Cowboys’ screen-free poetry in the United States, a historical perspective

Asha Bajaj
2 min readMay 3, 2021

#HistoryOfCowboyPoetry; #LoC; #CreationOfMood, #ExperienceWithWords

Washington/Canadian-Media: Origin of the Cowboy poetry dates back to the late nineteenth century when cowboys launched their long-distance cattle drives across the West lasting up to six months, and they entertained themselves by singing and playing music, telling stories, and composing songs and poems drawing inspiration from their lifestyle and their diverse cultural backgrounds.

A cowgirl in the daily “jingle,” or horse roundup, at the A Bar A Guest Ranch in Carbon County, Wyoming. Image credit: Carol Highsmith, photographer, 2016; Prints & Photographs Division

These poets typically included ranchers from Mexico and south Texas, former slaves of African Americans from the South, Anglo-American Texans, travelers from the East and Europe, and sometimes Native Americans.

Many of the earliest cowboy poems and songs were in Spanish — including the oldest known cowboy ballad (from the 1860s-1870s), “El corrido de Kiansis” about a group of ranchers on the cattle trail to Kansas.

At the start of cowboy poetry in the 1800s, many cowboys could not read or write, and they used to recite long verses from memory which has led to an oral tradition in the present and performances. Many performers come together at various events across the West and around the country and several cowboy poets have even performed at the Library of Congress.

Some of the examples are D.W. Groethe’s ode to strong coffee and his love song to meat, Grammy-nominated musician Don Flemons perform Black cowboy songs from the Library’s archive in this program recorded in 2020, Flemons plays a song from a Black cowboy, Charlie Willis, “Goodbye Old Paint.” “Steel Pony Blues,” based on the life of Nat Love, a formerly enslaved African American who became a cowboy after the Civil War.

Our perception of cowboys changes after exploring the diverse history of cowboy poetry and lead us to think about the “typical American cowboy” in movies and TV shows (such as Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” shows starting in 1883), and perceive how those images differ from what we know about cowboying now. Further exploration of the Backaroos in Paradise and The American West 1865–1900 collections throws more light on the realities of cowboying.

In writing cowboy poetry, strict rules are not followed and it can reflect all kinds of experiences. It can rhyme, but it need not, it can be funny and light-hearted or serious and dramatic., it can relate to a great adventure or an everyday routine.

Creation of a mood and an experience with words that reflect what it means to cowboy are key factors to cowboy poetry.

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Asha Bajaj

I write on national and international Health, Politics, Business, Education, Environment, Biodiversity, Science, First Nations, Humanitarian, gender, women