an evening last fall at Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway, we joined David as he transformed into a cowboy poet, singer and storyteller.
[DAVID] Did you know that the cowboy fed this nation after the Civil War? They didn’t really know they were doing that. But because everything was war-torn in the Civil War, they had no cops in the South, they had no livestock much anymore after five years of war, and when the men got back to Texas, there were longhorns everywhere. Beef! And they said man if we can get these up there to sell it to feed people over there, we could make a lot of money. And so they did. And so our cowboy heritage kind of grew from there. I thought we would kind of have you preserve that heritage by doin’ some cowboy poetry, cowboy stories, maybe a song or two, what do you think? (crowd agrees) Alright well let’s see if we can get this thing done.
This is not David’s first rodeo. He’s been educating others about cowboy heritage as far back as 1994. His venture into interpretation was actually inspired by a request from his friend.
[DAVID] When I was working at Cleburne State Park as a Maintenance Ranger, I heard about park interpretation. And I knew that we had a good cowboy heritage around there. And I had a friend who sang cowboy songs. So I said hey you want to sing some songs to these folks out here at the park? Actually he came to me and said hey, could I sing some songs out here (laughs), anyway, we got together and I just introduce him, talking about the cowboy heritage and then later on I started learning some cowboy poems. And so, I would go up there I’d say a poem and he’d sing a song and we’d go back and forth like that. And after a while I tried my hand at singing it myself. Just like they sang it back on the cattle drives with no instruments or anything like that. And over time I got good at it and finally it’s a solo thing that I do here at the park to help people preserve our cowboy heritage.
David begins his presentation with a local story of sorts.
[DAVID] I wanted to tell you a little bit of a story about what happened about 10 miles north of here. Now, we've got a lot of cowboy history. Long time ago, before the Civil War, in the 1850s, there was a feller named Oliver Loving. Oliver Loving was already like in his 40s, early 40s, and he found out that there was a really good place to graze cattle up here called Black Springs. Now, Black Springs was not a friendly place, but he decided that he would bring his cattle up here to this place where nobody else wanted to go, graze his cattle in the Keechi Creek Valley - just 10 miles north up here - because it was such good grazing land. He figured that people would be moving out there pretty soon, so what he did is he opened up himself a little frontier mercantile store. So now then, when people come out here, they needed supplies, they could get it from him, he could make some money, and he could raise his cattle up here where it's good grazing. As a matter of fact, Oliver Loving, they say, is the father of the Texas cattle drives. He found out that he can sell beef for a lot better price up northwest. So he actually took a herd of cattle from here, drove 'em all the way to Illinois, and sold them for a profit to bring that money back to Texas. So, he was one of the very first people to ever drive cattle out of the state of Texas, and it happened right here. Well, a bit later on, there was another fella that came along, and, uh, he moved in out there at Black Springs too, brought his cattle as well, and his name was Charles Goodnight.
With a mutual interest in making money with cattle, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving became friends and eventually created the Goodnight-Loving Trail, one of the most heavily used cattle trails in the Southwest. After the Civil War, Goodnight and Loving returned to Texas and discovered a tremendous surplus of cattle. Soon they had an idea… to sell those cattle to gold miners in Colorado.
[DAVID] And so they partnered up, and here they went. Now, it was a really strange thing - you would think going straight up there to Denver would be the best way to go, but there were so many hostile things going up around there, they decided to go down south, or southwest, and go up the Pecos River to get to Denver. That was the best route that they could go, they had water, and Goodnight knew it. So that's where they went - they made it all the way up to Denver, they sold the cattle, made so much money that they couldn't hardly wait to get back down here, round 'em up, and let's go again!
Soon Goodnight and Loving were riding high and looking for ways to further prosper their venture. That’s when they began selling cattle to the US Army at Fort Sumner on their way to Denver. But on their second drive to the military outpost, bad weather scattered the herd. Against Goodnight’s advice, Oliver Loving insisted on riding ahead to tell his clients at Fort Sumner of the delay. Loving only took one guide with him, a man named One Arm Bill Wilson. They were making good progress along the Pecos river until they met up with the Comanche.
