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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.

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