12 February 2017

A Yodeler, a Painter, and Two Poets

The song went out to anyone who's ever fallen in love in “a cowboy kind of way.”

That's how Wylie Gustafson introduced “To Her,” a song based on the Badger Clark poem, when he and his band, The Wild West, performed at Spokane's Chateau Rive last January. 

To reach the venue, you enter The Flour Mill at street level, just across from the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. You wind your way to the elevator or the stairs where the historic grain bin construction, 2x4s laid flat one on top of the other, can still be seen. Down nearer Spokane River level, you enter the venue...with its thick brick walls and pieces of the old mill's power train still attached to the ceiling.

If Gustafson's performance is one thing or another, it's cowboy music. He returns throughout the show to the influence of his father singing and playing guitar in the living room and his mother taking the family to church. He sees himself in a tradition defined as much by the western ranching lifestyle he describes in “200 Ton” as by the music in the self-deprecating “Yodeling Fool.”

The band's website describes guitarist Clayton Parsons as a “third generation guitarist” and drummer Tim Lashley as “born and raised in the Black Hills, Home of Western American Poet, Charles Badger Clark.”

Clark was born in 1883, the same year his family moved to South Dakota. The Black Hills Gold Rush had just subsided. He spent four years on a cattle ranch in Arizona near the Mexican border, and published his first book of poetry, “Sun and Saddle Leather,” in 1915. He became South Dakota's first poet laureate, and the cabin where he lived his last 30 years remains a historic landmark.

"Loops and Swift Horses Are Surer Than Lead," C.M. Russell, 1916, Public Domain.

In “The Glory Road” a cowboy ropes a cougar and passes into myth. The Outlaw” draws an analogy between a wild horse and an untamed temper. Clark describes a searing grief in “The Lost Pardner,” and mourns those lost in war in “Smoke Blue Plains” and “Jeff Hart.

...Jeff Hart has drifted for good and all,
     To the ghostly bugles blown,
But the far French valley that saw him fall
     Blood kin to the gulch is grown;
And his foreign folks are ours by right—
     The friends that he died to win.
Jeff Hart rode out of the gulch one night;
     Next morning the world came in.

Though he writes of love, or at least infatuation, Clark, who never married, reasserts his individualism in these final stanzas of “Bachin'.”

...We like to breathe unbranded air,
     Be free of foot and mind,
And go or stay, or sing or swear,
     Whichever we're inclined.
An appetite, a conscience clear,
     A pipe that's rich and old
Are loves that always bless and cheer
     And never cry or scold,
          They don't.
     They never cry or scold.

Old Adam bached some ages back
     And smoked his pipe so free,
A-loafin' in a palm-leaf shack
     Beneath a mango tree.
He'd best have stuck to bachin' ways,
     And scripture proves the same,
For Adam's only happy days
     Was 'fore the woman came,
          They was,
     All 'fore the woman came.

It's an individualism unpacked further in these stanzas from “The Westerner.”

...I dream no dreams of a nurse-maid state
    That will spoon me out my food.
A stout heart sings in the fray with fate
    And the shock and sweat are good.
From noon to noon all the earthly boon
    That I ask my God to spare
Is a little daily bread in store,
With the room to fight the strong for more,
    And the weak shall get their share.

The sunrise plains are a tender haze
    And the sunset seas are gray,
But I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
    Over me and the big today.
What good to me is a vague "maybe"
    Or a mournful "might have been,"
For the sun wheels swift from morn to morn
And the world began when I was born
    And the world is mine to win.

The dichotomy of city and wilderness, old country and new haunts Clark, in poems like “The Old Cow Man” and here in “The Free Wind.”

I went and worked in a drippin' mine
     'Mong the rock and the oozin' wood,
For the dark it seemed lit with a dollar sign
     And they told me money's good.
So I jumped and sweat for a flat-foot boss
     Till my pocket bulged with pay,
But my heart it fought like a led bronc hawse
     Till I flung my drill away....

I went and walked in the city way
     Down a glitterin' canyon street,
For the thousand lights looked good and gay
     And they said life there was sweet.
So the wimmin laughed while night reeled by
     And the wine ran red and gold,
But their laugh was the starved wolf's huntin' cry
     And their eyes were hard and old....

This dichotomy persists in the opening lines of “From Town”:

We're the children of the open and we hate the haunts o' men,
   But we had to come to town to get the mail.
And we're ridin' home at daybreak—'cause the air is cooler then—
   All 'cept one of us that stopped behind in jail....

In contrast to Gustafson, Clark does not seem to see himself within a tradition. And here in the last stanza of “The Plainsmen,” Clark seems to know he occupies a moment that will not last forever.

...When the last free trail is a prime, fenced land
     And our graves grow weeds through forgetful Mays,
Richer and statelier then you'll reign,
     Mother of men whom the world will praise.
And your sons will love you and sigh for you,
Labor and battle and die for you,
     But never the fondest will understand
     The way we have loved you, young, young land.

Though the son of a Methodist minister, Clark's idea of God seems essentially material, voiced here by the elements in the final stanza of “The Camp Fire's Song”:

...Poor little primal thing am I,
   Great stranger, yet I mock your lore;
Your thickest volumes often lie
   And these still stars could tell you more,
The wind that sighs across the sand
Or I, but could you understand?
  So wise! so wise!
A puzzled child within your eyes.

"When the Land Belonged to God," C.M. Russell, 1914, Public Domain.

Clark wrote during the same period artist C.M. Russell lived and worked in Montana. Though one does not get from Russell the same threatened individualism one gets from Clark, Russell's “When the Land Belonged to God” reflects themes similar to these last lines from Clark's “God's Reserves.”

...There the world's the same as the day 'twas new,
    With the land as clean as the smokeless sky
And never a noise as the years have flew,
    But the sound of the warm wind driftin' by'
And there, alone, with the man's world far,
There's a chance to think who you really are.
And over the reach of the desert bare,
    When the sun drops low and day wind stills,
Sometimes you kin almost see Him there,
    As He sits alone on the blue-gray hills,
A-thinkin' of things that's beyond our ken
And restin' Himself from the noise of men.

Russell's painting inspired a song of the same title by Jack Gladstone, citizen of the Blackfeet Nation and University of Washington alumni hall of fame inductee:

...The purest gift is not of gold,
but in art that awakens the soul.
As we choose our trail up the Great Divide
to an unknown stage on the other side
We might realign with the scenes of the Big Sky’s unbroken sod...
Where the Land Belongs to God.

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