Out West

A Gathering of Cowboy Poets

Hal Cannon sitting at desk writing

After 35 years, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering thrives and celebrates the ranching and Western lifestyle.

As I write this, the 35th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is being held in Elko, Nevada. It is an event that celebrates the creative aspects of the West—both the literal and conceptual West. Each year offers a new keynote address that sets the stage for the current Gathering. Supportive luminaries from all walks of life in the West have given past keynote addresses, including Temple Grandin, Stuart Udall and U.S Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Hal Cannon, the founding director of both the Western Folklife Center and its premier event, The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, is giving this year’s address. The address will highlight the incredible journey the gathering has taken since its creation in 1985. 

Hal Cannon has worn many hats as a folklorist, musician, composer and writer, having published dozens of books and records about the arts of the American West. After the first gathering in 1985, Cannon edited and published Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering with the late publisher, Gibbs Smith of Layton, Utah. The book is considered a classic of the genre and features many contemporary poets as well as the classics including many by Bruce Kiskaddon (1878–1950).

The book and the event arrived as the cowboy West was undergoing a creative renaissance of sorts, celebrating and uplifting the image of the cowboy and the working stockmen and their families.

Hal Cannon sitting at desk writing
Hal Cannon was instrumental in establishing the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Photo by A.J. Mangum.

“The image of a cowboy had strayed so far from reality through negative images in the media and in movies, the cowboys felt they didn’t have a forum for the expression of their true selves,” Cannon said. “Cowboy poetry is a way to connect and to express a way of life that’s valued.”

Supporting that view, the early 1980s saw the publishing of such landmark works as the legendary photographer Kurt Markus’ book, After Barbed Wire, Ansel Adam protégé, Jay Dusard’s book, The North American Cowboy: A Portrait, and the genre-changing album, Old Corrals and Sagebrush by 1960s folk icon Ian Tyson.

Cowboy Poetry Gathering poster from 1986
This poster commemorated the 1986 Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

It wasn’t an easy start, as Cannon realized the Gathering was a tough sell when he tried to get corporate support and funding. A cowboy as a marketing image was one thing, but cowboys doing poetry—that was not seen as part of the “accepted” cowboy image. But with the help from a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering was born. In 2000 the event was renamed the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering by an official act of Congress. Yet even with that impressive title, to most the event is recognized simply by where it’s held: Elko.

Joel Nelson speaking at Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Joel Nelson is one of many authentic working cowboys who has written poetry and performed in Elko. Photo by Ross Hecox.

In 2003, Hal Cannon wrote about the origin of the first Gathering on the event’s website. It was supposed to be a one-time event. Hal plus staff from the Western Folklife Center and a handful of volunteers had worked on the idea for five years prior to that January weekend in 1985. They didn’t know what to expect, as Hal says in his essay, he and his friend and cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell were busy setting up folding chairs in the Elko Convention Center. They had about 60 chairs set in place when Waddie said to him, “Pard, let’s not go overboard. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves.”

Well, they didn’t, and by the end of the weekend more than 1,000 people had shown up to see and hear almost 40 cowboy poets. What was to be a one-time deal turned into a cultural national treasure.

Don Edwards singing at Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Cowboy music is also performed in Elko, featuring legendary performers such as Don Edwards. Photo by Ross Hecox.

Today the event is not only about the spoken word, songwriting, art, performance and the cowboy crafts. Above all it celebrates family and the optimistic intent that new generations will enter the Western life depicted, spoken about, sung about and celebrated at the Gathering.

I bring all this up in part because of the response received after last month’s piece, “Made in the U.S.A.,” about artisans and the handmade West. It seems for many the West is as much about creative expression as it is about its geographic and agricultural/stock raising aspects. In the case of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, many of the cowboy crafts that have been historically celebrated there are also front-and-center in the minds of many who read this column. Requests for stories on hat making, ironwork, silversmithing, saddlemaking and more are popular with our readers, and it is gratifying as most of the stories on Western Horseman’s site are about the West’s capable and competent artisans. It’s uplifting to know good horsemanship and the crafts that support it are alive and well, and that one person’s efforts can matter. To that end, we tip our hat to Hal Cannon and the Western Folklife Center for bringing a grand idea to life so many years ago.

Popular cowboy poet and writer, Paul Zarzyski performing “Bizarskyski Feeds the Finicky Birds” in 2009.

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