[DAVID] Well, they got in a skirmish, Oliver Loving got shot through the rest into the side, and they decided they needed to find a place to hide, so they went down in the river valley, and found an overhang where they could back up in there and nobody could see 'em except right out in front of them, between them and the river. And so, they hid themselves back in there; the only problem was, they also trapped themselves 'cause they couldn't get out. And they knew that they were all around them. So, Oliver Loving, being shot, thought he was a goner. He said, "all I want is for my family to know what happened to me." So, he ordered One-Arm Bill Wilson to sneak down to the river in the middle of the night, get in the water, and swim downstream until he can get out past the guards and go find the herd, and tell Goodnight what had happened to him.
Amazingly, One Arm Bill did finally make it back to the cattle drive and told Charles Goodnight that Loving was wounded and needed help. David tells us the rest of the story.
[DAVID & AUDIENCE]
[DAVID] 'Course, Goodnight, he wasn't about to leave his partner out there with nothing, so he took some cowboys and went up there to see if they could find him. Well, they couldn't find him. They looked all over, couldn't find him, and so back in those days it was nothing else you could do - take your hat off, say a few words, go back to the herd, let's carry on. So that's what they did, and when they came up to Fort Sumner, a rider comes out and says: "Hey! You Goodnight?" And he goes, "Yeah, this is the herd." He says: "Do you know Oliver Loving?" and he says, "Yeah, that's my partner." "He's up here at the fort, he wants to talk to you." Well, that was kind of a shock to him. Well, see, what happened- he got to feeling a little better and one night he went upstream, found a crossing of the river, stayed there until a friendly come by, and they took him on into Fort Sumner. But he had gone too long, and he was on his deathbed. They tried to amputate his arm, but it was too late. So, Goodnight got to talk to him one more time before he died, and he said, "I hate it that I'm going to be buried up here in this foreign territory. I wish I could be buried back here in Texas." Goodnight took those words to heart - sold the cattle, drove him up to Denver, sold the rest of the cattle, and on his way back, he stopped off at Fort Sumner, and he exhumed that grave. And he built a wagon that had a tin box on it, and he put that coffin over in that tin box, and he covered it up with charcoal, and he soldered a tin lid on the top of it, and he took Oliver Loving's body 600 miles, all the way back here. A 600-mile funeral procession. And you know what? Today, if you wanted to, you could go to the Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford, Texas, and see Oliver Loving's grave. That's a pretty good story, isn't it? Does it remind you of any story?
[AUDIENCE] Yes, it does.
[DAVID] What story do you think...?
[AUDIENCE] Lonesome Dove.
[DAVID] It reminds you of Lonesome Dove. Did you know that Larry McMurtry wrote his story of Lonesome Dove - his fictional story - around this actual occurrence?
[SFX—LONESOME DOVE] “They, they say you carried your friend 3000 miles just to bury him. Is that true”(Cecilia decides when to cut out of this clip)
That was a clip from Lonesome Dove, a four-part television miniseries which was an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 1985 Novel by the same name. Originally airing in 1989, it was a hit with audiences and critics alike, garnering two Golden Globes and seven Emmy Awards. In fact, as David attests, it’s still a fan favorite.
Now David recites a poem he says we can all relate to, and it’s called Commutin’.
