36th Gathering Celebrates Black Cowboys

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“Trail Blazers,” a Marion Coleman quilt, from the collection of Arkainee Ervin.

For 36 years during the heart of winter, thousands have traveled to Elko, Nevada to listen, learn, and share stories of ranching and the rural West through poetry, music, and stories. People of all backgrounds identify with the beauty and challenges of the cowboy lifestyle, from the Mississippi Delta bayou to Buckaroo country, Oklahoma rodeo grounds to the streets of Oakland and Los Angeles. This year the Gathering will feature men and women from these ranching and horseback communities to explore and celebrate the often under-represented historic contributions and contemporary culture of Black cowboys, from bull-doggin’ to blue-yodellin.’

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Dom Flemons, photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Dom Flemons, known as “The American Songster,” will return to Elko for his third appearance at our event. His GRAMMY-nominated album, Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys, was released in 2018 on the Smithsonian Folkways record label in conjunction with the National Museum of African-American History. “I am so proud to celebrate the legacy of the Black cowboys at the 2020 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada,” says Flemons. “In 2016, I was invited to the Gathering and I was inspired by this incredible community of cowboy poets, musicians, artists, and historians. I’m honored that the Elko community helped me spread the powerful message of these true American heroes to diverse audiences worldwide!” Fellow musician-historians Pipp Gillette, Lloyd Wright, and Andy Hedges (host of the podcast Cowboy Crossroads) will join Flemons to highlight the influence of Black cowboys on Western music and culture in the “Blues on the Range” show.

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Artwork courtesy of freepik.com.

The importance of rodeo as a place where people come together will be celebrated with shows like “Straight Chutin’ Champions” featuring Oakland Black Cowboys favorite Miko Marks, Rodeo poets Paul Zarzyski and Henry Real Bird, and bull-riding musician Cat Clifford. There will also be storytelling sessions where barrier-breaking bull rider Myrtis Dightman (the first Black cowboy to compete at the National Finals Rodeo) and other rodeo competitors will talk about their experiences in and out of the arena.

Representing the South is Creole cowboy and rancher Geno Delafose from southwest Louisiana. Geno and his band French Rockin’ Boogie will join Wylie and the Wild West and Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans for “Battle of the Bands” and lead the Friday night zydeco dance.

2019 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Geno Delafose, photo by Charlie Ekburg.

The Wiegand Gallery of the Western Folklife Center will feature exhibits centering the African-American experience. Vintage Black Heroes: The Chisholm Kid Exhibition, a display of the first color-print comics to feature a Black hero, and the first about a Black cowboy, travels to Elko from the Museum of Uncut Funk. Created for the Pittsburgh Courier in 1950, The Chisholm Kid pays homage to the 5,000 to 9,000 Black cowboys who drove cattle along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas after the Civil War. Award-winning artwork from Marion Coleman’s Blacks in the West quilt series and Rory Doyle’s “Delta Hill Riders” photography project will also be on display during the Gathering.

Film, stories and talks scheduled throughout the week will bring focus to both the historical and contemporary, rural and urban. Catch a glimpse of the complexities of Compton’s cowboy culture in the film Fire on the Hill. Explore the cultural phenomenon of Lil’ Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and the yeehaw agenda. Hear about the heritage of African-Americans in the West through talks, presentations, and films presented throughout the weekend.

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These are just a few of the exciting things happening at the Gathering in 2020. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more! Tickets to the 36th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering are now on sale. Choose a Single-Day Pass or 3-Day Deluxe Pass to enjoy the 90+ intimate and informal daytime poetry, music, and storytelling sessions, film screenings, discussions, and open mic performances. Supplement your pass with tickets to themed shows and workshops.

The 36th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is supported by the Nevada Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, Nevada Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, the City of Elko, Elko Recreation Board, Wells Fargo, and many other sponsors and individual donors.

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