Fred Newman, Jerry Brooks and DW Groethe rehearsing the Trails End Ranch Radio Show.
The Trail’s End Ranch Radio Show is produced in the style of Prairie Home Companion and other radio shows of the old-style ilk. It is approachable for folks who are new to the cowboy poetry scene but has enough tooth to keep the veteran attendee interested as well. The show is highly entertaining to watch. I experienced the gambit of emotions—from laughing, to stomping my feet along to a great tune, to tearing up in sadness. It is worth the price of a ticket! And, there are still tickets available for the Friday 8:30 “airing” of the show at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, according to my inside source.
Written by singer-songwriter Stephanie Davis, the Trail’s End Ranch Radio Show features several vignettes, recitations from various famous cowboy poets, humorous faux ads and music played by the Trail’s End Ranch Hand Band. Fred Newman of Prairie Home Companion fame features prominently in the show. His table of sound-effects “instruments” includes a balloon to make alien sounds, glasses, beer bottles, a box of what sounded like aluminum recycling, a pair of old shoes and a roasting pan. I found myself wondering how he gets through TSA at the airport!
Poets DW Groethe, Henry Real Bird and Jerry Brooks are featured in the show. Groethe and Brooks even play characters in some of the skits. Groethe plays an alien with the assistance of a coffee can (you have to see it to believe it—its quite cool). Brooks plays a chuck-wagon gourmet well-versed in the preparation of roadkill. While Real Bird doesn’t participate in any of the skits. he recites several of his poems, interlaced with his native Crow Indian language.
The opening act is a paean to bailing twine. As any ranch kid knows, bailing twine holds the world together, and according to the show’s song, “is more useful than a ginzu knife at a Donner Party reunion.” Among other uses noted in the song are a leash for your pet lizard and a belt to hold your pants up. No matter what the problem, “the solution may be sitting on the dash of your truck…always carry bailing twine.”
There are multiple ads for made-up companies including Levitation Coffee for when you need to cowboy up, Western Brew Sarsaparilla with its natural mood enhancing agents, and a shady realty company that could take your ranch from cows to condos in 90 days or less.
Not all of the recitations are light-hearted. Brooks and Real Bird both recite poems that are emotionally and intellectually stimulating. All three of the poems are about love, but not in that sickening romantic comedy way. I think Henry Real Bird said it best: “love is there like a robin in the winter sky.”
The show is sponsored by the Interculture Foundation. Tickets available at westernfolklife.org.
“There’s a basin, wrought of reason,
tortoise dry and clean of air
Where rivers hike to meet their fate,
get lost and disappear
Where Grand Adventure had a say
and different would prevail
And where only hardy life hangs on
to all that it entails”
This is the first stanza of Waddie Mitchell’s new poem, “Dame Nevada,” written in honor of the state’s 150th anniversary being celebrated this year. Waddie debuted the poem tonight at the opening show of the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an official event of the sesquicentennial celebration.
The performance was opened by Nevada’s Lt. Governor Brian Krolicki, and featured Waddie with other Nevada artists, including songster Richard Elloyan, writer Carolyn Dufurrena, poet Walt “Bimbo” Cheney, and Larry Schutte singing the classic “Nighttime in Nevada.”
What a great start to what will most certainly be a wonderful 30th Gathering. We hope to post much more during the event, here and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/westernfolklife) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/westernfolklife). Come join us if you can!
This is the second installment in a series of blog posts about the making of Healing the Warrior’s Heart, a public television special that presents a Native American perspective on both the soldier’s and the veteran’s experience. The program reveals the central role that military service plays in Native life and explores the spiritual traditions that help returning American Indian soldiers reintegrate into society and cleanse themselves of war. Western Folklife Center Media Producer, Taki Telonidis, is heading up the production team and blogging about his experiences.
“This was the view from my window seat as I headed back to Utah from Massachusetts after collecting the latest piece of the Healing the Warrior’s Heart story: an interview with a psychotherapist and author named Ed Tick. More than a pretty sunset, it seemed a fitting coda for a conversation that dealt with spirituality and the soul.”
“I had decided to fly out and meet Dr. Tick after learning of his unique approach to treating veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and reading his book War and the Soul. Tick’s methods rely heavily on the healing traditions of Native Americans and other tribal peoples, which he has studied extensively over more than 30 years. His work with veterans began not long after the Vietnam War when he was a young therapist and a veteran walked into his office seeking treatment. When their eyes met, they did a double-take as they realized they’d been classmates in high school. But Tick’s friend was almost unrecognizable; his experiences serving in Vietnam had transformed him both physically and emotionally.”
“Doing therapy with his former classmate connected Tick with the community of Vietnam veterans in his corner of upstate New York. Many of them were suffering, and the Veteran’s Administration (VA) system and other therapists didn’t know what to do with them. Tick told me the story of how the head of this group was so desperate for someone to help his comrades, that he “drafted” Tick to be their doctor. Tick came to see helping vets as a calling, although it wasn’t long before he realized that his training had not adequately prepared him for the task at hand. The diagnosis of PTSD (which at that time had recently been coined) didn’t adequately explain the suffering of these veterans. And the treatment protocols addressed only the symptoms, not the problem at its core.”
“So Tick decided to look at how other cultures defined and treated the trauma of war. His quest took him first to Greece (homeland of my family!) where he studied the ancient wars, learned about citizen soldiers, and found references to war trauma and healing in classical writings. His quest then led him back to America and to an examination of the healing traditions of our nation’s first warriors: Native Americans. He discovered that for thousands of years, American Indians, like tribal peoples around the world, have been dealing with the problem we now call PTSD, but in a very different way. Suffering warriors were people whose soul and spirit had been tainted by what they had done and witnessed; so they were cleansed and purified through rituals. There were other ceremonies intended to transfer the responsibility of a warrior’s actions to the entire community, relieving him of the burden of his deeds. Another step was the honoring of veterans by the community, an important rite of passage that put them on a life-long path of service to their people.”
“Learning about the healing traditions of Native peoples convinced Dr. Tick that they hold clues for America as it struggles to better assist its suffering veterans. In fact, Tick and his wife and partner Kate Dahlstedt have incorporated much of what they learned into retreats they conduct for veterans through their nonprofit organization, Soldiers Heart. Their work has caught the attention of the military, which last year hired them to conduct trainings for chaplains that incorporate the lessons of Native American healing.”
“Dr. Tick’s work has become important to the Healing the Warrior’s Heart project. His book War and the Soul deconstructs how tribal cultures define war and the emotional trauma it inflicts on soldiers. It also discusses Native American healing traditions at length, and identifies their key elements and how they contribute to healing at the core level. Tick’s forthcoming book, Warrior’s Return, maps out how those elements can be applied in a non-native context, and used by chaplains and other professionals in treating veterans who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“The interview with Tick was a powerful experience, as the information and passion poured out of him; it was a lot like drinking out of a fire hose. Now the challenge will be to absorb it all, and figure out how best to use it in the documentary.” Taki Telonidis
The Western Folklife Center’s Media Producer Taki Telonidis and his production team recently returned from a 2-week shoot on the Blackfeet reservation in northern Montana for the documentary Healing the Warrior’s Heart, a public television special that presents a Native American perspective on both the soldier’s and the veteran’s experience. The program reveals the central role that military service plays in Native life and explores the spiritual traditions that help returning American Indian soldiers reintegrate into society and cleanse themselves of war. In addition to Taki, the production team includes partnering producer Gary Robinson, videographer Doug Monroe and sound engineer Paul Maritsas. This is Taki’s first blog entry about his experience shooting the film.
“The film shoot on the Blackfeet reservation was an intense experience, and one that served as a reminder of the poverty and tremendous need that exist among Native populations, as well as the power and hope that reside within traditions and spirituality. The Blackfeet Nation is a place where warrior identity is very much alive in our time, even though many current soldiers have lost the connection with the healing traditions practiced by their ancestors. Yet there are others for whom those traditions remain relevant both during their deployment and as they re-enter society.
Vietnam veteran Marvin Weatherwax presents an eagle feather to Martin Connelly.
“We spent a couple of days with one young man named Martin Connelly who recently returned from Afghanistan, was suffering acute symptoms of PTSD, and is now finding relief through ritual and spirituality. It seems that warrior ceremonies at Blackfeet were largely ignored as recently as 15 years ago, but are now re-emerging as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to help soldiers who are having a difficult time when they come home.
“We attended a sweat lodge for two returning veterans (one of whom was Martin), and witnessed an honoring ceremony for them in which an elder veteran/spiritual leader presented them with an eagle feather and warrior name, an important rite of passage for combat veterans.
“We also conducted interviews with two directors at the Veterans’ Administration who’ve been instrumental in establishing Native Healing ceremonies at several VA centers including here in Salt Lake City. They expressed frustration with how slowly the VA system has incorporated Native healing into its programs, and also told us that they’ve documented a decrease in the use of medication by both Native and non-native vets who take part in sweat lodges and other Native ceremonies.
“We did an interview with the head of the Crazy Dog society, who are the keepers of Blackfeet spirituality, and who include many veterans in their ranks. We were able to record some of the preparations for their annual Sundance or Okan.
Three horses and a mule
“In strategizing about what visuals could best accompany a section that discusses how the healing traditions of today are carried over from warrior history and ceremony that reach back hundreds of years, we decided to do a warrior reenactment with young riders from one of the local ranches on the Blackfeet reservation. After rain forced us to postpone the reenactment twice, the weather cooperated on the third day and we were able to shoot a very nice sequence of warriors going off and returning from war. Incidentally, this reenactment was organized by a veteran of Desert Storm and the 2nd Iraq war who was given the title of War Chief after his return home.