[DAVID] There's nothing like the feeling that you get down deep inside, when you trot out in the morning, and you've hired out to ride, and your mount's enthusiastic. The air is crisp and new, and there's lively conversations going on amongst the crew. There’s some bridle crickets chirping, jingle bobs tap out of tune. On one side, the sun is rising, and ahead there sits the moon. Shadows high trod there beside you, elongated keeping pace, reassuring you ain't hobbled by restrictive time or space. Up ahead, the boss is posting to the same beat as the song. It's then the realization hits you - you're right where you belong. It's then you start appreciating you're on trails where few have trod, and you wonder how you ever doubted if there really is a God. Top of the ridge, the boss reins in, so we gather up around - it's from here he'll call the circle, so we step off to the ground, loosen up our latego, 'air our ponies back, rearrange again our blankets, and realign our kack. We mount back up to get dropped off, check to see who's on each side. You're glad that you're a cowboy, and you feel a twinge of pride. You eat breakfast by the Coleman, hurry 'round to beat the sun. You've 11 miles behind you, but it's here the work's begun. Now, in town, when folks must travel to their workplace every day, it's said that they're commuting to their job to earn their pay. They choke in crazy traffic jams, fight for seats on bus or train, it's a wonder that this ritual doesn't drive them all insane. But we too commute to work, I guess, as the job at hand dictates; but we commune while we're commuting, and what a difference that makes.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
David Owens is the Assistant Park Superintendent at Lake Mineral Wells State Park & Trailway. He’s also the park’s Interpreter and on occasion a Cowboy Poet and singer. David is entertaining park visitors with cowboy wisdom and wit. He’s about to recite a poem called “Story With a Moral.” He warns his audience as we should warn you, this poem is not for the squeamish.
[DAVID] First of all, y'all ate earlier, didn't you? Everybody's okay? 'Cause this one - you know, I wouldn't want to be eating during this particular poem.
I reckon there's worse that makes a cowboy curse, and I reckon it's happened to us all; though it's been years since, you can bet, as I think of it yet, still makes my old innards crawl. I was making a ride to bring in one hide that hadn't showed up in the gather. I was riding up this stream, just daydreaming a dream, when I caught- (sniffs, exhales sharply) -there's something the matter. Near some old mesquite trees, I caught in the breeze, a stench that was raunchy and mean. And seeing as how it might be that old cow, well, I rolled up to a bend in that stream. Sure enough, the cow lied in the creek there and died - hard telling how long she'd been there. See, she was bloated and tight, it was a horrible sight! She was oozing and slippin' her hair. Her eye sockets were alive with these maggots that thrive on dead flesh, putrid yellow and green, and the hot sun burning down, turning pink things to brown, and spewing this oily gunk out into the stream. (Inhales and exhales again) Well, I spurred upwind fast to get away from the blast of the heavy stench the cow made, then I felt bad seeing as how that I lost the old cow, so I pulled up near a tree in the shade. But then I got sick to the core, just thinking minutes before I had done something that made me feel worse. Not 30 yards down, I had stepped off to the ground and drank 'till my belly near burst! (Audience groans) Oh, for months after it, just the thought made me (gags) spit! And I'd live it over like a bad dream. But the moral, I think, is if you must take a drink, never ever remount and ride upstream.
Well, we warned you.
Next, David recites a more personal poem about a bicycle.
