Baxter Black: He Elevated Cowboy Poetry to Folk Art

From a New York Times obit by Clay Risen headlined “Baxter Black, Who Elevated Cowboy Poetry to Folk Art, Dies at 77”:

Baxter Black, the country’s best-known cowboy poet, whose witty, big-hearted verse about cowpokes, feed lots and wide-open vistas elevated the tradition of Western doggerel to something of a folk art, died  at his home, a ranch outside Benson, Ariz.

It’s worth pausing to ask why cowboy poetry exists in the first place. Cowboys, after all, are not well known for their communication skills. Yet the genre flourishes; more than 100 cowboy poetry festivals are held each year, and the peripatetic Mr. Black was often featured as the main event.

Reed thin with a handlebar mustache the size of a mop head under a gray Resistol hat, he modeled himself as something of a Will Rogers of the high plains. He seeded his writing with a blend of gentle humor and folk wisdom wrapped in tight rhymes and loose meters, as in his poem “Take Care of Yer Friends”:

Friend is a word that I don’t throw around.

Though it’s used and abused, I still like the sound.

I save it for people who’ve done right by me

And I know I can count on if ever need be.

Wordsworth it isn’t, but Mr. Black didn’t lay claim to genius. Cowboy poetry, he said, began as a way to ward off boredom on the trail and to communicate stories among men who rarely cracked a book, and persists because it appeals to those who might be intimidated by formal verse.

And, he said, cowboy poetry is fun. Forget intimations of immortality; Mr. Black’s poetry cracked wise about things like horse manure, the evils of vegetarianism and the advantages of artificial preservatives:

Someday I’ll just be sitting in my rocker on the porch, and everyone will say I’m looking great,

because I’ll be so well preserved, no one will know I’m dead, unless they read my expiration date.

His playful verse was infectious; newspaper profiles often carried headlines like “Poem on the Range” and “Write ’em, Cowboy.” More than one declared him America’s “Poet Lariat.”

Though Mr. Black, a former rodeo rider and large-animal veterinarian, primarily identified as a poet, he was even more prolific as an essayist and radio commentator. His weekly column, “On the Edge of Common Sense,” appeared every week for 40 years in more than 100 newspapers. His weekly radio show, “Baxter Black on Monday,” was heard on about 150 stations.

If people outside the rural West knew his name, it was likely for his multiple appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and his years as a guest commentator on NPR, where he specialized in lightheartedly tweaking his cosmopolitan listeners.

Mr. Black wrote more than 30 books, including poetry, fiction and children’s literature, which sold an estimated two million copies. He also released several audio recordings of his work — an especially popular medium among his fans, who would pop in his tapes during long trips across the Great Plains.

The writer Calvin Trillin, himself no stranger to casual verse, called Mr. Black “probably the nation’s most successful living poet.”

Baxter Ashby Black was born in Brooklyn, where his father, Robert, was serving in the Navy.

Robert had a doctorate in veterinary sciences, and after the war he took his wife, Theodora (Ashby) Black, Baxter and his three brothers along to a series of academic posts. He finally landed at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, where he was appointed dean of the school of agricultural sciences.

Robert Black became well known on the competitive livestock circuit, judging events across the Southwest, an activity that soon drew in his son. By third grade Baxter had his own cow, and by middle school he had his first horse. In high school he was president of his local chapter of Future Farmers of America.

“Agriculture, or being close to the earth is a good way to put it, I’ve always been there,” he told the musician Andy Hedges for his podcast “Cowboy Crossroads” in 2021. “There are things a parent can give a child that no one else can.”

After Robert Black died of a heart attack in 1960, Theodora Black went back to school for a master’s degree, then worked for New Mexico State. Her boys got jobs, too; Baxter worked on ranches and made extra money as a bull rider.

He attended New Mexico State, but his wife said that after three years he was accepted without an undergraduate degree to the veterinary sciences doctoral program at Colorado State University. He graduated in 1969….

Hired by a livestock company in Idaho after graduate school, he found himself on the road, traveling from ranch to ranch to check on cattle. Along the way he’d pick up stories and jokes, and he soon found he had a skill at relating them to the next batch of listeners.

In 1980 he moved to Denver, where a pharmaceutical company hired him to present its drugs to ranchers and to other veterinarians. Finding the work tedious, he began peppering his presentations with some of the stories he had picked up over the years.

Suddenly he was being invited to conferences not to talk about drugs or cows but just to talk. When his employer laid him off in 1982, he left veterinary medicine behind.

Most of his audiences were made up of people who could relate to his tales from the ranch, groups like the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association and the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association. He rode the growing cowboy-poetry circuit and began to catch the attention of the national media, which found his down-home wisdom irresistible.

Noticing the dearth of news about the rural West in national coverage, in 1988 he recorded a poem about a wildfire in Yellowstone — “Lightning cracked across the sky like veins across the back of your hand” — and sent it to NPR headquarters. A few days later, a producer called, asking if they could run it, and whether he had more. His commentary would run regularly for more than a decade.

Mr. Black distinguished between his “cowy” audience out West and his “generic” audience on NPR and elsewhere.

“There are a lot of things that are too cowy to run on National Public Radio, like talking about cow poop too much,” he said in 2001. “For example, I can have someone slip in poop, but not have someone slapped in the face with it.”

He maintained a busy schedule, up to 150 appearances a year, until the mid-2010s, when dementia began to undermine his public speaking. But he kept up his writing. He filed his last column in December 2021.

“I count myself very lucky that I get to be a part of the wonderful world of horse sweat, soft noses, close calls and twilight on the trail,” he wrote. “I like living a life where a horse matters.”

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The New York Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.”

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