A scene from the Blackfeet warrior reenactment
“We came home from our trip with more than a dozen interviews, and well over 1,000 video clips which we are now labeling and organizing. Right now the thought of boiling down this mountain of video into a coherent story seems daunting, but most big projects feel that way in the early stages of editing.”
Healing the Warrior’s Heart is a production of the Western Folklife Center in collaboration with Tribal Eye Productions and KUED Channel 7, Salt Lake City’s PBS affiliate. The program will premiere in 2014. You can support this project with a stakeholder donation to Western Folklife Center Media Programs.
The intrepid crew scans the horizon: Paul Maritsas (Sound), Taki Telonidis, Gary Robinson (Partnering Producer), Doug Monroe (Director of Photography)
By Hal Cannon, Western Folklife Center Founding Director
George Gund III. Photo by Robert Davis.
George Gund III, friend and longtime supporter of the Western Folklife Center, passed away January 15 in Palm Springs, California, where he had been suffering from stomach cancer. He will be missed.
George was a great friend to many of us and it is fair to say that without his support there would not be a Western Folklife Center today. In 2013 the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is such a well-known and beloved event that it seems as it if it has always been here. Things were different in 1984 when we were out trying to raise funds to start it. We approached many of the corporate sponsors behind rodeo and other cowboy events and virtually all of them laughed us out of the room at the idea of cowboys reciting poetry. Individual supporters were no easier to find. George came forward as the only individual contributor that first year and wrote a check. He saw the promise of the idea and was willing to take a chance.
He joined our Board of Trustees in 1986, making him the longest-tenured board member in the organization. In recent years his son, George Gund IV (Crunchy), joined the board as well. For many years George hosted legendary board retreats at his ranch in Lee, Nevada, or at one of his homes in Palm Springs and on Stuart Island in the San Juan Islands. When the Western Folklife Center had the opportunity to purchase the old Pioneer Hotel out of bankruptcy, George bought the building on our behalf. In recognition of all he did to create a home for the organization, we named the G Three Bar Theater after his brand.
Today, there have been articles published about George all over the country. In Cleveland, his hometown, he is being remembered as former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and as a patron of the arts. In the Bay Area, his adopted home, he is being remembered as a founder of the San Francisco Film Festival and the professional hockey team, the San Jose Sharks. In most articles people talk about his world-class eyebrows, his unconventional ways, his Bohemian nature. But what all these various articles prove is how wide his interests were, how many friends he had, and how generously he supported the things and the people he loved.
George Gund III with William Matthews at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. By Sue Rosoff.
George helped several cities become better places. Here in Elko we know yet another aspect of George that few of his urban friends had the chance to experience. He was an avid rancher and attended the Nevada Cattlemen’s meetings each year. He was always interested in cowboy traditions but he also wanted to know the latest about breeds and new ways of grazing. George was a horticulturalist. He loved taking people to his gardens in Palm Springs and picking exotic citrus fruits as they strolled the grounds. He had an extraordinary eye for art. His collections of Asian arts, Northwest Indian wood carvings, and western drawings and paintings are all unique. He did not buy art for investment. He collected art that he loved.
George loved ordinary people from bellhops to hockey-playing kids to young filmmakers. He was deferential to everyone. Often people had no idea of his wealth. He did not put on airs. He loved cowboys and ranch people and was involved from the beginning in the Folklife Center’s attempts at ”grass roots diplomacy” through international cultural exchanges with ranching people around the world. He not only funded some of these efforts but acted as photographer and friend during fieldwork documenting Australian drovers and South American gauchos.
It seems that most people who knew George have at least a few stories about him. Every time you were with him, the occasion turned into an adventure. Usually he didn’t initiate the adventure so much as bring it out of those who are adventurous at heart. I’d like to tell a couple of personal stories about George. The first is mine; the second is from my dear wife Teresa who now serves as a Trustee of the Western Folklife Center.
When I was traveling to Australia to find bush poets to bring to the Gathering, George offered to take me Down Under on his plane. Just getting off the ground was an adventure but finally we got underway.
After a long day of flying over the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye could see, George told the pilots we would land at the Marshall Islands for a night of rest and refueling. We landed on the atoll island of Majuro, and the next morning, on our way back to the airfield from our hotel, we made a quick visit to the village museum. We got to talking with the woman at the desk who had lived on the Islands for many years and learned that she was originally from my hometown of Salt Lake City. She grew up in a neighborhood where I had gone to a yard sale just the day before. When I told her that, she looked at me point blank and asked, “Did you buy my cowboy piano?” Sure enough I had. I was stunned to think the world could be so small. I glanced at George to read his reaction but he didn’t even twitch one of his voluminous eyebrows. Later I asked him why he didn’t seem surprised. I realized in his answer that George was constantly running into people he knew all over the world. This coincidence didn’t seem out of the ordinary. George’s world was a small world. By the way, that cowboy piano that I purchased those many years ago has been donated to the Western Folklife Center and can be heard every year at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the Pioneer Saloon under the great care of pianist Dave Bourne.
This from Teresa: “For our honeymoon, George offered Hal and me his cabin on Stuart Island. He met us at Dutch Harbor to take us over to Stuart on his needle-nose yacht, the Lambada. It was the day of the Russian coup and the San Jose Sharks had just brought a player over. The player’s family was still in Russia and George was terribly worried that they would not be able to get out. As we headed back to Stuart Island, George was talking on his satellite phone to Russia, but being George, he was also fishing, and he caught a big salmon. I remember him on the nose of the Lambada, trying to juggle the phone and the fish and the international conversation… Oh, there are so many more stories, and all of them, at their heart, revolve around his great spirit and generosity and concern for others. I just can’t imagine the world without him.”
George was one of the most original people Teresa and I have ever met. We feel a great sense of loss at his passing. Our hearts go out to his family and our love to all those who loved George.
Please share your own stories and memories of George in the comment section of this blog.
The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to one of several charities, including the Western Folklife Center. To facilitate such contributions we have established the George Gund III Memorial Fund. If you wish to make a memorial donation in George’s honor, please send it to: George Gund III Memorial Fund, Western Folklife Center, 501 Railroad Street, Elko, NV 89801, or call Linda Carter at 775 738-7508, ext. 222.
Yesterday, at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Luc Gerber of Luciano’s restaurant in Elko taught about 15 men and women the secrets of ravioli-making from start to finish.
The dough: flour flew as the group went about mixing and rolling the dough. Then it was left to set. A layer of flour thicker than the current snowfall in Elko settled on everyone in the kitchen.
Meanwhile the group created two types of fillings—a crab filling and a sausage and mushroom filling—both with a ricotta cheese base. Garlic was smashed and herbs chopped and added to their respective bowls.
The Sauce: tomatoes were cut and basil chopped. More garlic was smashed. The group cooked up two sauces, one from fresh tomatoes and one from canned stewed whole tomatoes.
The assemblage: the real fun of putting together the ravioli was assembling the parts. More flour flew, but alas, the group was short of rolling pins. In fact there was only one. So they improvised, rolling with bottles of 7-up, hot sauce, beer and even an empty carafe. They each took a turn on the pasta maker, which presses the dough thin through a cranking system much like an old-fashioned bed sheet press. Scoops of filling were spooned onto the rolled dough. Some had more success topping off, sealing and cutting the raviolis than others.
The boil: fresh pasta does not need to boil for very long. About 3 minutes after the pasta hits the water, it floats to the top, ready to eat. But not quite…first it needs some tomato sauce.
The salad: the meal was rounded off with a caesar salad made with romaine lettuce and a dressing consisting of ingredients such as olive oil, mayonnaise, garlic, vinegar, some artichoke hearts and seasoning.
The meal: gulp…not a single boiled ravioli left uneaten.
The first act of the 28th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering started today (though the event officially kicks off tomorrow, Jan. 30) with a workshop in rawhide braiding. Doug Groves, a highly respected braider in the Great Basin, who won the 2009 Nevada Governor’s Arts Award, is teaching the class as he has for the last several years at the Gathering.
In this workshop students are learning all aspects of rawhide braiding from the harvest of a suitable cowhide through the string-making process, to the finished product—a set of rawhide hobbles. Doug is being assisted by accomplished braiders Grant Groves and Charly Liesen along with other guest artists.
If you are in Elko, you should stop by the Convention Center the next few days and see how these braiders are progressing in their work. The class lasts four days. Other workshops this week include hatmaking, leather carving, fiddling, blogging, Southwest cooking, Italian cooking, and dancing. There are still spots available in most of these workshops so come join us!
By Hal Cannon, Western Folklife Center Founding Director
Barre Toelken is one of my great heroes. It’s more than the fact that he’s an esteemed folklorist who younger folklorists look up to. It’s more than his wonderful books on folklore, or the hundreds of songs he knows. It’s really the way he conducts his life with courage and individuality that makes him a hero.
We had been friendly and sung together, mostly at the yearly Fife Folklore Conference at Utah State University. When I began working in radio I asked to interview him. We ended up having a good conversation and over the years I’ve gone back to him several times for interviews on a variety of subjects.
A few years ago he asked me if I wanted to travel to Navajo country to visit his family. I began to see another side of Barre as I watched the way he worked with the Yellowman’s, helping them plow through the bureaucracy to make claims for the deaths of their men from cancer after working in uranium mines in southeastern Utah in the 50s.
As he conversed in Navajo I realized he was not just a folklorist, curious about exotic traditions that were far from what he grew up with. With time, he had become a trusted keeper of the family history, a respected elder. As a non-Indian who married into a large extended Navajo family it was not an easy position to be in. However, from my vantage he has always acted in the best interests of his kin. For instance he made a courageous choice to return recordings of their stories when he could not be assured the tape would not be used in ways that went against Navajo spiritual codes. With this decision he took heat from archivists and other scholars.
