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Rhyme, Sally, Rhyme

Rounding up words on the Western life

September 19, 2004|MARK EDWARD HARRIS

Cowboy festivals, cowboy storytellers and cowboy poetry are all the rage, but don't take Western performers for ironic hipsters. Molly Flanagan walked the walk for decades on ranches as the wife of a cattleman, and still she talks the talk with poetry about the cowboy life. Born in Bakersfield, the Glennville resident and grandmother of seven, who currently works as a waitress, has been performing for 10 years at cowboy poetry events and is finishing up her third self-published volume. We roped Flanagan into chewing the fat in a recent appearance at "A Gathering of Cowgirl Culture, Music and Poetry," the 4th Annual Old West Fest at the Autry National Center, Museum of the American West, in Griffith Park.

What makes a cowgirl a cowgirl?

The same thing that makes a cowboy a cowboy: You chose a lifestyle of tending horses and cows, a rural lifestyle. I married a cowboy when I was 17. We lived in Nebraska and Texas and Oregon and all up and down California. My [former] husband had that greener pasture syndrome.

What is the work like?

In Nebraska and Texas he was working in feedlots, which is a great place to start. A feedlot is where they take cows off of pasture and feed them up before butchering. You have thousands of cows, steers generally, and they feed 'em and doctor 'em and move 'em around in pens and ship 'em and all that stuff. We did that for a couple of years, then went to operations where the rancher raises cows. Our children helped on the ranch. It's a great way to raise kids.

How does the cowgirl life differ from the cowboy life?

There are cowgirls who do the same work that men do on ranches. I'm not a women's libber, so that's not my area. I've never been considered a second-rate citizen. When help was needed, you go out and ride.

Have you helped with branding?

Sure. I have a bad back now, so I'm pretty much limited to ear-tagging and inoculations. I can't rassle a steer anymore.

How can you tell if somebody is the real deal?

"Drugstore cowboys," or what we call "goat ropers"? If they can't walk in their boots, that's a dead giveaway. Sometimes you can tell just by their hat. If they've got feathers and a roach clip hanging on 'em, they're probably truckers.

How has the cowboy life changed?

There are ranches where they round up the cattle from a helicopter and they use video cameras and sell their cattle online, but what it boils down to, it's still a man, generally on a horse, taking care of a cow. And the mind-set is the same. I wait tables now, but I still have a milk cow.

So there are still cowboys in California?

You bet. But "cowboy" is not just a job. A cowboy is a lifestyle and a way of thinking. A person's principles, such as when you give your word, you keep it, and you're respectful to women and children. Chivalry is not dead. If he opens a door for you, but he also swears in front of women, he might be a cowboy.

Where do you get your poetic inspiration?

Just life, kid. I'm Irish, what can I tell ya? Everything in my poems has happened to me or someone close to me. Human emotions translate. Life is joyful, it's sad, it's hard, and I have a tendency to laugh my way through. Sometimes poets get a little esoteric, and when they're done, you go, "What?" Cowboy poetry is folklore and history and fun. This is our way of sharing. It's pretty earthy.

Can you give us a few lines?

[From "Vanity"]: Today I looked into the mirror / And, jeez, what a sight! / How was it possible / I got so old, overnight? /

What's neat's-foot oil?

Neat's-foot oil is what we use on our saddles and our boots.

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