We’ve all learned from Western movies that cowboys chewed tobacco, got into fistfights, shot guns, and drank whisky–and that might just be true! But more often than not, they worked long, hard days, and in the evenings, they read poetry and played music around the fire; that was all the entertainment they had available. Welcome to Sierra Vista, the world of cowboy poetry. 

Words by Jonas Larsson | Photos by Simon Urwin

Steve Conroy has entered that door many times, these days he has to walk a little furtber up the hill to the new Arizona Folklore preserve.
We need jumper cables.

Listening to Steve Conroy is a little like listening to an ad exec giving a pitch.

“It’s all about ‘storytelling’, narrating a story to entertain the listeners,” Steve tells me. The difference is that most ad-men I’ve met weren’t wearing cowboy hats, chaps, or plaid shirts. And even fewer of them were cradling Martin guitars in their laps–at least in sales meetings!

Steve is an old-school cowboy poet. We meet up with him at the Arizona Folklore Preserve, just outside of Sierra Vista in the southeast of Arizona. Here, in Ramsey Canyon, which is 5,200 feet over sea level, it’s a little cooler than it is down in the city, and I’m happy to escape the very worst of the heat down in Phoenix. The center works to keep the cowboy tradition alive and raise awareness about the state’s most prevalent culture. They arrange concerts of poetry readings every weekend, and the state’s official balladeer, Dolan Ellis, performs there once a month.

Steve is our poet for the day, and what a poet he is! I find myself sitting in complete silence, captivated by the moment. It feels a little strange at first–there’s just me and Steve in the room, and it’s an intimate performance, to say the least. But Steve’s poetry and storytelling technique is good–very good, in fact. I find myself immersed in his stories, and a black-and-white Western begins playing in my mind. A romantic one, too, because a lot of the poetry is about love and longing. 

“When they were out herding cattle, they would often spend months out on the trail. All they had for entertainment in the evenings was each other, so they took turns telling stories, and they used rhyming as a memory aid. Some of them were original works, others might be famous stories to which each storyteller might contribute a new verse or two–some of them are up to 600 verses long,” Steve explains.

You can be either a “cowboy poet”, who presents their own work, or a “reciter”, who recites poetry written by others. Most performers do both. Steve, for instance, performs both his own work and other people’s. But cowboy poetry is more than just poetry, the genre also includes lyrics set to music.

Ghost Image

Many of them are about vaqueros–the Mexican equivalents of cowboys. You have to bear in mind that the big western expansion didn’t really get started until the mid-19th century. The Mexican-American war contributed greatly to this expansion, as when it ended in 1948, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico were all integrated into the union. Later, Mexico sold south Arizona and New Mexico to the USA in 1954, in what has since been named Gadsden Purchase. Many of the names, words, and traditions from those days live on to this day. Rodeo, chaps, ranch, mustang, canyon, and other words like them date back to that era. 

“I’m going to perform a song called XX (kolla med Steve)–it’s about an old vaquero who’s facing the end of his days and wondering where his old life went,” says Steve.

And then, he begins, his soothing voice singing to me of days gone by, longing, and loneliness. The music reminds me of folk music from the British Isles. It’s nothing like country music; there are no broken-down cars, dead dogs, or wives who’ve left their husbands with only a bottle for comfort. Nope, this is genuine cowboy romanticism, and it contrasts nicely with all the tough guy stuff that people tend to associate with cowboy culture.

Steve kicks off a song by Joyce Woodson, Cheyenne, which is about a cowboy who is walking up to the fire to warm his hands when somebody asks him, “Aren’t you from Cheyenne?” He responds that he can never call Cheyenne home again, because that’s where he left his heart, and he can never go back there. “I’m just a drifter traveling alone, Cheyenne can never be my home…” If that doesn’t get your eyes to well up, I just don’t know. True cowboy poetry. 

