#16 Tremendous Forms: Paul Chaplo on Finding Composition in the Landscape
#15 Gifts of the Ancient Ones: Greg Williams on the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands
#14 Over Burro Mesa (not a transcript but an article)
#13 Looking at Mexico in New Ways: An Interview with Historian John Tutino
#12 Dallas Baxter: "This Precious Place"
and as of today... drumroll...
#11 Cowboy Songs By Cowboys
and an Interview with Michael Stevens
[Note: If you want to hear the songs, which I highly recommend, it would be a far sight better to listen to the podcast.]
C. M. Mayo: We're going to hear some more music in this podcast, but I want to go back for a moment to put all this into some context by sharing with you some of my interview with Michael Stevens, which was recorded in one of the lounges at Sul Ross State University's University Center just before the show. Michael Stevens is the one you heard first in this podcast singing about the Old Double Diamond. My first question was, how did this all get started?
Michael Stevens: Well, it started out as just cowboys getting together. And when it really would happen in the old days, it was just people heard about these guys who get together and talk and BS and tell stories and, you know, that's all they had. It's an oral tradition of just like, seamen. And there is a Fisher Poets Society in Oregon/Washington, somewhere up there. I've forgotten where it is. It's around Siskiyou Pass I think. But it happens right about now. Of course, they did it before we did. The ships were out there long before the cowboys were here and they told stories and sang songs. A lot of those songs and old Scottish and Irish ballads got turned into cowboy songs when the people came over here. Instead of singing about whales in the ocean, or whatever they did, they took that melody— and I believe "Streets of Laredo" is "The Bard of Armagh" or something like that— so it was some old melody that they just changed the words to. They weren't musicians particularly. A lot of times they didn't carry instruments, so a lot of it you'll hear a cappella, a lot of what those guys had—or they took an instrument out and it fell apart. Banjos seemed to last longer than guitars and things like that.
So it's a real old tradition of telling stories and it gets moved to the next person because a lot of those people didn't write, and so what the cowboys picked up on and started and then, at some point a few people, John Lomax and his son, they started recording these songs. Well, there were people before that even that were some of the cowboys that were starting to collect the songs.
The first gathering of this type that I know of was Elko, Nevada. They'd created a folklore center. I never studied the history of that either. If you could get ahold of Joel Nelson he might fill you in a little bit more but you can Google all that. About '85, well, Joel Nelson and his wife at the time, Barney Nelson, who's a teacher here in Ryder, got some really neat books out, they went. They heard about it. Joel's always been into poetry. He reads Robert Service. He reads Pushkin. You know, name it. If he sits down and does "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost with a big mustache and a cowboy hat you think it's the best cowboy poem you ever heard and then he says "Robert Frost" and you can see people go, Oh, that's why it seemed familiar to me! Because it's kind of what cowboys do. You know, they go the other way. If they want to make a lot of money they wouldn't be a cowboy.
So they came back here the next year after Elko and started a little gathering here and I wasn't here at the time. I was in Austin building guitars, but I'd gone from a horse ranch in McKinney to Austin and been in and out of the horse business since I was a little kid.
When I came down here [Alpine], my wife wanted to live here and she was not living anywhere else, and I heard about it. And then a friend of a friend, a girl we'd known in college had married Warren Burnett, the trial lawyer from Odessa and then I met Warren and he one day said— I hadn't gone to the gathering—he said, "You should go meet Buck Ramsey. He's my friend. He's the guy in a wheelchair and if anybody gives you any trouble…" Well, Warren says, "Anybody gives you any shit you tell them," because that's the way Warren was. I don't know if you know anything about Warren. Anyways, so I met Buck Ramsey and played music. Well, it turned out I knew a couple cowboy songs, and I didn't even know they were cowboy songs because I'd been in Berkeley since 1967 and played a lot of music and country music.
C.M. Mayo: Out in California?
Michael Stevens: Yeah. When I hit there I left Fort Worth in '67 and got there in November of '67. I had a cowboy outfit with bell bottoms, embroidered shirts and long hair and they called me The Sheriff. And we played country music. Cody was there. We played the same kind of venues as Commander Cody. Then they said you won't believe who's coming from [??] asleep at the wheel, so I was out there. Then I learned a bunch of folk songs hanging around the Freight and Salvage and those things. Well, it turns out a bunch of them were cowboy songs, and I'd heard a lot of Jack Elliot and all that, well, there's a bunch of cowboy songs stuck in there.
So I got down here and somehow after meeting Buck and playing... So they said, we need some more performers. Would you come and we'll stick you in a session and sing a few songs? And I went, Hey, I like this.
C.M. Mayo: What year was that?
Michael Stevens: That would be about '93 or '94.
C.M. Mayo: You've been coming back every year since?
Michael Stevens: Well, I live here.
C.M. Mayo: So you've come to all the Cowboy Poetry Gatherings?
Michael Stevens: Well, I was on the committee for 16 years and of the 16 years I think I was vice president about three and president for seven, at least. I just retired from the 25th year. This is my first year as a performer as a civilian.
C.M. Mayo [to listeners]: A little further into the interview Michael Stevens talked about after Berkeley, how he came back to Texas. But then you're going to hear him backtrack and talk some more about his time in Berkeley at the Freight and Salvage. That was, and is, the hub of the folk music scene.