By the end of that trip to the Navajo Nation, Barre and I became true friends. In subsequent visits I have learned a lot about this man that goes way beyond teacher and scholar. Besides speaking Navajo, Barre is a scholar of German folklore. During the Cold War, I learned Barre was part of a group who helped dissident scholars escape eastern block countries. This was not all letter writing and meetings, it included midnight boat rides and escapades as thrilling as any spy novel.
When Barre suffered a massive stroke in 2002 he was hospitalized two blocks away from my home in Salt Lake City. His home is 90 miles away in Logan, and I was close by. Over those weeks I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with Barre as he began to discover what had gone wrong in the stroke, and started the long and arduous road back to a useful life. It was apparent from the beginning that he’d lost the use of his right arm. I remember, when he began feeling better I brought a guitar to his room, and while he made the chords with his left hand I strummed with my right. He remembered all the chords and we got a good laugh out of our coordinated effort. Shortly after that day, a group of his Logan friends came to visit and cajoled him into singing. It was a tough moment since so many words were tangled up in his brain; however, it proved to be good exercise as he began to find new routes in his brain for lost words.
Barre and Miko Toelken singing with friends at the Toelken home.
I had no idea at the time that a group was forming that would stick with Barre to help bring back his songs. Some of the faces have changed over the years but those sessions of singing old folk songs and sea shanties still goes on in Barre and Miko’s living room. For everyone involved it has been an incredibly rewarding ten years of a grounding in music, each week, rain or shine.
LISTEN to Barre’s singing group.
This past summer I visited Barre to interview him specifically about the experience of his stroke. I returned and recorded a session of music with the group a few weeks later. The short “What’s in a Song” feature Taki Telonidis and I produced for NPR represents a small amount of the material collected. I hope to continue to interview Barre, and even though he is getting older and his rehabilitation is slowing, his mind and heart are still strong as ever. I value Barre Toelken’s friendship.
Poet Paul Zarzyski’s unconventional style has no-doubt influenced the trajectory of cowboy poetry. Before his first performance at the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1987, cowboy poetry rhymed. These days, poets are just as likely to write in free verse as they are to employ the traditional rhyme and meter. Paul has continued to push the envelope over the years with his subject matter, his recordings of poetry backed by jazz music, and the lyrics he has written for and with his musician friends. Now he has done it again with his new book 51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview. Darcy Minter, Western Folklife Center Communications Director, recently interviewed Paul about his book.
DM:I’m a little intimidated to interview you since you’ve already asked yourself all the questions you always wanted to be asked. You didn’t leave much for the rest of us! As someone who has wrangled you into participating in many bad interviews with the news media, I will apologize in advance for my questions… Let’s start with the unusual format of this book. You’ve published a book that doesn’t fit neatly in any category on any bookstore shelf. It’s poetry, it’s song lyrics and it’s memoir (sort of). We’ve learned to expect the unusual from you. Were you trying to push the envelope with this format?
PZ: I honestly don’t recall that as my primary intention. I realized early-on, obviously, that the format is somewhat of an anomaly and I must’ve considered for an instant that it might present difficulties for readers who prefer their freezer fowl traditionally packaged and labeled: 1 Turkey, 1 Duck, 1 Chicken, as opposed to 1 Turducken. I guess I saw the poetry/lyric/prose interactions between the same covers as an artistic challenge I was itching to encounter. It cost me my first publisher, a dear friend of purt-near 40 years, who stuck with me through a number of permutations and/or edits until the prose, the Self-Interview, began to drift further and further toward memoir, which he deemed way off kilter from the original conception, which, if I remember correctly, focused almost entirely on my personal approach to the page, on the writing process. The “divorce” broke my heart, and almost broke my spirit, to boot. I seriously thought about shit-canning the project altogether. At one point, my friend suggested we drop the lyrics and interview and “simply” publish the poems. It made sense—too much sense. That’s when the enigmatic, anarchistic, iconoclastic, pugnacious, EYE-talian cells of my tenacious make-up kicked-in and thus I decided to bring my vision to fruition, publisher or no frickin’ publisher, audience or no frickin’ audience. IfI was trying to push the envelope, it was the envelope addressed solely to Paul Leonard Zarzyski. I was on the fight— “doing roadwork in the boneyard, shadow boxing my own stone—my epitaph reads DoOr Die, either way, I’m on my own,” to summon up a metaphor from one of the lyrics in 51. I’d already lost my Dad and my dear poet-friend Quinton Duval, and was on the brink of also losing Mom and another dear poet-friend Trish Pedroia. I was devastated and pissed-off, both— looking for a pushing match with the envelope, with myself. All to say, “it” was a lot more complicated and/or convoluted than simply deciding to foist an unorthodox format onto the reading public. Maybe you can recommend a good shrink to help sort this all out?
DM:I am going to concentrate many of my questions on your self-interview if that’s okay with you. Can you talk about the experience of writing prose after focusing for so many years on poetry?
PZ: I suppose it was a bit akin to guitar maestros Eric Clapton or Rich O’Brien deciding in their late fifties to take up the accordion? Not, mind you, that I’m anointing myself the Clapton of Poetry. Rather, merely to suggest the difficulties I encountered. I mean, paragraphs are nowhere near jagged enough on the right, you know? On the flip side, if someone parsed my poems, I’m bettin’ they’d discover that most are written in complete subject-predicate sentences. I vaguely recall teaching, between rodeos, technical writing to forestry students back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I think a few of the rules of good prosemanship resurfaced out of the muck and mire of my classroom gray matter past. I refused, for better or worse, however, to let go of the impasto, musical diction I am so fond of when coaxing my poems to sing, to roar, to wail, to howl, to make a lot of “noise,” as my mentor Dick Hugo once referred to his own affections for the ring and ricochet of lingo, the symphonics of the English language. My ultimate editor for 51, Allen Jones of Bangtail Press, did his best to hot-shot me away from my poetic addictions in the Self-Interview— thank goodness, with at least a modicum of success, in spite of my fighting him every syllable of the way. If readers appreciate my prose in this collection, they have not me, but Allen, to thank for it. He deserves some major editorial award for the efforts he invested into bringing 51out of the shadows and into the light. Hell, he likely could teach Clapton to play the accordion!
DM: Why the aversion to paragraph breaks?
PZ: Because the pauses screw with my belief that the strongest, most honest, interview responses are derived via stream-of-consciousness approaches to an answer, which, in turn, allows the interviewee to eventually discover and then to address the question that the interviewer should’ve asked in the first place, but could not, because he or she seldom, if ever, knows enough about the interviewee’s psyche to even begin to scratch the surface, when indeed the mission of such exchanges, in my opinion, is to “mine”—with dynamite if need be—the heart and mind and maybe even the very soul of said interviewee. Otherwise, why even bother? Ninety-nine per cent of the interviews you read are insipid drivel, filled with vapid self-aggrandizing pap, in no small part because the questions posed are so inane, likely a repercussion of—and I’m going to be gracious here—assignment and deadline constraints, not to even mention the need to spoon-feed a more-often-than-not lazy readership (there goes my graciousness up in smoke, ‘ey?). Nobody understands this better than Bob Dylan, who’s well-known for his emasculations of journalists. Simply, I use words like timbers and ropes and stones from which I build the bridges over bottomless crevasses, across flaming, seething molten lavas flows, so I can explore and discover what’s on the other side, what’s outthere. Paragraph breaks—in this case, anyway— compromised the architectural soundness of the structures facilitating my journeys of “crossing over.”
Photo by Barry Hautala
DM:Did you choose to interview yourself because you wanted to be more direct than you could be in a poem?
PZ: Very good question. So now I suppose you’ll expect me to first admit here that you might be one of those rare interviewers who can bust through, who can frack the hardpan? Okay, maybe you are. Some of my poems, especially in 51 are pretty damn direct. I believe the Self-Interview allowed me to pose questions that, for whatever reasons, I’ve never—at least, not to date—grappled with in my poetry. I’m guessing that the prose did not, however, prompt me toward a greater “directness” than have my poems. Most definitely different conflicts, different “destinations of resolution.” As well as different “bridge trajectories”—paths of both least, and most, resistance—leading to those answers or epiphanies or revelations on the other side? That mind-doctor you recommended earlier? What was her name and phone number again?
DM:You say that writing song lyrics expanded your creative vistas. What about writing prose?
PZ: I compliment you and then what do you go and do—get redundant on me. Just kidding. The accordion can take you to Carnival Cruise places that the guitar would be embarrassed to include on its exotic galactic tour. Nevertheless, most all fresh landscapes and skyscapes are purt-near equally welcomed in the pursuit of new creative vistas. I reveled immensely in the varying cadences inherent in prose. You got your paragraph (I did construct a few of the boogers, contrary to your observations), you got your stanza, you got your verse, chorus, bridge. They all dance a little differently to their own unique music, which, once you get tapped off, expands your writerly maps, or atlases, or star charts of the ol’ Cowpoke Cosmos, where, as I say in 51, “creativity rhymes with Infinity.” Oh, and by the way, I’m half Polish and half Italian. My very first music was likely a polka. I love the accordion. So much so that I keep a Horner case, filled with Guinness and expensive top-shelf microbrew porters, in my brewski refrigerator—it’s the only sure-bet way I can keep visiting musician friends, David Wilkie in particular, from locating and drinking all my “barley soup.” Dave wouldn’t be caught dead exhibiting curiosity for the contents of an accordion case.
DM:Your self interview exposes your feelings on so many issues: racism, homophobia, politics, religion, spirituality, art, writing, music, war, friendship, animals…and the list goes on. It has a confessional quality and as I read it I felt like you were purging yourself in some way. Do you feel relieved that you have said your peace? Did a feeling of being misunderstood prompt you to write it?
