2022 Keynote Address

Vess Quinlan

Full text of Vess Quinlan's keynote address

Thank you all for coming. There are not enough words or enough time to properly thank Sul Ross for hosting this event and all the people who have worked to put it together and make it an outstanding gathering. To say that I feel honored to give the keynote would be an understatement.

The wealthy and connected have scholars and historians to write volumes recording and preserving their culture. The rest of us have poems, songs and stories. I read somewhere that politics flows downstream from culture. I believe that culture flows downstream from lifestyle. It is the livestock-raising lifestyle that produced the men and women of the grazing culture we gather to remember and celebrate this weekend. Since few of us, even in good lighting, would be mistaken for scholars, we use poems, songs and stories.

I will not take much time talking about how the idea of a cowboy poetry gathering got started because that information is easily found, except to say in the early eighties a lovely gentle artist and professor, the late Sarah Sweetwater with Great Basin College, heard cowboys reciting poems in Elko, Nevada bars and created outdoor events drawing large crowds to hear them. Folklorists wondered if there were others doing the same thing in western states and asked state folklorists to see if they could find and invite them to Elko to record the recitations and prevent their being lost.

The 1985 Elko gathering was to be a one time event, but was advertised and funded as a folklore project. I guess it was a man bites dog deal that editors thought might make an amusing human interest story. Cowboy poets . . . Really. They sent stringer journalists to cover the event. I remember The LA Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and even The Christian Science Monitor sent a stringer. Crowds packed the rooms to listen. We were stunned at the response.

Most of us thought we would recite a few old time cowboy poems for the folklorists to record, make a few new friends, and go home. I am amazed and pleased that great gatherings like this one are alive and flourishing after all these years.

At the first Elko gathering a young woman asked if she might interview me for her story. I do not remember now, but I think she was writing for The New York Times. She was working on a PhD in creative writing and intending to land the creative writing chair at a major university in the future. Raised back east, but attending a California university, she knew little about cowboys or the rural west, but she took writing poetry seriously and intended to be fair, if a little tongue in cheek, about cowboy poetry.

We found a quiet corner and prepared to do the interview. She was to my right and a fellow named Skinny Rowland sat next to me on my left with a pile of poems on his lap . . .. While she was getting her equipment ready for the interview, I was visiting with Skinny. He had heard about the gathering and hitchhiked from Idaho because he wanted to be there. Skinny was probably looking back at 65 and was the real deal working on ranches most of his life. I told the young woman we needed to change places because the better story was one chair over. She looked at Skinny and frowned. He did not look like a cowboy wearing Dickies work clothes, and comfortable shoes. "Please," I said.

This young woman was not used to cowboys so she started asking Skinny creative writing questions. "Mr. Rowland," she asked, "do you belong to a writing group or have a mentor that helps you with your poems?"

"Oh no ma'am. Well, now wait a minute - I have a little cow dog that rides with me in the pickup. I try 'em out on her and if she gets to growling, I just throw 'em out the window."

Not being used to cowboys, much less cowboy humor, she had no idea how to take his comment, so she just asked another question. While she was thinking up another question, Skinny said, "She only bit me twice."

"Mr Rowland, tell me about your editing process. Do your poems go through extensive editing?"

"Oh, no ma'am, I tried editing one once. It just made it worse."

She kind of flinched and asked another question, "Mr. Rowland, how do you get your poems published? Do you have an agent?"

"Oh, no ma'am my poems were not written to be published, I just wrote 'em for my own amazement."

Finally, she looked at me and asked, "Is he pulling my leg?"

I said, "Maybe just a little." We spent a couple of hours listening to Skinny tell his story and laughing as he read some of his mostly politically incorrect poems.

The young woman found me later and asked if we could get a cup of coffee. She wanted me to read her story because there was a line she was afraid might be offensive.

"I was not pleased with this assignment," she said. "From warm and sunny California to Northern Nevada where it was cold and snowy to cover something as goofy as cowboy poetry. Alone with no one to protect me from wild and crazy cowboys. I came because I needed the money. I never knew anything like this existed or even could exist. I can not remember ever having so much fun. I will come back if they do this again and pay my own way. So, the last thing I want to do is offend anyone. I am supposed to be a feminist perfectly capable of opening her own doors and resenting any man who thinks I can't. I have had more doors opened for me and more hats tipped to me than I can count and never been treated with more respect by men my age than I have here. I went to the dance last night alone where there were wild buckeroos galore and have never felt safer. The only damage is to my feet. I danced every dance. I love this place and these people."

