We boarded the train for Elko, a whole day's journey east, for the 33rd annual National Cowboy Poetry gathering in eastern Nevada. I'd wanted to go for years without really knowing what to expect.
The festival is part storytelling, part Western music. It's incredibly rich and gratifying to see people come from near and far to celebrate working farm families as well as the mythology of the West.
- I was thrilled to hear Ramblin' Jack Elliot, who famously inspired both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Jack assured us that music is a sideline, to pay for his diesel fuel and cat food. True to form, he rambled and ambled, and chose songs to play based on Post-Its on his guitar.
- Jack was preceded by Mike Beck, a damned great guitarist who also generously taught several guitar workshops.
- Sourdough Slim and Robert Armstrong delighted us with a variety of instruments, most memorably yodeling and playing the saw with a bow. I'd never realized a theremin sounds like a saw before.
- Grammy winner Dom Flemons brought needed ethnic diversity to a largely white and white-haired event. He hails from North Carolina by way of Phoenix and is working on a new album on the black cowboy experience. He plays everything from banjo to guitar to the bones.
- Ian Tyson came from Alberta and did not disappoint; multiple artists thanked Ian for inspiring and mentoring them over the years.
- Canadian heartthrob Corb Lund delivered his trademark "ag-tragic" ballads with appropriate horror.
- Kristyn Harris and Brigid Reedy are only 22 and 15 but played guitar and fiddle like old pros. Their Django Reinhardt jam was delightful.
living off the land
Things I learned:
- Cow-boys and sheep-herders (shepherds) are not the same. RP Smith: Grandma used to say "sheep for money, cows for prestige." Now you know. Steak or lamb chops for dinner?
- Farm families are traditional. Many are raising food and working land their grandparents first acquired. The land is both symbolic and a real concern, so like horses, it's a major subject of songs and poetry.
- The language of the cowboy festival is rich: sometimes quaint (by golly) or old-fashioned (baking bread), harking back to a desire for a simpler time "when a handshake meant something." Mike Beck referred to growing up with one radio station and two TV channels, when radio truly was "the soundtrack to our lives." This seems more like the 50s than the 70s or 80s. But it helped explained the enduring popularity of shows like Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk to me, even The King Family and the Osmonds from when I was little.
- This is a predominantly white European heritage with many Scandinavian immigrants. But Dom Flemons commented that we often talk about the great migration from the southern states to the north and midwest, but less often about the move westward in the 20th century.
- Cowboy stories often include love songs to horses. Keith Ward: I found it kind of funny when he called that filly "honey." Also puns. Who doesn't love puns?
Elko is at 6000 feet with a lot of snow this time of year, so I brought my long underwear. I wore hand-me-down snow boots from Ilene's teenaged daughter Sofia and a cool purse I bought on Valencia Street in the Mission. With my blue hair and jeggings, I looked a bit like a stormtrooper punk cowgirl. Hardly authentic, but that was beside the point.
Nevada is a fiercely independent state, and this includes politics. (First rules of campaigning here is learning how to pronounce the state's name. Hint: It's not Ne-VAH-duh.)
More people are registered as independents than members of either major party. For the most part, the crowd at Cowboy Poetry avoids easy categorization. And speaking as a faux cowgirl from a very progressive city, I noticed these openings for dialogue.
- Clean water and environmental protection are a major concern to farmers. Maria Lisa Eastman told a tragic story of a neighboring farm whose cows drank dirty water and starved on substandard feed. Hers drank more water from artesian wells. Corb Lund from Edmonton sang a moving song "This is my prairie" taking on local oil companies and polluters.
Ranchers suffer when there's drought or pollution or oil spills, even if their advocacy looks different than a citygoer's desire to protect parkland from development. Another poet described family members whose lungs were black from the mines. Their voices and issues need to be represented.
- Several performers talked about losing family farms to high inheritance taxes (in the 1970s). Other factors were a move to large farming and encouragement to take out big loans, which bankrupted small ranches.
- Farm families live in rural areas, and many are homeschooled. Kids grow up working with animals, riding horses, baling hay. The gathering originally provided a place where people could meet other families like theirs. Today there are farm families on social media.
- I heard a strong desire for respect for traditions and traditional ways of life--but also what struck me a kind of farm family feminism, recognizing the strength, determination, and resilience of women (and men) continuing to ranch. Performers play at house concerts. Rural priorities are markedly different from urban and suburban areas. That doesn't mean we don't share values.
- Canadians represent! To my dismay, Celtic Cowboy said they had no room in the truck for Americans who wanted to come back with them.
- The festival makes a fine effort to have women represented as well as men, and several of the programs I attended had all-female lineups. These included new generations of musicians and women who'd raised children and roped calves. Doris Daley, the self-described Creampuff from Canada, was an all-around delight.
- I was touched by RP Smith's ode to Nezzy, an undocumented Mexican farmhand who "did a lot of things no gringo would and sent home all his pay." Immigrants contribute greatly to farming in this country. Preserving the legacy and folklore of the West includes recognizing that hard work, and where people came from.
- I missed the program on the Australian bush and several Native American performers. Of course any historical consideration of the west must include indigenous peoples.
- Movies screened included Changing Seasons, a sweet documentary about "Mas" Masumoto, whose immigrant dad bought their peach orchard in the 1940s shortly after returning from WWII internment camps. The film is about many things: working the land, being an outsider, but especially about the relationship between Mas and his daughter Nikiko who returns to the farm to carry on the family tradition. "On our farm, we grow stories." Incredible peaches too.
- The last night, The Moth radio hour came to Cowboy Poetry. Our incredible hostess Dame Wilburn is a black lesbian from NYC. She immediately connected to an older predominantly straight white Western crowd, describing her dual existence as a child between her grandparent's pig farm in Macon GA and school years with her parents in Detroit. I was charmed by her stories and warmth, as the crowd laughed along in real recognition. (You'll be able to hear it as soon as it's posted on the Moth site.)
Many thanks to Janet for being such a great hostess. And in memory of Jerry Kumar, who loved this event, and who crossed many state and national boundaries.
We headed home past frozen Donner Lake exhausted but inspired.