PZ: Wasn’t that the refrain of an Eric Burton and The Animals hit? “Oh Lord, don’t let me be mis-under-stood…?” Yes, I think I do feel a sense of relief to have laid my hole-cards face-up on the felt, so to speak. And, since you allude to that ridiculous catholic sacrament I once partook in, maybe the Self-Interview offers a bit of a between-the-lines flashback : “bless me father for I have sinned, it’s been 38 years and 51 days since my last confession….” More to the point of your inquiry, after a performance in Monterey years ago, an elderly rancher approached me and, in the midst of touting recent Alaska legislation allowing wolves to be shot from planes, said “I really liked your poem “Wolf Traps on the Welcome Mat,” the title piece to one of my poetry books, which is actually titled “Wolf Tracks on the Welcome Mat.” The poem—if it’s working as I believe it works—offers an open-ended view of the extremely contentious issue of wolf reintroduction in the ranching west. I talk a bit about audience in 51—how they often see and hear what they expect and need to see and hear, how they so often need to believe that you think and act exactly as they do. Why else would you dress pretty much exactly the same as they do—hat, boots, jeans, etc. when we’re talking the cowboy poetry and music genre? In bucking all stereotypical perceptions and expectations, I’d much prefer to be regarded as not only an iconoclast, but an extraterrestrial iconoclast. E.T. in a beaver lid. Don’t take me wrong—it’s an honor of immense proportions to be thought worthy of inclusion in what Buck Ramsey dubbed The Cowboy Tribe. I truly doubt, however, that Buck would have ever considered conformity as an attribute, a membership prerequisite. 51 is the most honest book I could ever write, and honesty is a cowboy virtue of utmost magnitude. I can live and die with that declaration in my head and heart. No retractions, no regrets. Although I realize full well that many of my philosophies are counter to what many consider “the cowboy code.”
DM:What role did the death of your father play in your need to write all this down? Had you finished the book before your Mom passed away? Did she have a chance to read it?
Paul and his Dad
PZ: Without a doubt, Dad’s death provided the bulk of the impetus behind my frantic need to flesh out the Self-Interview. At times, my feelings of vulnerability, of mortality, were so prominent, minute-to-minute, breath-to-breath, that I feared leaving the daily work on the book here at home in order to attend festivals, to do gigs. (What if I didn’t make it back?) I remember 12-hour shifts at the desk. I remember total emotional and physical and spiritual exhaustion. In my younger years, a friend and I skidded 35-foot house logs down mountainsides steep as a cow’s face with a magnificent Clydesdale named Tom, then loaded and unloaded them by hand on a trailer. John Henry with his spike hammer against the steam-drivin’ machine. Sweat and muscle imbued with the sinew of youth, dawn to dusk. Mere child’s play compared to the shifts I put in hammering out those Self-Interview stories. All in honor of, in tribute to, Dad’s blue-collar passions. (“Once you start a job, always finish it; if you’re going to do a job, do it right or don’t do it at all.”)
Listen to Paul recite “Words Growing Wild in the Woods”
I remember breaking down often into tears I had a hell of a time stanching. Was doing a lot of the editing on the computer rather than with the Smith-Corona and couldn’t read the screen during many of the most poignant episodes I so furiously was trying to flesh out. I remember moments during which I felt possessed. And then, in the torment and toil of it all, Mom died—August 22, 2010. I had been flying and driving back and forth to my home ground in Hurley, Wisconsin to monitor her caretaking activities by a troupe of angelic women I dubbed Team Delia. The mission was to keep her in her home, despite her affliction with mild dementia. We’d spent a magnificent 10-12 days together in early July—lots of stories, lots of laughter. She died as a result of a massive stroke, just 3 months shy of her 90th birthday. My friend, Quinton Duval, had passed in May, and then Trish Pedroia in November. I felt under siege. It occurs to me right this instant that I actually might’ve been using the writing, the vow to finish 51, as a life buoy. I’d written the dedication shortly after Dad’s passing. It begins, “In loving memory of Leonard John Zarzyski—November 20, 1925 to October 10, 2008….” I was already so deeply steeped in my mother’s well-being—she’d been together with Dad in the same house for over 61 years—that I subconsciously wrote the date of her birth, November 20th, instead of my dad’s, November 5th. It remained undetected through multiple edits. Serendipitously, dear friend, Buzzy Vick, caught the “error” 5 months after the book came out. Buzzy’s birthday is November 20th, and during a conversation she remarked, “I didn’t know I shared a birthday with both your Mom and your Dad.” I hope I’ve answered the first two facets of your question. As for the last, no, Mom didn’t live long enough to see the printed book. Allen, my editor, and I decided it would alter the tenor of a good portion of the Self-Interview to include mention of Mom’s death, that it would dictate a major rewriting effort, especially in light of our publication deadline goal. I did read finished manuscript passages to her at the kitchen table during my July visit prior to her death. She was fascinated by the storytelling. I can picture her sitting in her chair on the front porch smiling for hours at the photos of her on the front and back covers. Oh, Darcy, now look what you’ve gone and done—here go the waterworks again.
Paul's car with "Delia Z" plates (nope, not his '71 Monte Carlo).
DM:Just scratchin’—or maybe diggin’ is a better word—at the surface Paul…You include many of your favorite quotes in the interview. For example, you quote African American poet Lucille Clifton: “I’m not here to comfort the afflicted, but rather to afflict the comfortable.” Why have you taken on this role?
Paul behind the chutes
PZ: Because to have shirked taking on the role—to quote one of my favorite cowboy performers, Ranger Doug of Riders In The Sky— “might’ve been the easy way, but it would not have been THE COWBOY WAY!” In all seriousness, I honestly do not know the answer to your difficult observation. Are you certain I have embraced the role? If so, it wasn’t calculated, or even welcomed. Moreover, I choose to believe that I am not the only so-called cowboy poet or musician who fulfills the role of “afflicter.” You know who they are. I’m not going to name names here and risk loss of friendship or downright litigation or the likelihood that I’ll be slipped a Mickey Finn at the Pioneer in Elko this coming February. When I rodeo’d, I seldom, if ever, turned a horse out because I was too frightened to get on him or, in the case of Kesler’s notorious mare Three Bars, her. I might not have spurred many of the good ones to the 8-second tooter, but I forked most everything I drew. “Ladies and Gentleman, out of chute number 6, the Maverick Hat chute, Paul Zarzyski on the triple-rank bronc, Afflict-The-Comfortable.”
DM:You say you deplore artistic complacency — playing it safe for an audience. Do you think your popularity with cowboy poetry audiences is because you don’t play it safe, or somehow in spite of it?
PZ: I’d like to believe it’s the former. Most of the rodeo roughstock twisters who I idolized, as well as most of the writers whose work and lives I admire, dance the dance of reckless abandon. As difficult as it’s become in these conservative, theocratic cowboy-west times, I’d still like to think there’s a few kindred spirits out there in audienceville who’d rather hang with Paladin than with, say, Gene Autry. I hope that’s not an unfair metaphor—and certainly not one intended to disrespect Mr. Autry, who I watched religiously as a kid in the ‘50s. To couch it in similar terms, whoever wrote the scripts, and/or short stories or novels informing the scripts to the HBO series Deadwood, or No Country for Old Men, or The Unforgiven, or PatGarrett and Billy the Kid, or Hud, or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or The Grey Fox, or The Last Picture Show, or Lonely Are The Brave, or Junior Bonner, or The Wild Bunch, or ( yes, damn it) Brokeback Mountain, or J.W. Coop, or RanchoDeluxe or The Missouri Breaks or…well, you get the picture—these are the writers who subscribe to the same cowboy-west sensibilities I embrace. Nothing “safe” about the wild-west characters, fictitious or not, in those stories, the key modifier here being “wild,” not “tamed” or “domesticated” or “fenced-in and broke.” I’ll take a Sam Peckinpah-directed film anyday over most any other western. And Paladin was my kind of Mafioso-hitman “cowboy poet.” In fact, Paladin had to be Italian.
DM:This book also feels like a tribute to the people in your life who have influenced you and enriched your life personally and professionally. Was that a conscious decision or did it just bubble up through the process?
PZ: A little of both. A number of years ago, in a piece I wrote for the Big Sky Journal, I took the liberty to revise that old saw, “you are what you eat,” to “you are who you meet.” I’ve been fortunate to know this truth for decades, and more fortunate yet to have met and have been befriended by hundreds of genuine-article, magnanimous beings from so many diverse species aboard this glorious orb. Both editor-friends of 51—the one who abandoned me and the one who stuck with me—admonished me for the excessive mentioning of names that would disinterest the average reader. I ignored the advice altogether. I only wish that I’d have insisted on the inclusion of several additional pages inside the back cover, upon which I could have more fully completed the list of all my soulful coaches, gurus, cheerleaders, mentors, friends—my parents, as I emphasize over and over in the book, the most soulful influences of all. Without all these “wilderness guides” through 60 years of life in this dimension, I’m little more than a 5-foot 10-inch high pile of flesh and blood and bone.
DM:This seems like the ultimate cowboy book to me. Not in its subject matter, but in its bravado, its grit and passion and brutal honesty. It’s real and it’s authentic. — cowboy qualities that we value. You’ve already alluded to this but I think it bears repeating (I’m being redundant again, but I’m the interviewer here.). Can you elaborate?
PZ: I appreciate your vote of confidence. Unfortunately, I think both of us could name dozens of cowboy poetry and music aficionados who’d burn 51 and not because they’re in need of the BTUs, either. Thanks also for agreeing with my earlier take on “honesty.” Brutal honesty, indeed—perfect modifier, Darcy. As to this book being worthy of the trees killed to provide the paper it’s printed on, that’s the readers call, not mine, and I haven’t heard a whole lot of response since the book was released back in March. That longstanding adage or aphorism, “silence can be deafening (to a writer)” still holds true. On the flip side, I found this message on my October 19th voice mail:
“Paul, this is your old buddy that used to fix your boots, your old Packer buddy. I just finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in my life. And I want to congratulate you and thank you very much.”
