The Cowboy Poetry of Waddie Mitchell and Baxter Black
Spending the first eight years of my life in a rural rail town in southeastern Kansas led me to take for granted many experiences I’d never have again. One such experience occurred at my little Catholic grade school on the main street of our town. After lunch one day early in second grade, we had these wild-looking “cowboys” sidle into our cafeteria with their high-waisted jeans, pearly buttoned shirts and brightly colored neck kerchiefs. We learned they were there to perform Cowboy Poetry. I couldn’t tell you their names, and though I never forget a face, I probably couldn’t pick them out of a line up, but for the sake of a good story, the cowboys who performed their poetry at my grade school were Waddie Mitchell and Baxter Black, the same fellas who performed on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the same year of my first and second grades.
I recall their unique ability to memorize long stretches of rhymed text and to deliver it in such a way that they knew to wait for the laugh, they knew when to raise their eyebrows, and they knew what a little boy who grew up dreaming of being a cowboy would want to hear. I remember thinking that one guy had a bit of a stutter, but then he’d start the poem and his stutter would miraculously melt away, as if the story made him more eloquent. My memory was jogged this morning when I found this clip had been added to Johnny Carson’s YouTube page. Upon further investigation, I gathered it was added owing to the passing of Baxter Black earlier this month.
Experiences like this one had a profound effect on my understanding of the world: packed with rugged tales from the trails and plenty of wry humor to boot, cowboy poetry is precisely the kind of storytelling I grew to yearn for and seek out as I would venture on my journey as a creative. Because of men like the ones who visited my grade school, I was raised with an understanding that anything — even (and, in my case, sometimes especially) a cowboy’s observations of the modern world makes for a great story.