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Wild West Jamboree: Many cowboys passed time by writing poetry

Bill Lowman says cowboys began making up poems not for art, but for that most mundane reason -- to fill time. "It's a way of self-entertainment," says Lowman, who ranches near Sentinel Butte, N.D.

Bill Lowman says cowboys began making up poems not for art, but for that most mundane reason -- to fill time.

"It's a way of self-entertainment," says Lowman, who ranches near Sentinel Butte, N.D. "The cowboys back then, and even us today, don't go buy entertainment and we learned to entertain ourselves and those around us."

Lowman, one of the nation's best-known cowboy poets, will headline next weekend's Wild West Jamboree at Bonanzaville in West Fargo.

Cass County Historical Society Executive Director Steve Stark says Lowman and his fellow cowboy poets are legitimate.

"They are real cowboys," Stark says. "They know their poetry. They've lived the life."


Poetry always has been part of that life, even though most people wouldn't associate cow punching with versifying.

It started during the cattle drives of the 1870s, Lowman says.

"They were contemporary poets then. They were writing and telling stories in rhyme about their day-to-day life. Most of us who are contemporary poets today are doing the same thing."

Musician and poet D.W. Groethe of Bainville, Mont., who also will perform at Bonanzaville, says: "We basically just talk about rural life, but we put it in song and poem. We do the things we live."

Cowboy poetry started to die out in the 1920s and '30s, Lowman says. By the mid-1980s, "It was pretty much a dead issue."

It stayed moribund until three people -- folklorist Mike Korn, New Mexico poet Liz Deer and Arizonan "Big Jim"

Griffin -- met at a national folklorists' convention in Washington, D.C.

At a reception in the White House rose garden, "These three people, sitting around with a social drink in their hand, wondered if cowboy poetry was extinct," Lowman says. "And they decided to do something about it."


The watershed event came in 1985 with the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. Lowman was one of the organizers.

"That revitalized cowboy poetry," he says. "The news media came in, freelance writers came in for about the first three years."

And the media kept coming, much to Lowman's surprise. Johnny Carson started hosting dryly humorous cowboy poets on "The Tonight Show."

The Elko event also spawned state and regional assemblies. Lowman organized the Dakota Poetry Gathering in Medora, N.D., 17 years ago. It's held every Memorial Day weekend and now is the oldest regional cowboy poetry gathering in the nation.

Lowman says he gets larger audiences in small towns -- for the simple reason that there are fewer entertainment options.

But for city-dwellers, cowboy poetry is a chance to reconnect with their roots, says Groethe, who was invited this year to participate at Elko.

"Seven, 8,000 people see you in a few days, which absolutely floored me," he says. "There's a lot of rural people that live in urban areas that really like touching base with it. When they come and see us, it's like touching base with home."

There are plenty of cowboy poetry sites on the Internet and the works are available in books, but Lowman says you've got to hear the poets to get the full effect.


"It's an oral tradition," he says. "That's the only time it's good. We don't have a reading, we have a recital; presentation is big."

Cowboy poets also are keeping alive a west that doesn't get much attention in pop culture anymore.

"That basic independence still, I think, holds the whole works up," Groethe says. "You can have a neighbor out here, you don't get along; but when push comes to shove, everybody's there. They call it neighboring.

"I think if you lose your connectedness to the land, you're floating. ... You take things way too for granted."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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