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Monday, January 27, 2014

Cowboy Poetry: A Lesson From Gail Steiger

Gail Steiger is a cattle rancher, musician and poet. (Kathy McCraine)

Gail Steiger is a cattle rancher, musician and poet. (Kathy McCraine)

Delia Gist Gardner and Gail Gardner on their 50th wedding anniversary. (Courtesy of Gail Steiger)

Delia Gist Gardner and Gail Gardner on their 50th wedding anniversary. (Courtesy of Gail Steiger)

The 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering starts today in Elko, Nevada. Gail Steiger is a regular at the gathering. He’s a cattle rancher near Prescott, Arizona.

Steiger comes from a line of cowboy poets. His grandfather was Gail Gardner, one of the most celebrated cowboy poets, and author of “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail.” His grandmother, Delia Gist Gardner, was also a poet. She wrote “Hail and Fairwell.”

“Cowboy poetry is kind of a broad brush,” Steiger told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “There are purists who think it’s all about cowboy hats and boots and spurs, but there are a bunch of us who realize it’s a lot more to do with just what a gift it is for all of us to come here and live on this planet, where life just grows up out of the ground.”

‘Hail and Farewell’

Gail Steiger’s note about his grandmother: “We never knew that she really had any interest at all in poetry, but we found a poem that she had left for us, in her drawer — we found it after she died. And there was a little note typed beside the poem that said she had written it when she was about 65. And she had revisited the site of her homestead, so kind of reflections from that hilltop cabin. It was a poem called ‘Hail and Farewell.’”

By Delia Gist Gardner

(Reflection from a cabin in Skull Valley, Arizona, over an old Indian camping ground, 1945)

Think not on my brittle bones mingling with dust, for
These
Are but a handful added
To those gone before.
Think, rather, that on this borrowed hilltop
One lived joyously, and died content.

In this dark soil
I found reminders, saying:
“You, too, will pass; savor for us
The wind and the sun.”

From the smoke-blackened earth
I dug
A frail shell bracelet, shaped lovingly, skillfully,
For a brown skinned wrist, now dust.
The broken piece of clay
Was a doll’s foot and leg, artfully curved ,
Made for brown-eyed child.

Pottery shards saying:
“Yours for a little time only
Take delight in this, as we did.”

The tree will die; the vine wither and rattle in the wind.
For I broke a law of Nature.
I carried the water to the hilltop. Nevertheless,
For those after me there will be
These things I have loved:

Morning sun rays, slanting across the hilltop,
Lighting the great trees in the green meadow.
Wind, the great blue sky,
Peace of the encircling hills
And flaming glow of sunset.

‘The Sierry Petes’ (or, ‘Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail’)

Gail Steiger’s note about his grandfather: “In 1988, they dedicated the Gathering in Elko to him… At that time, Papa was 95 years old and he wasn’t in good enough shape to attend the gathering, so this local folklorist asked me if I would shoot some video of him addressing the convention… As he was singing his song, I looked out into the audience and a whole bunch of people knew the words to that song. I had had no idea that it had gotten around as much as it had. It really gave me a new appreciation for the work that papa had done.”

By Gail Gardner

Away up high in the Sierry Petes,
Where the yeller pines grows tall,
Ole Sandy Bob an’ Buster Jig,
Had a rodeer camp last fall.

Oh, they taken their hosses and runnin’ irons
And maybe a dog or two,
An’ they ‘lowed they’d brand all the long-yered calves,
That come within their view.

And any old dogie that flapped long yeres,
An’ didn’t bush up by day,
Got his long yeres whittled an’ his old hide scorched,
In a most artistic way.

Now one fine day ole Sandy Bob,
He throwed his seago down,
“I’m sick of the smell of burnin’ hair,
And I ‘lows I’m a-goin’ to town.”

So they saddles up an’ hits ‘em a lope,
Fer it warnt no sight of a ride,
And them was the days when a Buckeroo
Could ile up his inside.

Oh, they starts her in at the Kaintucky Bar,
At the head of Whiskey Row,
And they winds up down by the Depot House,
Some forty drinks below.

They then sets up and turns around,
And goes her the other way,
An’ to tell you the Gawd-forsaken truth,
Them boys got stewed that day.

