Until I landed on a farm and became acquainted with animals who had never been part of my life, I thought cowboy poetry was just a bunch of dorky rhymes. Living with livestock and the vicissitudes of country life taught me the value and power of this branch of the poetry of work. Bull riders, barrel racers, and cattle drovers all told their stories through the medium of poetry. They made me laugh and cry and took me into the deep rivers of a way of life I would never fully comprehend but learned to appreciate.
Though I never considered myself a cowboy poet, I did try my hand at writing some pieces about farm life. I had talented teachers in people I met on the cowboy poetry circuit, people whose written and oral expressions of lived experience shattered my stereotypes.
Rhyming poetry is still the norm in cowboy poetry, though many poets also write prose poems. What’s critical is what they express, not their meter. Still, the heart beats in rhythm. Songs rhyme. Dancing is rhythmic. We humans are attuned to rhyme, and I came to appreciate it in cowboy poetry.
This poem is one I wrote to tell the story of my first Christmas Eve as a small-scale farmer. I still feel the magic of that night.
Stock Talk Christmas Eve
One wintry night the relatives
Were gathered in our barn.
They’d all come from their city homes
For Christmas at the farm.
‘Twas Christmas Eve, and just before
The wassail was passed ’round,
We donned our coats and headed down
To hear the magic sound
Of animals at midnight,
For then the power of speech
Is given to all sheep and cows,
Or so I’d heard it preached.
My husband, he was skeptical,
The relatives amused.
They figured I’d gone round the bend
Since donning country shoes.
But to the barn they gamely trooped.
They’d humor me this time.
We flipped the switch and walked into
A scene that was sublime.
The sheep were calmly bedded down.
They looked, then turned away,
For we’d disturbed their peaceful rest
And hadn’t brought them hay.
I thought of tales of talking beasts.
“Let’s sing to them!” I cried.
Embarrassed silence met my plea.
“Let’s not,” my husband sighed.
No word came from those woolly heads.
I blushed and murmured low,
“They prob’ly talk when we’re not here.
I guess we’d better go.”
Then coming from a darkened stall,
We heard a little cry,
Soon followed by a throaty one
That pulled us to draw nigh
And watch a newborn struggle up
To reach her mother’s teat.
She crumpled, rose, and tried again
On tiny cloven feet.
While ewe and lamb crooned soft and low,
We cleared our throats and sang
Of friendly beasts and silent nights
And bells that angels rang.
Then all the livestock in the barn
Began to bleat and crow
And oink and quack and gobble
In the languages they know.
The relatives fell silent
Till one softly observed,
“That’s the closest thing to talking
This city dude has heard.”
So maybe friendly beasts don’t speak
In English or Chinese,
But if you listen close
You’ll hear them talk on Christmas Eve.
©11/94 Cathryn Wellner
This poem appeared in American Cowboy in November/December 2001. Since sheep are not a normal part of cowboy culture, I changed them to cows for that publication. But the real story features those woolly friends.
The stones looked perfectly placed. I’ve no doubt they were. But no identifiers were left behind so we could pretend the gods had set them down just right.
The image still resonates for me. Bart Becker described a young fellow leading a frail old man to center stage. He sat the old guy in a chair and took off his hat. Then he walked offstage and came back carrying an acoustic guitar.
What happened next was one of those moments when fireworks go off in our brains, when we know the world will never be the same again. Son House picked up his guitar and “transformed from a little old man who couldn’t walk 20 steps by himself into a churning bundle of raw, exciting, sensual energy”.
The 80-year-old Mississippi bluesman poured every cell of his soul into the music. Becker had played in bands from the time he was in seventh grade. He had spent every extra dime on records. Music was in his bones, but he had never sat under the spell of music so profound it was “the inarticulate speech of the heart”.
By the time Becker wrote those words he had gone on to become music critic for the Seattle Times. I read his piece in the April 1, 1987, edition. I know the date because I still have the yellowed article. The paragraph he wrote about two-thirds through the article is engraved on my heart. Whenever I taught a new group of storytellers after that, I shared it with them. And now, as I sit down every day to pour my soul onto the page, I hear the words again.
“What Son House dropped on me was that art is alive, not dead. Creativity, whether primitive or futuristic, is not schooling and technique and logic and analysis; it is intelligence; it is unselfconscious, natural, spontaneous, free expression. Art is subversive, it’s about not following rules. And greatness has nothing to do with popularity and the marketplace. In Son House’s case, he had made a few recordings some 50 years before that hardly anybody ever heard, even then. When you dare to open up and express yourself, you have already not failed. It takes guts to dig into yourself looking for real truths, and the success is in the deed itself.”
Whatever you do that reaches right down into your soul, whatever is born of that ache for expression, is the gift you bring to the world. It is the gift only you can offer.
Dig deep and fearlessly. The world needs the truths you’ll find there.
The two-room school was on the river side of Highway 97, about halfway between Wenatchee and Chelan. Fruit trees in central Washington were covered with the blossomed promise of a good crop.
Orondo was too small to offer much more than housing for farm workers and a handful of other families. Their tiny settlement was strung along the east bank of the Columbia River.
A quarter of a century ago there weren’t more than sixty children in the school. Kindergarten through third grade met in one room. Grades four through six had their own teacher in the other room. When I parked outside the school, curious children ran up. They knew the storyteller was coming and greeted me warmly.
I told stories to the younger classes, then to the older group. They were sponges, absorbing the stories through every pore. They were so eager, so responsive I was as entranced by the stories as they were. And then it was over, and I had promises to keep in other schools.
Two years later I toured the same schools in central and eastern Washington. Once again, I turned my vehicle into the small parking lot. Once again, curious children ran up to greet the visitor and escort me into the school.
