Cowboy poets tell tales, reflect on a bygone era

5/9/2011

By SHAJIA AHMAD

By SHAJIA AHMAD

sahmad@gctelegram.com

Once upon a time, cowboys bathed in the rivers and joked on the dusty trials. But progress and time are replacing them with tractors and feedlots, according to one cowboy poet.

"I love the way this song conveys the message of the American cowboy," Allen Bailey, a musician better known as the official marshal of Dodge City, said Saturday night before singing the aforementioned verses.

Bailey, along with his group of western Kansas cowboy poets known as Partners of the Prairie, joined The Gilded Gizzers Band for a public performance at the Pauline Joyce Fine Arts Building auditorium at Garden City Community College. The four performers from Partners of the Prairie who took the stage Saturday are a group of cowboy poets and balladeers who appear throughout the Midwest in an effort to keep the values and traditions of the American West alive.

And they've been doing it for 15 to 20 years, according to Leonard Hitz, another of Saturday's cowboy poets.

"Poetry tells stories," said Hitz, who grew up on a cow-calf and wheat operation near Dodge City. "Back on the old trails, you didn't have much entertainment — only jokes, which you can't tell over and over again. ... But when you put stories to rhyme and meter, they're a lot more entertaining."

Hitz said all of the group's performers grew up with an appreciation for the cowboy way of life, and on Saturday night, the mix of song lyrics and poetry focused on days spent roping, driving cattle and working outdoors for the love of land. Cowboy poetry is a western form of expression, based on the traditions of ranch work and cattle drives, and was made popular in the 20th and 21st centuries by nationally known figures such as Tom Bodett and Baxter Black.

A small but supportive crowd came out for the performance that doubled as a benefit for the GCCC women's basketball team.

Hitz joked with the crowd all night.

"Remember, an insincere applause is better than no applause at all," Hitz said, eliciting a few laughs from the crowd. Alaura Sharp, head coach of the women's basketball team, said following Saturday's performance that the program raised an estimated $200 through tickets and donations and was originally Hitz's idea.

Sharp said she and her female players greatly appreciated the efforts of the performers. "Budget cuts have been hard on everybody, so every bit helps," Sharp said, adding that the funds likely would help pay for uniform gear or other needs of her team.

Early during Saturday's performance, the cowboy poets invited a younger colleague onto the stage: Cody Hammond, who turns 15 today, shared two poems he wrote, one about his first sheep and another about a night in the city.

The freshman at Garden City High School donned a cowboy hat and boots and said he's been writing poetry for two or three years.

"I try to write all my poetry about true stories," he said in a separate interview. "I've always just had an interest in it."

The Partners of the Prairie have appeared in numerous Kansas communities, as well as cities and towns in Texas, Nevada, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and the Canadian province of Ontario. The group also has appeared in Germany for the benefit of U.S. military audiences, the poets said.

The evening also included Keith Downer, a Garden City area native and veteran of the cattle business, and Don Eves, a Sublette native and Garden City resident who writes and performs selections about life in Kansas, based on his years of experiences on the high plains and in the cow-calf and farming fields.

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