I had to look at the caller I.D. to finally figure out who he was—hadn’t seen him in a long while and never knew his last name, in fact. Just Larry, who worked as a boot repairman years back at Broken Arrow Saddlery here in Great Falls. A fellow Green Bay Packer fan. I’d have never pegged him as a reader of anything other than, say, “Western Horseman Magazine.” I returned his call:
“Larry—Paul Zarzyski. Whose book did you read? I’ll pick up a copy and read it, too.”
“Yours!51,” he replied.
“How’d you find out about it? Not even the CIA knows it’s in print.”
“I saw a little mention of it in Montana Magazine,” he said. “So I drove over to Hastings, but they’d never heard of you. So I tried Barnes & Noble and sure enough, they could order it for me. They called me when it came in, but by the time I went to pick it up that afternoon, some new clerk had already sold it to another customer who spied it behind the counter, and so they had to order me another copy.”
“I didn’t figure you for a poetry fan,” I said, although I was far more curious how he rolled with the punches of the somewhat ethereal—at times, perhaps, esoteric—philosophical stances of the Self-Interview.
“Oh, yes,’ Larry responded, ‘poetry’s damn important in this world.”
I’d have bet my beloved Smith-Corona Silent-Super, my riggin’ sack, my ‘71 viper-red Monte Carlo, my vintage cowboy necktie collection—my most prized possessions—that my long-lost boot repairman friend, Larry, would not have made it through 8 of the 250+ pages of 51, let alone have read the entire book and then have responded as he so graciously did. Believe me when I tell you, Darcy, that Larry’s phone message, along with our follow-up conversation means more to me than a 5-star review in some high-falutin literary publication. What a critical reminder of the paramount importance of a single keen-hearted reader. Give me 7 more—on second thought, make it 50?—just like him and you can keep your Pulitzer Prize. Moreover, what a well-timed lesson in humility—I’m just as guilty of the sin of stereotyping others as those audience members I indicted earlier in this interview. Speaking of which, thanks (I think?) for the opportunity, the privilege, of addressing your savvy questions. But now we’ll have to close, so I can continue on my eternal journey of repentance.
There are moments at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering that one never forgets. I had such a moment last night.
I was backstage in the Convention Center Auditorium in the show called “This is My Home,” featuring Waddie Mitchell, Andy Hedges and Andy Wilkinson, and Corb Lund & The Hurtin’ Albertans. Waddie had finished his set and Andy and Andy had played a few songs when Andy Wilkinson left the stage so the younger Andy could recite a poem. I listened, wholly transfixed, as Andy recited “Mining the Mother Lode,” a poem written by Andy Wilkinson lamenting the degradation of the aquifer in the Llano Estacado in the southern panhandle of Texas.
Reminiscent of arguably the most important cowboy poem ever written—”Anthem,” by the late Texas poet Buck Ramsey—”Mining the Mother Lode” is a plea to anyone who will listen to protect the mother-lode aquifer. It is a poem of anger and loss, with an urgent message for us to pay attention while we still have a chance to save the aquifer and its life-giving water. Andy Hedges’ recitation is beautiful and heartfelt. Here’s the last stanza:
“What will we do with this gift of the mother-lode?
Pray that the poets and the dreamers remember it,
pray that the guardians hold it in stewardship,
pray that we honor it, pray that we husband it,
pray for the tribe of the mother-lode aquifer,
pray for the water, the sweet Ogallala lake,
nourishing all who tread lightly and carefully,
lightly and carefully, lightly and carefully.”
You simply MUST listen to this poem. You can find it on our cybercast. Scroll down to “This is My Home,” Friday, January 28 at 6:30 pm. The poem starts about 31 minutes and 53 seconds into the show (the rest of the show is awesome too). Bring some tissue.
Andy and Andy tell me that they have recorded the poem on their next album, which comes out in a couple of months. Stay tuned to their My Space page.
Fifth year stage managing at the Gathering, evidently just long enough to start remembering names and faces, and putting them together in the right combinations. I rolled in on the train on Wednesday night, and wisely stopped at the Folklike Center Saloon before heading on to bed. The crowd was peppered with cowfolk who I knew, and it really did feel like a homecoming. Such high spirits at the Gathering, and not just from the spirits.
I made my rounds through the crowd, but did pack myself off to bed at a pretty reasonable time. Sensible. The Gathering is a marathon, not a sprint, after all.
I won’t recount all the to-ing and fro-ing from the first day – backstage might be interesting a lot of the time, but there’s also a lot of sitting and waiting, going in search of a trash can or some tape, then checking the clock and sitting some more.
I had the pleasure to be backstage for Judy Blunt’s keynote speech this morning. A super-simple gig for a stage manager – no set changes, no ‘wrap it up’ handwaving, no greater organizing to be looked after than just “you’re next, you’re up.” But it was a distinct pleasure to get to hear what Judy had to say.
She hit on a familiar mournful tone of loss for some of the older ways of western livestock culture. But just at the moment that I was starting to wonder if the first Gatherings were as focused on the loss of the past, Judy tossed a hard turn into her address and reminded us how grateful a lot of folks have been for much of the progress of the last hundred years, and reminded us to look forward to how we can preserve the spirit & passion of this culture even amid all the changes. She staked her opinions deep and declared them clearly. Afterwards, she commented that she was afraid she’d be met by pitchforks and torches, but I heard many more comments like Paul Zarzyski’s, that Judy’s speech had made him cry into his mustache.
I had the middle of my day free, so I wandered doing a few regular Elko things. Picking up some boot polish, eating a so-so sandwich, pressing on further to a great cup of coffee, impulsively buying a mouth harp.
As the afternoon arrived, I headed to my rest-of-the-day gig, stage managing for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s dinner theater show over at the Great Basin College theater.
The tech crew were amazing, as always, and all the volunteers absolutely eager to help. Getting the musicians set up went perfectly, and everybody had what they needed by the scheduled end of the sound check. Perfect.
We got the place set up, the instruments all in place, the levels all set, and the band had time enough to go over a couple tricky spots, then we retreated back stage to wait for the diners to get fed, relocated and re-settled.
The show is amazing, I highly recommend it to anyone who can find the time and a ticket. Jack mostly stuck to the set list, best as he could. But the moment dictates the song it needs, and sometimes concessions must be made. I bet no one out front could even tell that two of those songs the musicians had never played with him before, though.
Much as I unreservedly endorse that show, though, I have to say, wandering in an out of Jack’s backstage monologue was certainly captivating and as entertaining as the music was. I had plenty to keep an eye on all over the theater, but when Jack starts a story, it’s mighty hard to walk away.
I heard bits and pieces about offending Peter Fonda, doing a screen test for Dennis Hopper, making a geisha cry by singing Bob Dylan, and I learned that a clew is the corner of a boat’s sail. Maybe you knew that, but it was news to me. I hated to interrupt, but it’s best if everybody gets to hear how much time there is before the show starts, so I did have to interrupt once in a while.
I have another full day of keeping the shows on the rails tomorrow, so I better not linger too late on the blog. One last thing, though – if you run in to Van Dyke Parks, I strongly recommend you try to get one of his business cards. You’ll be glad for it.
I hope to get a few backstage pics in my wanderings around Elko events tomorrow & hope to get them up with my next post. It can be an eerie half-light world, and surprisingly solitary despite the impending audience interactions.
Have fun out there everybody! More soon!
-Dan, stage manager
The walls of the press room are reverberating with Cajun music. Cowboy poets and Hungarians come and go at will. The aroma of meatballs and merlot wafts in the air. Unusual, for some. Not for Elko.
Those experienced in the ways of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering can be somewhat prepared for what’s in store this week. The tenderfoots (tenderfeet?) will have the benefit of complete and unexpected immersion into the cowboy culture.
Me? I’m a veteran. My parent’s have been forcing me to recite at the Gathering since I was seven. I’ve seen performers from most continents, excluding Antarctica (although I wouldn’t be surprised if Meg somehow recruits talent from the subarctic). Yet in spite of these experiences, each year is always surpassed by the next, without fail.
The Gathering never ceases to amaze me with the talent it brings to Nevada, or its ability to unite cultures under one roof. What is more incredible are the ties these people have, despite living worlds away. Music, song, horsemanship, nature’s boon, hard work. A livelihood based on an openness and freedom not found many places in this day and age. Here, language barriers are defeated with horsehair strings and accordion notes. We may only see these individuals once a year, maybe once a lifetime, but the connections and memories seldom fade.
What do I have planned? Make a few new friends and see a dozen old ones. Learn a few words in Hungarian and dance the zydeco. Partake in the overall camaraderie. In the meantime, I’m off to see Geno Delafose and the French Rockin’ Boogie. Hope to see you there if you’re not here already.
Geno Delafose and his band French Rockin’ Boogie, a cowboy zydeco band from southwest Louisiana, performed at the Gathering for the first time last year. Listen to what he had to say about his experience.
Geno and the band are returning this year and will be playing the Saturday Night Dance, among other performances. We just can’t wait to get out there on the dance floor! Dick and Sandy Sturm hosted zydeco and cajun dances at the Western Folklife Center all summer and part of the fall, so there are lots of Elkoans who are ready to shake their groove “thang.”
It’s that time again… the Western Folklife Center is abuzz with activity. The kids programs are in full swing in the G Three Bar Theater and in the Pioneer Saloon, where the kids are donning their Wrangler bandanas and drinking sarsaparilla at the bar after a morning of leather tooling (imagine 30+ hammers pounding in unison), a musical performance by Merrily Wright, and a tour of the Hungarian exhibition. It’s how we start every Gathering and seeing those school buses out in front of the building really puts us all in the spirit of the event.
