Perhaps, no figure in the world is more iconic than the American cowboy. Working cowboys have always been known for their roping, riding and ability to wrangle cattle. Hollywood brought us the fast draw and singing cowboys, but it is the lesser-known art form of cowboy poetry that keeps real cowboys’ stories and values alive.
“Real cowboy poetry that is authentic is a recorded history of a particular group of people that existed during a particular period in the history of mankind.” said singer and cowboy poet Red Steagall. “They have a love of the land; they primarily deal with livestock, and they love and respect the other people who write about the same subject matter.”
Steagall knows what he is talking about. In 1991, he was named the “Official Cowboy Poet of Texas” by the state Legislature. He also heads up the Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering, held each October in the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District.
“When I write cowboy poetry, I try to have a message.” Steagall said. “I appreciate the set of values of the agrarian society, and they continue to this day. A set of social rules such as taking your hat off in the presence of a lady, and you honor the man who signs your paycheck. It is called riding for the brand.”
Cowboy poetry grew from the stories cowboys would tell around the campfire or bunkhouse trying to kill time or entertain themselves. But the art form dates back even further to the storytelling tradition of the Irish and Scottish settlers across the United States.
Working cowboys came from a mix of ethnic backgrounds, including African American and Hispanic, but the majority were white. “The white cowboys were mostly of Celtic origin, and they brought the love of the Old World folktales and the Old World poetry, Keats and Shelley,” Steagall said.
According to Steagall, up until 1935, several cowboy poets published their works in books. Arthur Chapman and Henry Herbert Knibbs were two of the early and most noted poets. And Bruce Kiskaddon has been called the quintessential cowboy poet and published several books.
Elko, Nevada, lays claim to the first cowboy poetry gathering in 1985. But Elko may have hosted the first cowboy poetry gathering even earlier when Badger Clark entertained a large crowd at the Elko High School gym on April 3, 1926.
Prior to the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985, cowboy poetry was well on its way to becoming a forgotten art. From 1935 to 1985, few people were publishing cowboy poetry, according to Steagall. Since renamed the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering by an act of Congress, the Elko event started a cowboy poetry renaissance that has spread across the country.
Cowboy gatherings and poetry festivals have become popular in Texas, too. In addition to Fort Worth’s Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering, Alpine hosts the Lone Star Cowboy Poetry Gathering every February. Cowboy poetry is a part of several other events, such as the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock and Abilene’s Western Heritage Classic.
The various cowboy poetry events not only preserve the heritage but also develop future cowboy poets. The Fort Worth and Alpine events feature youth poetry competitions. The Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships since its inception.
“The first girl that won our scholarship was from east Fort Worth,” Steagall said. “She was the first person in her family to graduate high school and the first to go to college. She made a statement to us when she read her poem. ‘I want you to know that what I am going to tell you I got from a book,’ she said. ‘Because I have never been farther west than the city limits of Fort Worth.’”
“It was the most beautiful poem about how proud she was that there were Black cowboys,” Steagall said. “She went on to Rice University and used that scholarship to get started, earned additional academic scholarships, and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.”
Additional scholarship winners from Steagall’s event have included a young man who graduated from the ranch management program at Texas Christian University and became the manager of the famous 6666 Ranch. Plus, two young ladies that have graduated from Harvard Law School, he said.
This year’s Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering, which would have been the 30th annual, has been postponed to October 22-24, 2021, due to COVID-19. The Lone Star Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine is currently slated for Feb. 19 and 20.
Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering (Fort Worth)
Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District
Visit Fort Worth
Lone Star Cowboy Poetry Gathering (Alpine)
National Cowboy Symposium (Lubbock)
Western Heritage Classic (Abilene)
Billy is a member of the Texas Lakes Trail and as co-owner of Wild Horse Press, helps preserve the history of rodeo and the West. With a life-long passion for rodeo, Billy has driven more than his fair share of miles in order to engage in his life-long passion for rodeo