Calgary

Cowboy poetry honours Wild West history

According to performers and members with the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association, storytelling is an important tradition in cowboy culture — and one they are keeping alive.

The Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association keeps western culture alive with storytelling

Performer Jesse Colt takes the stage at the the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association's Trail's End Gathering, Sept. 21 at the Wild Wild West Event Centre. The event featured more than a dozen music and poetry performers. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC News)

For those of us without cowboy roots, poetry might not immediately come to mind when we think of the wild, wild west. 

But according to performers and members with the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association, storytelling is an important tradition in cowboy culture — and one they are keeping alive.

The association had its Trail's End Gathering this weekend, at the Wild Wild West Event Centre just west of Calgary, featuring more than a dozen music and poetry performers. 

Under a vaulted ceiling strung with lights, they took the stage to honour the west with their words. 

'They would make up stories, and gradually ... they developed into poetry' 

"Back in the old days on the trail, cowboys ... had no entertainment. They probably had a harmonica amongst them. There's no guitars, such as we see nowadays," said Jesse Colt, a rancher, poet and author from Bragg Creek who performed at the event. 

"They would make up stories, and gradually over the years, they developed into poetry." 

Todd Nakamura, the vice president of the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association, says that for him, cowboy poetry is a collection of stories and memories — but originally, spoken word was used to calm the cattle.

"If we're out on night watch, in order to keep the cows nice and calm and not scattered throughout the bush, we'd tell them stories or sing songs," Nakamura said. 

"To me, it's a celebration of things that have come and gone."

Todd Nakamura, the vice president of the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association, says that for him, cowboy poetry is a collection of stories and memories — but originally, spoken word was used to calm the cattle. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC News)

'Cowboy poetry should really be a story with a punchline'

A variety of storytelling styles were on display at the event. Some performance artists were accompanied by guitar, some words and performances modernized, and some were historical.

According to Colt, there's an art to the style and structure of cowboy poetry that makes it authentic.

"Cowboy poetry really should be a story with a punchline," Colt said.

"We hope to preserve our history by means of cowboy poetry and music. A lot of it is fairly modern now, but true cowboy poetry would have either history in it, or a lesson in it that's based on the past."

Nakamura says a large component of the storytelling is making sure we don't take our history for granted.

"We have to remember who came before us, and made this province and this country what it is today," he said.

'We all have a connection to the Old West'

Phyllis Rothwell, the president of the Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association, says they welcome anyone who wants to come and listen — but for the musicians and poets, an understanding of the west is important.

"You don't have to be a cowboy, but it helps if you know the vernacular, and if you can tell authentic stories that have some sort of hook into cowboy life," Rothwell said.

According to Rothwell, the cowboy culture they hope to preserve isn't so far away, even with modernization and the passage of time.

"If you go not very far from here, you'll find lots of ranches, ranchers, cowboys, rodeo people," Rothwell said.  

"We all have a connection to the Old West. And [there] might be several centuries of change and innovation, but there's a connection."

Dressed-up onlookers laughed, clapped and cheered watching performance artists onstage. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC News)

With files from Vincent Bonnay and Terri Trembath

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