I’m watching the performance of “To Her” by “Wylie and the Wild West” on UTube. It’s a beautiful and evocative melody that shows an organic appreciation of the song’s lyrics – taken pretty much word-for-word from the cowboy poem of the same name written and published in 1917 by Badger Clark in “Grass Grown Trails.”
It’s not enough to listen just once to Wylie – gotta hear it again! Heartfelt and honest – not hard to see why cowboy poetry is so wildly popular across the nation – and why National Cowboy Poetry Week, set for April 15-21 – is causing a particular stir at the High Plains Western Heritage Museum in Spearfish.
Of course, cowboy poetry is often spoken, not sung. But whether listening to the soft drawl of Waddie Mitchell, the Southern twang of Baxter Black – or if you attend Rhythm & Rhyme at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at the Heritage Center – the South Dakota prairie accents of award-winning cowgirl poet Yvonne Hollenbeck, it’s easy to understand why these eloquent voices touch the souls and validate the life experiences of so many Americans.
The word that comes to mind when describing both the lives and legacies of cowboy poets both past and present is “unassuming.” Or maybe “unpretentious” is more on the mark. And, as the millions of cowboy poetry fans from every walk of life prove, you don’t have to have a cowboy background to appreciate that outlook on life.
Take Badger Clark, South Dakota’s first poet laureate, who for more than 20 years lived a simple bachelor existence at his home in Custer State Park until his death in 1957. His insistence on living his life as he saw fit – even though it was outside the norm and kept him mostly in poverty – meant poems that are as authentic and real for people today as they were a century ago. His best-known work, “A Cowboy’s Prayer,” is pretty much an American anthem for fans of the Old West. It is both ironic and telling that for years, this poem was attributed to an “anonymous” writer – illustrating its mythic impact on America’s folk culture.
That folk culture – South Dakota style – will be on full display at the April 19 cowboy celebration at High Plains Western Heritage Center. Along with some outstanding displays and performances, the event is a gratifying example of the strength, vitality and continuity of our region’s High Plains ranch culture.
The event begins at 6 p.m., with “Cowboy Song Tradition,” an exhibit that includes historical accounts of the lives of some of the West’s most storied poet/musicians, including Badger Clark. The recently restored video-documentary, “Ride Around Cowboy,” will also be on view.
Showtime begins at 7 p.m., with a young talent from Reva, Emily Jerde, performing vintage Western Music. Jacob Linn and Carter Elshere, seventh-graders from Elm Springs Elementary Country School, will recite some of Badger’s best-loved poems, followed by Yvonne Hollenbeck, who is the 2012 recipient of “The Badger: Excellence in Poetry Award,” presented each year by the museum’s Heritage of the American West Performance Series.
Don’t be surprised if the performance is sold out – these Series events often are. All the more reason to set your sights on another of the museum’s monthly Old West showcases – “Homeward Bound with Barry Ward and “Ridin’ for the Brand” with R.J. Vandygriff are just a few on the summer 2012 schedule.