It is always amazing to me how this event comes together every year. Every staff member and volunteer has a job to do and everyone puts his or her nose to the grindstone and does whatever it takes to make this event a success. There are challenges and setbacks, victories and meltdowns, but by the time people start arriving in Elko, we will be ready for them—”Come hell or high water!” as my mama used to say.
Throughout this week and next, we will be posting to this blog and sharing our experiences with you. For those of you who are traveling to Elko, we wish you safe travels as we eagerly anticipate your arrival. For those who can’t make it, we will miss you and we encourage you to read this blog, watch the Cybercast on our website, which starts on Wednesday night, and keep an eye out for new guerilla videos on our YouTube channel on Friday and/or Saturday. Every time we post to our blog, we’ll give you a heads up on Facebook so you will know to come and take a look.
And away we go!
Posted by Darcy Minter, Communications Director, Western Folklife Center
After riding horseback for more than 390 miles over the past two weeks, our friend Henry Real Bird is one day’s ride from his final destination at the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. Henry is the Poet Laureate of Montana, and he has traversed the state, visiting small towns and Indian Reservations along his route and distributing books of poetry. In this last installment of our conversations with Henry, he explains how this odyssey has given him a new perspective of his homeland, and of America.
LISTEN to our final interview with Henry.
National Public Radio also interviewed Henry today (July 30, 2010). Visit their website to listen to the NPR story.
Henry Real Bird’s Journey Poem
Henry’s journey across Montana has inspired him to work on a poem that attempts to chronicle the experiences he’s had along the way. Below is audio and a transcript of the first draft of his poem, which he plans to complete once he’s back home at the Crow Agency.
LISTEN to Henry’s Journey Poem
(Early draft with apologies for butchering Crow language spellings and punctuation)
Wind blows free upon the Missouri River, a big river, osh geza, where my life began. There is talk of where it is winter all of the time, woodlands and the lakes, but to move out of the earth lodge, gardens of corn, squash maker, thank you, Aho, to let me stand in this Earth lodge again, happiness beyond words, corn woman in a dream, she appeared, riding Paint through a vast sea of buffalo grass swaying in cool summer wind that blows free along the Missouri River from patches of Sweet Sage, happiness fills my glass, traces of where life has been clipity-clap from crescent moon mix sliver.
Oil boom on land of Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara. Life is full, abundant, flow of US currency greasing the edges of their mouths in no flaw. Eating juneberries routine of no urgency. Trail of the Buffalo turned into a trail between elevators to Cirrhosis Park, along the Missouri.
Sweat lodge with Assiniboine, I am one of the ones with the Breechcloth. Story of good health to give from the Smoker family. Smooth, gentle rolling plains, north below, north star with whitish breaks to noonday sun. Juneberry pie from Chief of Fort Peck Tribe, campfire smoke rising into stars, part of spiritual journey, a tear-wiping ceremony. I saddle each day to a prayer.
Young, beautiful families, Phillips County Fair, sparkle of dreams, America’s dream. Promise land. I remember who I am in the sweat lodge. Wishful thoughts and prayers were given to us to become human beings.
The moon in her struggle to be free tossed and turned and wiggled out of her reflection upon the Milk River. She offered dreams and promises. Lavender twilight of morning catches me easing into the day along edges of Milk’s glacier waters. Complete in peace, Christian song done in sign language, the assimilation.
And, on the other side of Fur Cap Mountain, Little Rocky Mountains, water pollution from mine, no money, water restoration. Who is going to speak for the trout, the water being Mission Creek?
We, the ones with the Breechcloth with relatives from across the sea. America’s people stand together against ills of the world. Glaciers shrink. How much longer can the ice hold Polar Bear? We make a stand, fight for peace.
Sitting Bull’s steps ended free life. Moving lodges follow the trail of the buffalo north of the Missouri River where the wind blows where it may. Chief Joseph, “I will fight no more forever,” haunts and rings into a woeful whisper ending in the cool evening moon shadows of Bear Paw Mountains. Riding Paint through a vast sea of buffalo grass swaying in cool summer wind that blows free along America’s Rivers. From patches of Sweet Sage happiness fills my glass. Traces of where life has been, clippity-clap from crescent moon, mix slivers. May we do our hearts will, to no end, Aho, America the Beautiful.
Me, I’m going to get the horses blessed at Rocky Boy.
TRANSCRIPT OF HENRY REAL BIRD’S INTERVIEW ON JULY 30, 2010
What’s the contrast of your pace and the people that are passing you by on the highway?
Henry Real Bird
Yeah, I just saddle up and I go the pace of my horse and that’s what I take care of. And in the morning when it’s cool I try to trot as much as I can to cover as much country as I can, and then when it heats up I slow down and I take a break. The movement of the horse, and the movement of mother Earth, and the crescent Moon we just came from. That’s when I started out…the crescent Moon on the Missouri River and the Juneberries were just plentiful and to just be eating that while everybody is using the Blackberry or using the phone in an air -conditioned RV pulling a small vehicle, and just cruising down the road. That’s their style and that’s good. But me, I just wanted to go back, and to be able to go slowly and to meet the people and to see the land, yeah.
How many miles have you gone?
Henry Real Bird
I think I’ve gone 395 miles, somewhere around there, because I think they said Rocky Boy’s is about twenty miles away.
So what’s next for you, Henry?
Henry Real Bird
After I do this one here, 300 of my children’s books are being shipped out, and I pick them up and distribute them at a youth rodeo on Rocky Boy, yeah. So that’s what I’ll be doing Monday or Tuesday.
Henry Real Bird
Oh, yeah, I’m lucky. I’m thankful that I’m able to do this. That type of activity that creates the exhaustion to where we can sleep good at night…and to be able to get into…I’ve had some good dreams here. I saw a dream of snow flying here a few days ago. I say that dream to all the people in radio land to where they will reach that day where the first snow fall is, and to be with their loved ones and to go through many of those first snowfalls upon this sacred mother Earth. And so I was able to be given that dream on the road here and I enjoy that, yeah.
Henry, how was the demolition derby, by the way?
Henry Real Bird
The demolition derby was the best. I haven’t seen that since I was a little boy over on Crow Agency. On this one here they changed the rules and they have heats, but back in those days they’d get the infield of the race track and its a free-for-all to the last car standing. But here they have rules and everything else, you know. But it was good. And on that one there, I mean those young families there…beautiful. Women and men with beautiful kids and so full of promise, it made you happy to know that America is so beautiful, so full of dreams. And to put on the best clothes that they have to come out to the fair reminded me of being young. Walking in new boots and new pants going to the Billings Fair, Montana State Fair. So I was able to take in everything there. It was beautiful.
Oh, that’s wonderful. Henry, thank you so much for letting us be a part of your journey and recording this. People have really enjoyed hearing your voice on our blog. It’s really wonderful to be a part of it.
Henry Real Bird
I’m having a beautiful time. Thank you.
Thanks, we’ll talk to you soon. Let us know how it turns out.
Henry Real Bird
Ok, I’ll do that. We’ll see you later.
In the second of our series of conversations with Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird, Western Folklife Center Producer Taki Telonidis called to wish him Happy Birthday and found him in the town of Malta near the banks of the Milk River. Henry has been on the road for nearly two weeks, retracing the travels of his ancestors and giving out books of poetry to people he meets in rural towns and Indian reservations along the way.
TRANSCRIPT OF HENRY REAL BIRD’S INTERVIEW ON JULY 24, 2010
Taki Telonidis A couple days ago you said you were doing this ride in part so you could ride horses like your grandfather and great grandfather did…in the same places. And I’m wondering as you’re doing this, what sort of things are you thinking about? Is your mind taking you back to those days of your grandparents?
Henry Real Bird and Levi Bruce five miles west of Glasgow, Montana, on U.S. Highway 2. Photo by Joseph Terry.
Henry Real Bird Back to those days. Like you get the feeling…not that you have been there before…but to know that your blood has been there two generations before you. Unbelievable! It makes you…it just makes you…you’re so happy you just want to cry sometimes, just because you’re so happy, you know.
Taki Telonidis That’s beautiful. I’ll bet you some poems will come out of this experience.
Henry Real Bird Oh no. I’m doing that. I’m doing that. In fact I’m writing as I go along type of thing in my mind I’m putting it all together. And then in the end I’m going to regroup and finish this thing off maybe in one poem. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I see awful things too…good things and bad things. Just like over in Wolf Point, Montana, I saw a lot of alcoholism there. So that was a depressing sight, but that is there. So I’ll write a little piece in there to show that. Oh I’ve been wanting to use this line which I haven’t been able to use: what have you done to life, or what has life done to you? And then to wander around like that. I”ve had that line painted on my heart for a long time and I haven’t been able to really use it, but I”m going to use it there I think. I’m just working it all out.
Taki Telonidis One last question for you Henry. Today is your birthday and you’re spending it on the banks of the Milk River and you’re 62 now which I think entitles you to reduced admission to National Parks and all sorts of privileges. But does it also make you an elder? Do you consider yourself an elder?
A coffee break by the horse trailer. Photo by Samar Fay.
Henry Real Bird Oh I’m lucky to be an elder, and I appreciate that because of all the things that I have been though, and I’m lucky to be alive and I know that. And I appreciate that. You know they have that saying to where…long, long on the tooth or something like that…
Taki Telonidis Long in the tooth.
Henry Real Bird Yeah long in the tooth, but for us they say when your eye tooth crumbles and your hair is pure white, nobody can outfox you. Nobody can outdo you in thinking. And so for knowledge to turn into wisdom type of thing. I’m nearing that stage in life, type of thing. That’s how we see it, yeah.
Taki Telonidis Henry thank you very much. It’s great to talk with you again, and we’ll touch base with you in a couple of days.
