The three gents in their ten-gallon hats, neckerchiefs, Levi's and boots looked as if they might have moseyed out of a time warp into the glassy modernity of a San Fernando Valley hotel. They stood out among the tourists like John Wayne in a beauty parlor.
Waddie Mitchell, who wears a long, waxed Fu Manchu mustache on a guileless face, is the ranch boss on a spread near Elko, Nev. Baxter Black, having cowboyed in Idaho and other Western states for years, is now a veterinarian and cattle feeder in Brighton, Colo. Hal Cannon is a gentle, bearded giant who runs the Western Folklife Center in Salt Lake City and collects and preserves cowboy poetry.
Mitchell and Black had come to town to appear Thursday night on the Johnny Carson show as a teaser for the third annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering that takes place in Elko Jan. 29-31.
Mitchell recited Gail Gardner's satiric ballad "The Dude Wrangler," about a cowboy who has descended to working a dude ranch and has to be put out of his misery.
(I shorely hated for to do it,
For things that's done you cain't recall,
But when a cowboy turns dude wrangler
He ain't no good no more at all.)
Black, who is probably the best-known of the present poet-performers, recited a hilarious piece of his own called "The Vegetarian's Nightmare," a very in-town ballad about the guilt-ridden making of a salad by a man who has just learned that plants feel pain, but is having a last fling before he organizes the Plants Rights movement. "In the meantime, please pass the bleu cheese."
That poem's link to the open range, I feel sure, is the poet's dark view of organized do-gooding, or don't-creating, that ties a free spirit down. Carson and his audience loved it.
For years, English departments have celebrated the oral tradition--legends, poems and songs handed down from generation to generation by being recited around communal fires, possibly in caves while the saber-toothed tiger howled outside.
It is an irony that rattles the spurs of Black, Mitchell and Cannon that the oral tradition is alive and well among cowboys but is largely ignored by academics and major publishers.
This may be because most cowboy verse is in the virile ballad tradition of galloping rhythms, strong and fearless rhymes and major emotions expressed without embarrassment or coyness. Some of the most famous of them are also no-holds-barred bawdy.
The other night in the hotel's cocktail lounge, Mitchell and Black recited alternating stanzas of what turns out to be the most famous of the raucous ballads, "The Open Ledger," an assault on cowboys that I had heard Slim Pickens recite several years ago and had been trying to track down ever since.
By a nice coincidence, another cowboy poet-performer, Val Geissler of Hamilton, Mont., read of my quest. Just this week, he sent me a text and a cassette reading of it and some of his own lively poems and songs.
"The Open Ledger," Hal Cannon tells me, was written by Curley Fletcher, a cowboy poet who also wrote one of the best-liked of all the cowboy poems, "Strawberry Roan." Fletcher died in 1954.
A collection of Fletcher's work (not, alas, including the inventively scurrilous "Open Ledger") has just been published as "Songs of the Sage" with a preface by Cannon (Gibbs M. Smith Inc., Box 667, Layton, Utah 84041).
"There isn't one cowboy who doesn't know at least one poem," Waddie Mitchell says. "I can say 63 without shaming myself."
"You can only tell a joke once to the same audience," Baxter Black explains. "Somebody's gonna stop you and say, 'Heard that one.' But a poem is like a song, people are glad to hear it again and again. 'Hey, do the one about the cowboy and his dog.' "
By now, Black is probably the most popular of the cowboy poets. His collections have sold more than 50,000 copies, an astonishing figure for the genre. His latest collection, "Coyote Cowboy Poetry" (Record Stockman Press, Box 190, Brighton, Colo. 80601, $19.95), draws on the earlier books and includes some epigrams from a newspaper column he writes. "I'm so miserable without you, it's like you never left" is a double-edged favorite of mine.
His column, called "On the Edge of Common Sense," is a mixture of commentary and poetry and appears in 58 papers. Some of them run the commentary, on ranching and farm policy matters, and drop the poetry rather than open the floodgates of submission from the millions of would-be poets out there.
Black also syndicates a radio show called "Cowboys and Sourdough" to 42 stations. "Your major places," he says; "Fairview, Alberta; Okeechobee, Fla.; Brawley, Calif."
Last year's Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko drew 150 poets and Cannon expects more than that this year. He estimates there may be as many as 1,000 active cowboy poets. "And I've had letters from every one of them," Black says.