I started with the younger children and told them a whole new set of stories, ones I knew I hadn’t pulled out of the hat for my first visit. Then I joined the older group. Two-thirds of them had been in the younger group two years earlier. I was eager to tell them stories that would be new to them, more challenging, more suited to their growing maturity.
They would have none of it. “Tell us about the hen and the giant. We want to hear about the giant pumpkin.” And so it went, story after story. After the fourth and fifth graders had heard the stories they remembered, the sixth graders insisted on hearing the ones they had heard in fourth grade. Forty-five minutes stretched to an hour, then ninety minutes, until I finally had to stop because the school day was nearing its end.
The children taught me an important lesson that day. I was still a fairly new storyteller and assumed audiences always wanted to hear new material. I was feverishly adding stories to my repertoire so as to never repeat one to a group I’d performed for before.
Stuff and nonsense. When we hear a song that stirs us, a melody that haunts us, we want to hear it again and again. We learn the words, sing it in the shower, belt it out as we drive, buy the track.
The same is true of stories. When they resonate, we want to travel that path again, and not just when we are children.
Years ago, Professor Spencer Shaw told me children want the same book read to them over and over because “the children know what’s going to happen, but the characters don’t”. The children in the two-room Orondo school knew what was going to happen in those stories. They also knew the characters didn’t. So I sent my mind back into the world of those earlier stories. Together, the children and I found out.
Start them young. Fill their heads with stories, and children will have the guideposts they need to find their way through life’s labyrinth. I remember meeting a young storyteller when I was touring American military schools in Germany. Her family was housing me during my stay in the community. I’m sure the six-year-old girl expected a magical being to get off the train. Instead, what she saw was a middle-aged, quite ordinary woman. Her face fell.
The two mothers who met me, along with the disappointed six-year-old, found a café in the city’s central square. We ordered lunch and sat talking about the storytelling performances I would be doing next day. The child was silent, watching me speculatively.
Lunch came, and I could see the little girl was shivering. I offered her some of my hot soup. That seemed to thaw things between us. She blurted out, “Would you like to hear a story?”
Encouraged by my enthusiastic reply, she began to tell a folktale with complete absorption and consummate skill. Thrilled with the responses of three admiring adults, she told another and then another. After several stories, her mother asked her where she had learned the stories.
Turned out her babysitter read folktales to her, and the girl learned them by heart. Her mother was astonished, as the child had never told her the stories. I was astonished because she was the most accomplished young storyteller I had ever met.
The two children in the videos were considerably younger when these stories were recorded. The little guy in the first video is off to a strong start. Hats off to his mother, who’s nurturing her child’s natural love of words, ideas, and stories. (You can check out her videos on WillowWeathers’s YouTube Channel.)
The second is young Capucine, the French storyteller who became something of a YouTube sensation with her charming storytelling. This video version takes the original story and turns it into a production, with Capucine’s storytelling woven through it.
Back in the days when I was completely focused on storytelling—back before my own story took some unexpected turns—I frequently became embroiled in conversations over “What is storytelling?” and “What is a story?”
My discussion partners often found me a bit too wishy washy in my responses, at least those who had very fixed ideas about what belonged in those categories. I’ve never felt much of a need to put storytelling in one box or another. I see stories everywhere.
When I listen to a symphony, a story plays out in my head. The same thing happens when I watch dance, contemplate a painting, gaze at a photograph or eavesdrop in a café.
I’m not alone in my hunger for stories, and clever marketers know that. The ones who created this video wove together a lot of story strands, with eerie foreshadowing and a satisfying conclusion.
Clever storytelling alone can backfire, when people remember the ad but not what it was selling. For me, the ad in this video works on both counts. It’s a satisfying story, with spooky buildup and a twist at the end. And I’m likely to remember what it’s selling.
When I first took the stage as a storyteller, I didn’t know what to do with silence at the end of a tale. Americans are uneasy about silence. We like to fill the spaces. We get squirmy without words. We aren’t sure what the quiet means.
One of many audiences that taught me to love the unfilled space at the end of a story had gathered to hear a Jungian psychologist talk about his work. I can’t remember who gave the talk, but I do recall the session was part of a series of talks exploring the facets of Jungianism.
Because of Jung’s focus on archetypes, the organizer felt it would be appropriate to introduce each session with a story. I read dozens of myths and folktales, looking for one that illustrated the theme of the evening when I was to be the storyteller.
I chose a story new to me. “Black Bull of Norroway” is one of the many variations of the search for the lost husband. As in other versions, the beauty who goes off with the beast learns to care for the brute. She must endure trials before her love breaks the spell and the beast returns to his true form, as a handsome man.
Because I was only telling one tale, I wanted something to focus audience attention so composed a short round. The 500-seat auditorium was filled. I divided the audience into three groups. One group sang, “Black Bull of Norroway”. The next chimed in with, “Bridegroom, I come”. The third wove in their line, “Trials await”.
They started softly, swelled as each line came in, then gradually faded away. It was as if they were telling the story, the minor notes weaving over and under each other, all with the same question: How will it end?
The telling that followed was one of those timeless spaces when cranky bosses, bad backs, and unhappy relationships recede into the background. In the space that’s cleared, the story plays out in the theatre of the mind. Five hundred minds seeing five hundred different bulls, five hundred different heroines, yet somehow all traveling the same path.
When I fell silent at the end of the story, so did the audience. No one wanted to break the spell. Then from one side of the room, the first phrase of the round poured a river of music into the silence. Then the second phrase, the third.
The singing was spontaneous, a perfect period at the end of the story. A moment of pure magic for which I will always be grateful.