As they was a-ridin’ back to camp,
A-packin’ a pretty good load,
Who should they meet but the Devil himself,
A-prancin’ down the road.

Sez he, “You ornery cowboy skunks,
You’d better hunt yer holes,
Fer I’ve come up from Hell’s Rim Rock,
To gather in yer souls.”

Sez Sandy Bob, “Old Devil be damned,
We boys is kinda tight,
But you ain’t a-goin’ to gather no cowboy souls,
‘Thout you has some kind of a fight.”

So Sandy Bob punched a hole in his rope,
And he swang her straight and true,
He lapped it on to the Devil’s horns,
An’ he taken his dallies too.

Now Buster jig was a riata man,
With his gut-line coiled up neat,
So he shaken her out an’ he built him a loop,
An’ he lassed the Devil’s hind feet.

Oh, they stretched him out an’ they tailed him down,
While the irons was a-gettin hot,
They cropped and swaller-forked his yeres,
Then they branded him up a lot.

They pruned him up with a de-hornin’ saw,
An’ they knotted his tail fer a joke,
They then rid off and left him there,
Necked to a Black-Jack oak.

If you’re ever up high in the Sierry Petes,
An’ you hear one Hell of a wail,
You’ll know it’s that Devil a-bellerin’ around,
About them knots in his tail.

Poems reprinted with permission of the Steiger family.

Guest

  • Gail Steiger, songwriter, filmmaker and cattle rancher in Yavapai County, Arizona.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

The 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is starting today in Elko, Nevada. And to mark that event, we are joined by a cattle rancher who comes from a long line of cowboy poets. Gail Steiger is with us from his ranch outside Prescott, Arizona. And, Gail, welcome. First, for people who don't know, what is cowboy poetry?

GAIL STEIGER: Whoa. Well, cowboy poetry - I guess cowboy poetry is mainly songs and poems and stories about the actual work of being a cowboy. I grew up with it. My grandfather had a ranch about 15 miles from the one I'm working at today. He used to launch into song or a poem kind of at the drop of a hat. I didn't know it was cowboy poetry then. It was just the old guy going off again, as he would always want to do.

HOBSON: You're grandfather was Gail Gardner, one of the most celebrated cowboy poets.

Yes, sir.

Well, when did you figure out what a big deal he was in the community?

STEIGER: You know, a bunch of folklorists got together to start this Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, and one of the folklorists who had helped with that project had been doing field work here in Prescott. And he found my grandfather and some other old cowboys, and he rounded them up and he would take them around to senior centers and schools and ask them to do their material. And in 1988, they dedicated the gathering in Elko to him.

And they asked me - I had done a documentary film based on the ranch that I'm on today. And at that time, papa was 95 years old and he wasn't in good-enough shape to attend the gathering. So this local folklorist asked me if I would shoot some video of him addressing the convention as a part of the keynote address. So I propped him up in front of a painting that my mom and my dad had commissioned a Western artist named George Phippen to paint that illustrated papa's most famous song, I guess. It was a song called "Tying Knots in the Devil's Tail."

And the great thing for me, I played that up there in Elko, and it was a real revelation to me, because as he was singing his song, I looked out into the audience, and a whole bunch of people knew the words to that song. I had had no idea that it had gotten around as much as it had, and it really gave me a new appreciation for the work that papa had done.

HOBSON: Well, I know you've got a guitar there with you. Can you play a little bit for us?

STEIGER: I can, if you like. Papa would never allow anybody to accompany him as he sang that song, because he said that would quickly reveal how far off key he was liable to singing.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIGER: So he used to sing it a cappella. Maybe it'd be better if I tried to do it that way for you.

HOBSON: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TYING KNOTS IN THE DEVIL'S TAIL)

STEIGER: (Singing) Away up high in the Sierry Petes, where the yeller pines grow tall, Ole Sandy Bob and Buster Jigs had a rodeer camp last fall. Well, they taking their horses and running irons and maybe a dog or two. And they 'lowed they'd brand all the long-yered calves that come within their view.

HOBSON: That was great. Thank you so much.

STEIGER: You're welcome.

HOBSON: Well, your grandmother was also a poet. Tell us a little bit about her.

