Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 19:4 (Fall 1999). Copyright © 1999 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


As a cultural phenomenon the explosion in popularity of cowboy poetry in the past dozen years has been nothing short of spectacular. Until the first full-scale cowboy poetry gathering at Elko, Nevada, in late January 1985, poetry was arguably the one aspect of cowboy culture that had not been expropriated into American popular culture. Certainly the mental picture of the cowboy himself-big hat, high-heeled boots, silk neckerchief, leather chaps-has long since become an icon that represents the very nation: wear a cowboy hat and you will be taken for an American anywhere in the world. The two essential working skills of the cowboy-roping cattle and riding bucking horses-long ago have been transformed from actual ranch work into one of the nation's largest spectator and participant sports: rodeo. And the idealized, romanticized image of the cowboy (certainly far removed from the low-paid, hard-working hired man on horseback who actually works with cows, horses, and four-wheel-drive pickups) has become, through pulp fiction, television, and film, a symbol of justice and right, a hero who both represents and defends the American Way. Finally, cowboy songs, although often mistakenly lumped together with country-and western music, comprise a well-defined subgenre of popular music, particularly those songs associated with the singing cowboy of the silver screen.