Henry Real Bird Oh yeah, the next couple of days…tomorrow I’m going to stay over in Dodson, and then I’m going to finish off the fair there. So I’ll watch the demolition derby there, then after that I’ll be into Fort Belknap, and from then on I still have to make arrangements for the other end. But everything just falls into place. You just sort of kick your horse into the day and keep on going, and you run into something nice.
Taki Telonidis And the demolition derby sounds like it’ll be a highlight.
Henry Real Bird (laughs) Oh God yeah. Yeah I’m going to watch the demolition derby. I saw a poster here, so I”ll be there for that. And I called ahead over there and they’re going to let me stay over at the fairgrounds. So I’ll have stables and everything for the horses, and no motel or anything…so I’ll put up my tent and slowly drift out into the stars, you know.
Henry Real Bird—cowboy poet, Crow Indian and recently named Poet Laureate of Montana—has embarked on a 415-mile journey on horseback across northwest North Dakota and northern Montana. He is handing out books of poetry to the people he meets along his route, which will take him through Indian country where his grandfather rode a century ago.This is not a press stunt, but rather a demonstration of Henry’s life, culture and poetry: a journey of horse and horseman slowly making their way across a vast ancestral landscape.
Listen to and read short interviews we’re doing with Henry as he progresses from his start at Fort Berthold, North Dakota, to his final destination on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation southwest of Havre, Montana, in early August. Over the next year, the Western Folklife Center will explore rural Montana by surveying traditional artists whose work and way of life provide social commentary that holds lessons for the rest of us. This extensive fieldwork effort will culminate in an hour-long radio broadcast, podcast and an exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum that is made possible through the generosity of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
Listen to our first interview with Henry recorded on July 21, 2010, as he rides along the Missouri River thinking of the juneberry pie that he and his riding partner, Levi Bruce, were gifted the day before.
Transcript of Henry Real Bird’s Interview, July 21, 2010
Hal Cannon Where are you Henry?
Henry Real Bird I’m over here along the Missouri River. I been ridin’ here since Tuesday…so I’ve been on the road about 9 days. And I stayed last night at a town called Fraser.
Hal Cannon Are you on a horse right now?
Henry Real Bird Yeah I’m riding a horse right now along Highway 2 in Montana. What they call High Line.
Hal Cannon Can you describe what you’re looking at right now?
Henry Real Bird Oh gosh, just a vast amount of land…just rolling hills all over to the north, and then on over to the south I’ve got cottonwood trees in the valley floor of the Missouri River, north of the river. Then across the Missouri to the south we’ve got them hills there..the breaks…just beautiful.
Hal Cannon Henry I’m hearing cars just speeding past you. What’s the difference between the way you’re seeing what’s going on and people going 60 miles an hour?
Henry Real Bird Oh yeah. The slow pace..you see more. I saw hills and creeks that I didn’t know existed. I mean I’ve been on this road before but I never paid attention to it but now you see all this beautiful landscape. And uh..I mean this is good traveling here.
Hal Cannon So where did you start out Henry?
Henry Real Bird I started out from the Fort Berthold Indian Revervation. We started out along the Missouri there on the trail of the buffalo, and uh, going through patches of sweet sage, eating juneberries. And I was saying that life cannot get any sweeter than this. To be able to ride a horse for the day and then just eat the juneberries. And when I got over here yesterday, they stopped me on the road and took me over and gave me some juneberry pie. And I had some more again last night and I went over to the sweat lodge over here in Frazer, and prayed. They say the sweat lodge…you use that to remember who you are. But the whole thing is…places where my great grandfather rode over on Fort Berthold and over to Fort Union and then I just wanted to ride a horse right where they rode horses too, along the Missouri. And that’s what I’m doing, and then giving out books of poetry along the way.
Hal Cannon What is the reaction when you hand someone a book of poems?
Henry Real Bird They’re surprised and they just browse through it right there, and they don’t know what to think and so I’m gone by the next day so I don’t know what they think. I just put my name on there and everything else. I just want them to enjoy the thought..enjoy the thought and go for the ride into the feeling whatever it is.
Hal Cannon You were made Poet Laureate of Montana, is this part of what you think your job is as Poet Laureate for the state?
Henry Real Bird You know I took it on like that, because nobody else will ever do this type of thing, you know. Nobody has the guts to just saddle up a horse and just go from town to town just giving out books of poetry and stuff like that. And so I figure that I’m not like everybody else and that’s why I’m the way I am, and so this is just my style of giving back to the people what I have taken from life out here in Montana.
Hal Cannon Henry I admire you.
Henry Real Bird Oh, I don’t know it’s just uh…
Hal Cannon I do, I count you as a good friend. I really appreciate what you do.
Henry Real Bird I appreciate you too because you’ve kept me alive. In the beginning when I didn’t want to live any more, you guys kept me alive and that was alright, you know. And so I feel good today.
Hal Cannon You’ve helped us. You’ve helped keep us alive my friend. So can we call you along the route and ask you how things are going?
Henry Real Bird Yeah, call anytime and wherever I am on the road if I get good reception we can connect.
Hal Cannon Good luck on your journey and we’ll call you in a few days.
Taki Telonidis and Hal Cannon spent a recent evening on the west side of Salt Lake City, Utah, with refugee families preparing to cultivate gardens in an abandoned field. Taki, the Western Folklife Center’s Media Producer, wrote this report of his experience.
Taki Telonidis interviews Ze Min Xiao as gardener Chris walks ahead with Ethiopian leader Michael to view the future garden spot.
It didn’t look like much when we got there one evening last week… just an abandoned field near towering power lines that buzzed and crackled, next to an empty softball field encircled by a chain link fence. This was on the west side of Salt Lake City, and we’d come to witness the first chapter of a story that has the potential to change the lives of dozens of refugee families struggling to make a home in America. This project is part of a “growing” trend that helps refugees capitalize on one of the few transferable skills they bring with them from the third world: farming. Last year, Salt Lake County’s refugee coordinator, Ze Min Xiao (Zee), facilitated a handful of tiny informal garden projects that not only provided refugees with food, but also put them side-by-side with Americans who took interest in the refugees, sprouting friendships and even a few potluck dinners. This year Zee is organizing a more ambitious project: a small training farm that will be managed and tilled by four refugee communities in the city. The short-term goal is to provide these folks with supplemental income, but the longer-term goal is to cultivate a crop of commercial farmers who might one day own and run their own farms.
Community organizer Steve attempts to explain what a 1/4 acre looks like to members of the Ethiopian refugee community.
Hal Cannon and I were excited about this project from the moment we heard about it a couple weeks ago. We’d been looking for a refugee story for several months, and this seemed like a perfect fit given the rural mission of the Western Folklife Center. Plus we’d get to follow the story from its inception, over the course of the summer, to harvest time. So the plan was to meet Zee and two facilitators at the farm site, and look on as they did an orientation for leaders of the four participating refugee communities: Ethiopian, Bhutanese, Burundian and Chin (from Myanmar). We’d parked our car and weren’t sure we were even at the right place until a second car pulled up and a man stepped out with an equally disoriented expression on his face. This was Michael and he was representing the Ethiopian community of Salt Lake. Other cars pulled up and it wasn’t long before about a dozen men and women (representatives as well as some potential gardeners) were surveying the weedy field… looking like a delegation from the United Nations. Zee and her colleagues Chris and Steve did their best to explain the size of the plots, and the plans for preparing and tilling the soil, bringing in a tool shed, building fencing and irrigation, etc. As they spoke, my mind was transforming this fallow field into a verdant utopia where the four communities would work side-by-side sowing the seeds of their future. I imagined our completed radio feature: an inspiring, quintessentially American story of rebirth in the new world.
Zee works to explain how the garden will work for everyone in the four refugee groups.
I snapped out of my daydream when Zee asked if there were any questions, and the group began peppering the organizers with queries. It was clear that some had not understood all the information that was conveyed to them, while others were hoping to accommodate many more families than their plot could support. One man asked if it would be okay to grow medicinal plants he wanted to import from India, while another wanted to raise goats at the site. The questions were handled graciously by Zee, Chris and Steve who promised to explore as many possibilities as they could. It began to dawn on me just how ambitious this project really is. The potential for that utopia is there, but it’s going to take an enormous amount of physical labor, diplomacy and translation to get to the promised land. This is, after all, a mash up of four cultures, each with its own language, leadership style and way of doing things, all trying to create something that must conform to American rules and regulations.
The meeting ended with handshakes and an agreement to meet at the plot in 10 days with volunteers from each community who’d begin work on building rows and pathways for the farm. After Zee left, each delegation broke up into a huddle with the leaders of each group fielding questions from those who didn’t speak English. Hal and I were suddenly surrounded by animated conversations in four languages, as the field slowly turned golden in the evening light. The refugee farm project was officially under way, and I had a sense that there would be many huddles like this one in the coming weeks and months. Once again my mind drifted forward to what this plot of land might look like in two weeks, or two months, and whether this whole experiment would flourish or whither on the vine.
Ethiopian leader poses in front of future garden spot sporting a new tie that everyone loved. No animals were harmed making this tie.
I was brought back to the moment by the sound of a baseball bat hitting a ball. While we’d been engulfed in discussions about the farm, two women’s softball teams had taken the adjacent field and a game was in full swing. I stepped back to take in these contrasting worlds, impossibly different from each other, separated only by a few yards and a simple chain link fence.
P.S. Stay tuned to our blog for occasional updates and photos of the Refugee Farm Project.
Hal Cannon writes about a recent visit to Ella Gant McBride, who was recorded by John Lomax in the 1930s singing with her family in Austin, Texas.