[DAVID] This one kind of relates to me, because the name of the poem, as I read it, was "The Gol-Darned Wheel", and I thought, what in the world are they talking about? This is a cowboy poem? Yeah, it is, the Gol-Darned Wheel, and then as I was reading it, I figured out what a wheel was. It's a bicycle. And then I thought about my childhood, 'cause I was raised in Texas, and my father, my dad, called my bicycle a wheel. I never knew why, I just took it as he always called my bicycle a wheel - he said, "get on your wheel and go up to the grocery store and get me a bag of bread." (Woman chuckles) "What have you been doing, riding your wheel around? You're supposed to have been doing these chores, you know?" And then I got to thinking, what would a wheel look like back in those days, what would a bicycle look like? It looked like a great big wheel up front and a little bitty one in the back, and if you just saw one going down the road, you'd say, "That guy's riding a wheel!" (Audience laughs) Right? This is a poem about a guy who liked to brag, okay? You can imagine a cowboy liking to brag... and it goes like this:
I can ride the wildest bronc in the tough ol' wooly West. I can rake him, I can break him, let him do his level best! I can handle any cattle ever wore a coat of hair. I even had a tussle with a tarn ol' grizzle bear. I can rope and throw the longhorn of the wildest Texas brand, and in Indian disagreements I can play a leading hand. But I finally met my master, and he really made me squeal when the boys got me a-straddle of the gol-darn wheel. [Audience chuckles.] It was on the Eagle Ranch, down on the Brazos, where I first met the darned contrivance that upset me in the dust. A tenderfoot had brung it - see, he was wheeling all the way from the sunrise in to freedom out to San Francisco Bay. He tied her up there at the ranch house for to get outside a meal, never dreaming that us cowboys would monkey with his wheel. Well, there was Arizona, and there was Jack McGill, and they said I'd been bragging way too much about my skill. They said I'd be bucking against a different sort of deal if I threw my leather leggings on the gol-darned wheel. Well, such a slam into my talent made me hotter than a mink! And I swore that I would ride it for amusement or for chink. Why, it weren't nothing but a plaything for kids and such about! And I'd have them eat their words if they'd leave that critter out. Well, they held it while I mounted, and I gave the word to go... Now, the shove they gave to start me weren't unreasonably slow. But I never let a cuss word, I never let a squeal, I was building reputation on the gol-darn wheel. Well, the grade was kinda slope-y from the ranch down to the creek... and I went a gally-flutin' like a crazy lightning streak; a-whizzin' and a-dartin', first this way, then that, the darn contrivance sorta wobbled like the flying of a bat. I jerked up on my handles, but I couldn't check it up! I sawed and yelled and hollered, but I couldn't make it stop! And then a sort of mention in my brain began to steal, that the devil had a mortgage on this gol-darn wheel. [Audience laughs.] Well, I've sort of a dim and hazy remembrance of the stop, with the earth a-spinning round and the stars all tangled up. Then there came this intermission until at last I found that I was laying at the bunkhouse, with the boys all gathered round. And the doctor, he was a-sewing on the skin that had ripped, and Arizona leaned down and said, "Well, ol' boy, I guess you're whipped." An' I told him I was busted from sombrero down to heel, and he just grinned and said, "you oughta see the gol-darned wheel!" (Audience laughs, applauds)
As the campfire begins to dwindle David closes his presentation with a song reminiscing about the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
[DAVID] (David sings) Well, the fire's all out and the coffee's all gone / The boys are all up and they're breakin' the dawn / And you're sittin' there, all lost in a song / On the Goodnight Trail, on the Loving Trail / Our Old Woman's lonesome tonight / Your French harp, it moans like a low bawling calf / It's a wonder the wind don't tear off your skin / Get in there and blow out the light.
Well, I hope you, uh - I hope you got a little something out of this tonight, and I hope you didn't freeze to death out there!
David Owens is doing his part to keep cowboy heritage alive and well in Texas. And judging from the applause, there’s still an audience for cowboy poetry and songs.
[DAVID] For some older people that come here, it brings back memories because, "my daddy used to sing those songs", and "I'd heard that poem before from a long time ago", and then sometimes it's just brand new to 'em, and people come here and they have never heard of any kind of thing like cowboy poetry. And they get introduced to it, and in my opinion, it's an entertaining way to learn history.
We couldn’t agree more David. Thanks for the history lesson, the poetry and song.
And thanks to Tom Harvey for collecting the interviews and my associate producer Randall Maxwell for producing this podcast and for sharing cowboy songs performed by his late father Yodelin’ Bill Maxwell.
[MUS—TO ORBIT YOUR SOUL]
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
We record the podcast at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing provide distribution and web help. Whitney Bishop does our social media. I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
[DAVID] And so tonight, I want to do a little bit of our heritage that we have in this part of Texas, cowboy heritage. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty much all over Texas.
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.