The Cowboy Code and the Bad Guys

I think about the similarities some people have identified between the cowboy code and medieval chivalry. Courtliness, honesty, romanticism, and poetry. I’ve come across this before, and I wonder if it might not be a fairly recent interpretation of cowboy history. God knows that cowboys weren’t exactly esteemed members of society when the 19th century drew to a close. As the railway made its way across the deserts and prairies, opportunists lined up to take advantage. Many gangs of more or less lawless “cowboys” made their names robbing countless trains, and those who actually worked with cattle preferred to call themselves cowmen, cattlemen, or ranchers–“cowboys” were criminals who joined gangs and hid out in the mountains between robberies. Many gunfights were fought between the long arm of the law and the outlaws. 

When silver was discovered in Tombstone, criminal gangs soon began to plague the area. The Earp brothers decided to clean the town up, and on 26 October 1881, they were involved in the legendary showdown at O.K. Corral, where bad guys Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton bit the dust. The event set off a long-lasting feud that would end up costing several of the Earp brothers their lives. 

The government grew tired of the lack of law and order, and commissioned an agency modeled after the Texas Rangers–the Arizona Rangers. Just a few years later, they had locked up or killed most of the criminals. Real cowboys were once again free to call themselves cowboys.

Romance and Comedy

Cowboy poetry can also be reciting a poem or story without music, often with a comic twist at the end. Steve tells a story about a cowboy who went out to shoot himself a grizzly bear. Steve’s storytelling is exceptional–I’m grinning, completely captivated by his story about the cowboy who keeps getting chased up a tree by an angry grizzly. The cowboy manages to grab the bear’s tongue and turn it inside out–and then repeats this several times.  Well, you get it–it’s one of those things where you had to be there. Spoiler alert! When the cowboy finally climbs back down, there are ten or so inside-out grizzly bears lying there.

“Do you know what the most improbable part of this story is?” Steve asks. I shake my head, like a fool. “It claims Grizzly bears can’t climb trees…”

The poems and songs can also be about nature, and a cowboy’s life, of course. Some of them take a nostalgic approach, portraying traditional cowboy life, while others are more contemporary, and address current issues. Love, however, is a constant, as is romance–which is often the theme. On the first weekend of February each year, people polish their spurs and hats and flock to Sierra Vista for the annual Cochise Cowboy Poetry & Music Gathering. In 2020, the event will be arranged on 7–8 February (cowboypoets.com). 

When they were out herding cattle, they would often spend months out on the trail. All they had for entertainment in the evenings was each other, so they took turns telling stories, and they used rhyming as a memory aid.

Cowboys used to travel light, often bringing nothing but the clothes they wore–a shirt, a pair of good pants, and boots–and maybe a musical instrument. The horses were provided by the ranchers, and they didn’t ride the same horse for more than two or three hours at a time. It wasn’t uncommon for cowboys to rotate three different horses on the trail. Instruments were often improvised along the way. Empty cans, washboards, many brought harmonicas because they were easy to carry, and maybe someone would bring a guitar. 

“Let me perform a poem I wrote myself; it’s called Grandpa’s will,” Steve says.

His rhythmic, deep voice begins telling us the story of Grandpa’s will, and I listen reverently. Steve is inspiring; his narration keeps me listening, and I’m getting a whole new idea of what a cowboy is, or maybe rather, was. I’ve never seen Clint Eastwood recite 600 verses by a campfire, but this feels like a truer image than all the hard-boiled, quick-shooting cowboys we were spoon-fed in the movies we saw in our youth. 

Steve and I have been joined by a couple of bikers, who have been looking in and listening respectfully. I never even noticed them coming into the room–that’s how enthralled I was by Steve’s performance.

“I’ll end with a song I think you’ll know. It was written by a young man, Stan Jones, and it’s called Ghost Riders In The Sky. As a kid, Stan was frightened by the story about how the Devil and his hordes race could be seen racing across the sky in a thunderstorm, and if you look at them for too long, you’d end up there yourself, eternally chasing hellish cattle across the heavens. When he grew up, he remembered the story, and wrote the song. 

Steve begins singing this famous song. After the second verse the chorus comes along, and I start singing all the way from my spurs, joining Steve and the two biker dudes: “Yippie yi ooh, Yippie yi yay, Ghost riders in the sky…”