I felt guilty recently as I drove south from Salt Lake City to Santaquin, Utah, to visit Ella Gant McBride. Years ago, Bess Lomax Hawes had told me about the Gant Family. Beth came from a long line of folklorists: her father, John A. Lomax, had recorded rare folk songs from the Gants in the mid-1930s when they all lived in Austin, Texas. The Gants were Mormon, and Bess knew I’d grown up in Utah. She thought I should follow up, but I’d taken my sweet time.
John Lomax recalls visiting the Gants in 1934 on a weekday, late in the morning. It was so quiet he almost left the house. Finally a woman answered the door in her bedclothes. Yawning, she whispered “Last night we all got to singing and dancing. We didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning,” Eight children were still asleep and their mother, Maggie Gant, was staving off the Great Depression the only way she knew how. As Lomax reported in his 1941 book, Our Singing Country, she told him that “the singing kept us so happy, we couldn’t go to sleep.”
Bess remembered meeting the Gants when she was a young girl. While her father recorded the adults in the family’s shanty on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin, Bess and the younger Gant girls, Foy and Ella, hid out under the porch telling stories to each other and listening to the music that drifted down through the floorboards. Mike Seeger, who incorporated songs from these early field recordings into the repertoire of his group, the New Lost City Ramblers, liked to talk about “true vine,” the music that grew organically through family, occupation and community to be passed on through generations and occasionally shared with outsiders who cared enough to search it out. This image, of John Lomax and the rest of the family in the living room singing while the girls whispered and giggled below rooted by their own interests, brings the concept to life.
I played music with Mike just a year ago. He was one of my mentors and is gone now. John Lomax died in 1948, the year I was born. All of John Lomax’s children have passed on including Bess. And of all the Gant family that Lomax recorded, Ella is the only one left, sitting in a place called the Latter Day Assisted Living Center 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. As I drove down the highway I began singing one of those songs that Mike Seeger learned from the Gants, a song that many people have covered over the years including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jerry Garcia.
When first unto this country, A stranger I came I courted a fair maid, And Nancy was her name I courted her for love, Her love I didn’t obtain Do you think I’ve any reason, Or right to complain
Earlier, Ella’s son Wayne had told me repeatedly not to expect too much. I didn’t think I’d gone with expectations. I wanted to meet someone who had actually been recorded by John Lomax. I brought a CD copy of a few of the songs from the Library of Congress that Ella had recorded with her sister Foy when they were just girls. I fantasized that Ella would hear her girlhood voice and start singing along with those recordings. I would record this blending of the old lady and girl and my guilt would be assuaged. In addition, I’d get some good tape for our radio story about John Lomax.
The moment I walked into Ella’s room I realized I would not be recording anything that day. Ella had barely a whisper left as she sat in her recliner clutching a blanket, her eyes opening halfway to talk to me. I asked if she remembered the time under the porch with Bess and Foy and she answered yes. Then she asked me if I liked her. I answered yes. She opened her eyes a little and looked at me, saying in her faint voice, “I love you.” I asked if she still remembered the old songs from her family. Again, she said yes. I told her I had brought some recordings of her singing and asked if she would like to hear them. Again, “yes.” I put the CD in her bedside player and listened as the scratchy sound of the original 1935 acetate disk began to play. The recording started with the archivist saying, “AFS 64, A side.” He set the tone arm on the ancient disc three times before it would track from the beginning and then the music began—two sweet untrained voices, singing in unison.
My Love’s a jolly cowboy, he’s brave, he’s kind, he’s true, He rides a Spanish pony and throws a lasso, too. And when he comes to see me, our vows we do redeem He throws his arms around me and then begins to sing
I could tell Ella was listening, recognizing the song. Just then, I noticed a homemade binder under her bedside table. A piece of paper was pasted on the cover, which read: “Ella loves to have these old songs read or sung to her.” I opened the binder. On the first page was a telling inscription: “dedicated to my eternal husband Mark.” Following were pages of family photos and a sheet talking about the importance of keeping and preserving family songs. Then came the collection itself, at least a hundred songs, both words and music all compiled by Ella. I knew many of them as old ballads from Great Britain, popular songs from the Civil War era, cowboy songs, sentimental songs from the day and original songs Ella had written. When she was compiling the book she consulted her family for the accuracy of lyrics and it brought them together. It started to dawn on me that Ella was the very last of this singing family who knew the joy of music mixed with the bitterness of hard times. These songs were at her core.
I turned off the first recording and asked her if she remembered the song. She said, “Oh yes.” Then she looked at me again and said, “I love you.” This time I don’t think she was talking to me. Maybe she was speaking to Mark, her eternal husband. She began to cry, “I love you so much. I love you so much.” She held out her hand and I took it. In her hand there was such love. It seemed for a moment that all that was left of Ella Gant McBride was a shell of a body, some scattered memories, and a clear deep abiding love, pure love. At that moment it didn’t matter that I was not the love of her life she was talking to. I was simply the conduit for her love.
I’ve thought a lot about interviewing, and have interviewed people all my life. The great practitioners approach interviewing with a variety of values. Some think it is all about listening. Others keep a critical mind and make an interview into a game of outfoxing the other. For me it is all about empathy, trying not just to listen but to feel what the other person is feeling. I’d never tried to interview someone with dementia before. With Ella I sought to feel what she felt as she listened to the songs. I’d never known her before today so I could not compare her to the way she was. I was there without judgment. In a way, meeting Ella for the first time was like joining her in her dreams. She did not have much language or voice left to express herself but she had feeling, strong feeling, and that feeling was love. We listened to the next song both sitting silently.
When I was a little boy, fat as I could roll When I was a little boy, fat as I could roll Sent me on a bus and then we had a show
Listen to Ella and her sister Foy sing“LongCameJohnny.” Courtesy of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
After it ended I said, “Isn’t it amazing, 75 years later, we can still hear you and your sister singing? You were just girls. Do you remember singing with Foy?” This time she said, “Foy was my sister. I love her so much. Foy, I love you so much, I love you Foy.” Again, she started crying. It was almost as though Ella was calling out to Foy on the other side, calling for her sister to find her. I had come to express my gratitude to Ella for the Gant Family songs, but now I began to feel uncomfortable being a stranger in this very personal place. I told her I thought I better leave. She took my hand again: “Please don’t leave, stay a little longer.”
So, having no questions, no answers, I put on another song.
No more have I a mother’s love No more have I a father too No more have I a mother’s love
We sat and listened and I could tell she was taking it all in. Now it really was time to leave. I told her next time I’d bring my guitar. She said, “Good, I’d like that.” She asked for my hand and again told me she loved me. She took my hand to her lips and kissed it tenderly, then looked up and said, “I just want to die, I need to die.” I answered that I understood… and I do.
The very first thing that happened at the rodeo Hal and I attended on Sunday involved four cowboys on four bulls, all set free at the same moment and holding on for dear life. It’s called the Angola Bust Out…and a pun IS intended…because Angola is a prison. Formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and informally as The Farm, Angola is the nation’s largest prison with over 5,000 inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences. A few times a year, the gates are swung open and the public is invited to attend a rodeo that features inmates competing in various events. Our visit to Angola was the culmination of a week-long field trip tracing America’s ballad hunter, John A. Lomax, on some of the paths he took in the 1930s and ‘40s combing the South in search of folk songs. Some of his most fruitful collecting came from prisons, including Angola where he recorded the famous songster, Leadbelly.
A prisoner shows off his creation at the Hobbycraft fair at the Angola Prison Rodeo.
I’m not a rodeo aficionado by any means, but this one was remarkable to me in many ways, primarily because of how “normal” and unremarkable it felt. Here we were wandering the grounds with hundreds of prisoners all around us, working the concessions, selling art and “hobbycrafts,” and performing music on several stages. All these men were convicted felons, but had achieved the status of “trustee,” which meant they could interact with the public (under the watchful eye of security). We interviewed several musicians throughout the day, many of whom had been there for decades, and who would never leave the confines of Angola; there is no parole for a life sentence in Louisiana.
Wayne Guidry a few minutes before singing the national anthem to open the Angola Prison Rodeo.
Each and every person we spoke with was thoughtful, articulate and fascinating. It seems that their incarceration had forced them to come to terms with their past and their future in ways the rest of us rarely do. Maybe we’re just too busy with the responsibilities and distractions of daily life to philosophize like they do. We met Wayne, the young man who’d been asked to sing the national anthem at the rodeo, who was so humbled by this honor that he’d studied the words and thought deeply about the sacrifices made by America’s soldiers to secure the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, even though he’d forfeited his right to those same freedoms.
Michael Palmer became a Gospel rapper in prison, and was a "gangsta" rapper in his previous life.
We also met Michael, a 27-year-old who writes and performs gospel rap songs, but who previously had rapped about his life on the streets as a “gangsta.” His new songs were positive and upbeat as was his conversation, but at one point he hinted at his sense of frustration and hopelessness in the early days of his incarceration. After we followed up on this point he took a deep breath, paused, then told us in detail about the night he attempted to commit suicide, and how the only reason he’s still alive is because he couldn’t find a place from which to hang himself. He then went on to talk about finding a bible that same night, and beginning his conversion to dedicating his life to studying the teachings of Christ. Because the rodeo was so loud, I had to get very close to him with the microphone, and I’ll never forget how his eyes locked on mine as he explained his ordeal. I don’t think I blinked for five minutes.
Inmates not allowed to mingle with the public watch the rodeo from bleachers surrounded by a high fence.
We spoke with many other prisoners that day and—to a man—I found their stories moving. And this leads to perhaps the biggest surprise in spending time with these inmates: my own reaction. I generally believe in being tough on crime, yet here we were with convicted felons…and not only did I feel comfortable, I felt compassion and empathy. On an intellectual level, I know these people have committed crimes, and that these crimes involved victims..some of whom may not have survived the incident. This is one of those experiences that’s going to take a while to process…and as crazy as it may sound… I look forward to my next visit to prison.