The line she was concerned about in her story was. "Elko is the kind of western town where they display shotgun shells in the drug store between the Tootsie rolls and the Kodak film." I told her not to worry — it was true, a great line, and would offend no one I knew.

How is it this sophisticated, highly educated young woman and so many others with little or no connection to the grazing culture would become fans willing to spend a weekend listening to cowboy poems and songs? I think it is because these are poems and songs that celebrate family, a powerful work ethic, a love for, and an intimate connection to the earth and animals that proper stewardship requires. People use words like authentic, down to earth, and just plain fun to describe the gatherings.

Aristotle said, "agriculture is not a creative but a cooperative effort." You will see that same cooperation, respect for, and support of one another on every stage this weekend. William Jennings Bryan said, "Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country." My grandfather was fond of saying, "That every child should be born with a milk cow because milk cows build character. No decent human will leave a milk cow bawling at the gate with a full bag because he or she has a headache. First you milk the cow then you enjoy your headache."

Maybe some people, like the young woman, instinctively know William Jennings Bryan's comment is true and respond to our desire to support instead of compete with one another. Maybe they enjoy our obvious desire to celebrate and preserve a culture that helps feed us all. It is what this is all about. To be sure that the world-wide grazing culture, the writing, and the kind of men and women it produced and still produces are not forgotten or drowned out in the rush of noisy progress to wherever in hell we are headed.

I will leave you with just one of the many poems and people we are here to remember and celebrate.

The Creak of the Leather

It's likely that you can remember
A corral at the foot of a hill
Some mornin' along in December
When the air was so cold and so still.
When the frost lay as light as a feather
And the stars had jest blinked out and gone.
Remember the creak of the leather
As you saddled your hoss in the dawn.

When the glow of the sunset had faded
And you reached the corral after night
On a hoss that was weary and jaded
And so hungry yore belt wasn't tight.
You felt about ready to weaken
You knowed you had been a long way
But the old saddle still kep a creakin'
Like it did at the start of the day.

Perhaps you can mind when yore saddle
Was standin' up high at the back
And you started a whale of a battle
When you got the old pony untracked.
How you and the hoss stuck together
Is a thing you caint hardly explain
And the rattle and creak of the leather
As it met with the jar and the strain.

You have been on a stand in the cedars
When the air was so quiet and dead
Not even some flies and mosquitoes
To buzz and make noise 'round yore head.
You watched for wild hosses or cattle
When the place was as silent as death
But you heard the soft creak of the saddle
Every time the hoss took a breath.

And when the round up was workin'
All day you had been ridin' hard
There wasn't a chance of your shirkin'
You was pulled for the second guard
A sad homesick feelin' come sneakin'
As you sung to the cows and the moon
And you heard the old saddle a creakin'
Along to the sound of the tune.

There was times when the sun was shore blazin'
On a perishin' hot summer day
Mirages would keep you a gazin'
And the dust devils danced far away
You cussed at the thirst and the weather
You rode at a slow joggin' trot
And you noticed somehow that the leather
Creaks different when once it gets hot.

When yore old and yore eyes have grown hollow
And your hair has a tinge of the snow
But there's always the memories that follow
From the trails of the dim long ago.
There are things that will haunt you forever
You notice that strange as it seems
One sound, the soft creak of the leather,
Weaves into your memories and dreams.

Those were the words of the late cowboy poet Bruce Kiskaddon from his poem "The Creak of the Leather." Bruce went to California and found work as a stunt man in early cowboy movies. He raised his family in a little house on the corner of Holiday and Hampton in Los Angeles. The poem "The Creak of The Leather" might well have been written going up and down in an elevator at the Mayfair Hotel in Los Angeles. Bruce got a job as a bellhop and ran that elevator for years. He probably carried the bags of our cowboy movie heroes. Tom Mix, Hoppy, Roy, Gene, Johnny Mack Brown, Lash Larue. Every week the editor of The Western Livestock Journal would pay Bruce five dollars for a poem and send the poem with another five dollars to a young woman in New Mexico named Catherine Fields who would draw an illustration to go with the poem. Cowboys would cut those poems out of the journal and they ended up tacked to bunkhouse walls all over the west. Some of them ended up in a shoe box under my grandmother's bed. Bruce did what he thought best to support his family and wrote hundreds of poems, but he never forgot the creak of the leather. It is why we honor him and so many others like him by learning and reciting their poems.I hope that during the gathering you will each find enough quiet time to listen for the creak of the leather and think about a sure enough cowboy writing poems in an elevator and carrying bags to support his family.

Thank you again for coming and enjoy the weekend.