STEIGER: She was born in New Mexico and came to Arizona at a young age. And she was just real - she was definitely a very Western woman, and really liked living outside and living on the ranch. And that was - she really enjoyed that.

HOBSON: And you didn't know that she wrote until after she died, right? How did you find that out?

STEIGER: No, we didn't. You know, I tell this story. I mean, she had to listen to my grandfather's poems 10 million times, I know. And we never knew that she had any interest at all in poetry. But we found a poem that she left for us in her drawer. We found it after she died. And there was a little note typed beside that poem that said she had written it when she was about 65, and she had revisited the side of her homestead - so kind of reflections from that hilltop cabin. It was a poem called "Hail and Farewell."

HOBSON: Can you read us a little bit of it?

STEIGER: Sure. I'd be glad to.

Think not on my brittle bones mingling with dust. They're but a handful added to those gone before. Think, rather, that on this borrowed hilltop one lived joyously and died content. In this dark soil I found reminders saying: You too will pass. Savor for us the wind and the sun. From smoke-blackened earth, I dug a frail shell bracelet shaped skillfully, lovingly for a brown-skinned wrist now dust. That piece of broken clay was a doll's foot and leg, artfully curved, made for a brown-eyed child. Pottery shards are saying yours for a little time only. Take delight in this as we did.

The tree will die. The vine will wither and rattle in the wind, for I broke a law of nature. I carried water to the hilltop. Nevertheless, for those who follow there will be these things I've loved: morning sun rays slanting across the hilltops, lighting the great trees in the green meadow; wind, the great blue sky, peace of the encircling hills, and flaming glow of sunset.

HOBSON: I was going to ask you what the difference between cowboy poetry and other poetry was, but I don't think I have to anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIGER: Well, yeah, cowboy poetry, it's kind of a broad brush. I mean, there are purist who think it's all about, you know, cowboy hats and boots and spurs, but there are a bunch of us who realize it's a lot more to do with just what a gift it is for all of us to come here and get to live on this planet, you know, where life just grows up out of the ground.

HOBSON: We're speaking with rancher and musician Gail Steiger of Prescott, Arizona. And while we're talking cowboy poetry, here is the classic "Little Joe The Wrangler." It was written by Jack Thorpe and is being sung here by Don Edwards at the 2008 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE JOE THE WRANGLER")

DON EDWARDS: (Singing) On a little old brown pony he called Chaw. And with brogan shoes and overalls, a tougher looking kid you'd never in your life had ever saw. His saddle was a southern kack built many years ago. An OK spur on one foot idly hung.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW.

And let's get back to our conversation with Gail Steiger. He's a cattle rancher and cowboy poet living outside of Prescott, Arizona. We're talking to him because today is the opening of the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. And Gail, just listening to your poetry and your music, I think I'm ready to move out to the West and become a rancher.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIGER: I've got a poem - I've got a poem for you. It's not mine. There's a really great thinker named Wendell Berry. He's a - he teaches at the University of Kentucky. He lists his occupations as farming, reading and writing - in that order. And he's been a very prolific writer. He did a poem called "Her First Calf" that really kind of - if you had asked me the question, you know, what is it about this cowboy life, what is it about that gift, I would do that poem for you too.

HOBSON: Do you have it with you?

STEIGER: Yeah.

HOBSON: Go ahead.

STEIGER: I've got them all in my head there.

"Her First Calf." Her fate seizes her and brings her down. She is heavy with it. It wrings her. The great weight is heaved out of her. It eases. She moves into what she has become, as sure in her fate now as a fish free in the current. She turns to the calf who has broken out of the womb's water and its veil. He breathes. She licks his wet hair. He gathers his legs beneath himself and rises. His legs wobble. After the months of his pursuit of her, they meet face to face. From the beginnings of the world, his arrival and her welcome have been prepared. They have always known each other.

That's a Wendell Berry poem. He's just a great, great thinker.

HOBSON: Wow. Well, could you play us out with a song, Gail?

STEIGER: Yeah. Let me think about that. I'm going to play "The Romance of Western Life" for you. This is a song - I wrote this thing when - the title of this song, actually, as far as the gift of living on the Earth, I don't know if it speaks to that, but it definitely talks a little bit about cowboying. It was originally titled "A Cowboy Looks at 45 On A Real Bad Day." And I had a brother that I do a lot of work with, and I usually play stuff for him before I embarrass myself in public.

And he said, well, you might get away with that song, but you're going to have to lose the title. It's just way too negative. He said if you call that song "The Romance of Western Life," it will put a whole different spin on things. So that's where this song came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ROMANCE OF WESTERN LIFE")

STEIGER: (Singing) Well, the old black bull got stuck in the mud. For six hours we pushed and we pried. Finally took four horses to pull him free. And when we got our ropes untied, he looked up at the sky and he gave out a big sigh. And then he laid down his head and he died.

(Singing) We started for town, but the truck broke down. We walked home five miles in the rain. And we'd have been glad for that, but we had hay on the ground and the timing was kind of a shame. And the romance ain't completely gone to this cowboy life we've chose. But the bliss that I was counting on, well, it comes and then it goes. I could have been a lawyer or something, but it's too late for that now because the only thing I know anything about is a damned old Hereford cow.

(Singing) Well, the creek come up, took the water gap down. Our yearlings were nowhere to be found. It only taken us a week to gather them all. Be easier the second time around. At least that's what I thought till I seen Shorty there looking blue. Just before we'd left for town, he turned our horses out there too. They went with the yearlings.

(Singing) And the romance ain't completely gone to this cowboy life we've chose. But the bliss that I was counting on, well, it comes and then it goes. I could have been a firefighter, but it's too late for that now because the only thing I know anything about is a damned old Hereford cow.

(Singing) No, the romance ain't completely gone to this cowboy life we've chose. But the bliss that I was counting on, it comes and then it goes. I could have been a lot of things, and I guess I still could now. But the only thing I really care about are these damned old Hereford cow.

HOBSON: Well, Gail, it's been such a great pleasure having you on the show. I think a lot of listeners probably are ready to go online and see if they can find all the cowboy poetry they can.

STEIGER: Well, I would encourage them to do that. There are gatherings all over the place and there's a big family that kind of circulates among those gatherings. The family includes poets and singers and audience members and just people who are interested. And we're sure always happy to welcome new people into the fold.

HOBSON: Rancher, musician, poet Gail Steiger in Prescott, Arizona. He's going to be reciting at the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering starting today in Elko, Nevada. Gail, thanks so much for joining us.

STEIGER: Thank you, Jeremy. Sure been a pleasure.

HOBSON: And, Meghna, he is in the right line of business. If you go to our website, hereandnow.org, you can see what Gail looks like. And he is a cowboy through and through. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • AZCWsinger

    Thanks for this.

    “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail” has been a favorite of mine since I heard (bought and still sing along with) Michael Martin Murphy’s version (Cowboy Songs) roughly 3 decades ago.

    His comment therein:

    “Gail Gardner of Prescott wrote the song as a poem in 1917. The word ‘cigar’ originally was ‘soogans’ referring to a cowboy’s bedroll. The devil was apparently a tough customer when he went down to Georgia for a fiddle contest, but no match for two cowboys out West”

    Herein’ Gail Steiger on air places an entirely different perspective on this song, certain to make it the all-time favorite on my list . . .

    Greg

  • Beth Aaron

    Ahhhh! Isn’t it just like NPR affiliates to find ways to glorify cattle ranchers as some kind of Gds. How lovely they even write poetry . Now is that before or after the cows they raise get crowded onto trucks in extreme frigid weather, high heat, to travel to a gruesome slaughter. Is there a poem that accurately summons the experience of a few million male and female cows, a few months young, while she or he is crammed into a truck , frightened, before arriving at the final destination, the ugliest places on earth? How about a rythmic pentameter to go along with being prodded off the truck, with her cell mates, while they in line for their turn in the dis-assembly line ?
    And perhaps even some poetry when all that blood starts rushing out of these sentient beings as they struggle for breath, hung by a leg, all that weight, as the leggers and hiders and carvers do their deeds. Yes, quite a lovely thing that the cowboys enjoy poetry. Hannibal Lecter loved classical music. Sorry, but a food system that causes disease, environmental ecocide, and unforgivable violence to incalculable numbers, should not be glorified any longer. This piece only adds to my suspicion, because there are SO many other poets who do not contribute to the one system that is KILLING our bodies and planet, that the meat industry has way too much influence.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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