Black Cowboys, and Western Culture on Display in Elko

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This year marks the 36th anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko Nevada. The Gathering has become a tradition for poets, musicians, artisans, and performers familiar with Cowboy and Western culture. The focus of this year’s festival was “Black Cowboys” and it featured a number of working cowboys and performers of African-American ancestry. The keynote speaker at the event was Dom Flemons, and throughout the weekend he shared the history, music, and contributions of African-Americans who settled the West and helped shape Cowboy and Western Culture. Figures like Bass Reeves who became the prototype for what we know as the “Lone Ranger.” He was born a slave, found his freedom, and made his way to Texas where he became a feared lawman. Dom also brings to light how music that is engrained in the tapestry of American music like “Home on the Range” are rooted in African-American settlers of the West.

Dom Flemons

Dom Felmons released his album “Black Cowboys” in 2018 and it was an outgrowth of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. Dom explained that when he first started to research this topic, Don Edwards was instrumental in helping him find resources and places to look.

In a number of performances over the week Dom explored various musical styles related to Western culture that were influenced or created by African-American pioneers of the West. Not only does he perform these songs, he plays a unique blend of historical instruments. The oldest two instruments in his repertoire are the quills and the bones.

The quills is a wind-pipe type of instrument that functions much like a harmonica, but sounds more like a pan flute. The bones is a rhythm instrument that is played with the hand and makes a clacking type of noise. They are called the bones because they are quite literally made from animal bones. Watching him perform with these historic instruments is a treat indeed. You feel as though you’re being transported back in time as Dom tries to recreate the vibe of the music that was being played years ago.

Tribute To Don Edwards

This performance at the G3 bar was a collaborative effort to honor the great Western musician Don Edwards.

Dom Flemons spoke to me about the tremendous influence Don Edwards had on Western culture. Edwards also played a pivotal role in helping Flemons research Black Cowboys in general.

When I asked Dom Flemons about the genesis of his Black Cowboys project he told me this. “He was one of the first guys that began to tell me about his own stories of meeting black cowboys in the ways that they were called Vaqueros Negros.

At least from the regions where Don Edwards was spending his time they did not call themselves “Cowhands” or “Cowboys” because that was somewhat of a derogatory term. Vaqueros Negros link them more to the Mexican Cowboys, and that was something that was a part of what Don Edwards told me.”

Dom also added, “He (Don Edwards) also recommended that I pick up a copy of Jack Thorp’s book, “Partner of the Wind”, and Jack Thorp is the first fellow to self-publish his own book of cowboy songs. And even his story in the autobiography is linked to a situation where he meets a bunch of black cowboys. They sing this really amazing song, and then Jack Thorp is inspired to write it down.

And this is two years before John Lomax publishes his own seminal work on cowboy songs you have a fellow Jack Thorp, who’s on his own non-academic level, he’s produced his book of cowboys songs, but that’s all around meeting some black cowboys, were doing their songs, and it was something that was powerful enough for him to move him.”

The performance included songs shared by Dom Flemons, R.W. Hampton, Andy Hedges, Waddie Mitchel, and the band Hot Club of Cowtown. They all played songs that they affiliated with Don Edwards in different ways. They also shared stories about Don and the immense impact he’s had not just on Western music, but American music in general.

In recent years Don Edwards has stopped performing, but his musical legacy lives on. One special moment at the show was when his granddaughter came on stage to play the song “Coyotes.” She is a musician herself, and it was special to see her carry on her grandfather’s legacy.

The idea of making the tribute came from The Western Folklife Center and cowboy songster Andy Hedges. Andy told me why they decided to set up the tribute to Don Edwards.

He said, “The Western Folklife Center had the idea for that show and asked me to curate it, which was an honor. There is nobody more deserving of a tribute at Elko than Don Edwards.

Don can play in any of the styles of what you might call cowboy or western music — everything from old time cowboy songs to Hollywood and Tin Alley Songs to western swing to specialized stylings of singers like Marty Robbins, Gene Autry, and Jimmie Rodgers. Don can play it all beautifully and he also knows the history of the all the songs. I think he’s the finest cowboy singer of all time. And if all that wasn’t enough, he’s also a true western gentleman.”

Ramblin’ Jack, Corb Lund, Forest van Tuyl

These three singers put on a fantastic performance. Ramblin’ Jack is an American icon who has been playing the Gathering in Elko for many years and he’s still going strong. His sense of humor is evident when he takes the stage. He played a version of “House of the Rising Sun” that was completely his own. Jack has a way of putting his stamp on songs, and this one did not disappoint.

Corb Lund is another artist who has performed in Elko many times. He played a song or two off of his new album that will be released this year. The first one he played was a touching tune about his mom, the loss of his father, and the changes in life that brings. Forest van Tuyl is a singer from Oregon and this was my first time seeing him. He shared some great songs, and his rich voice filled the room. These three “Ramblin’ Boys” put on a memorable performance.

Andy Hedges

The first artist I got to see was Andy Hedges at the Elko Convention Center. He started off with a poem from Harry Jackson called “Cowboy Brag Talk.” Andy has a great sense of the history of cowboy and Western music and it shows in his performances. His casual style pulls you in to the performance.

The crowd who came to see him were enthralled with the music as he shared his poetry and music mixed with history. He draws on many different styles of American music, blues, Western, minstrel, ragtime, to weave a tale that takes you through some of the under told stories in the great American canon. The second song he played is called “Shadow of a Cowboy” the title track off his most recent record. The songs leans into the mystical realm of Western culture.

It leaves you with images of West, and the characters who have inhabited this land- the ranch workers, the landscape and animals, old saloon with an out of tune piano, pickup trucks, men pitching horseshoes- it’s a beautiful tune.

Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie

This band is a staple at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The band is led by Geno on vocals and accordion. They also have guitar, bass, drums and a washboard player. They have a fun and eclectic sound that is heavily influenced by the sound and culture of Louisiana. Their New Orleans sort of sound is infused with Creole culture and they make music that is easy to dance to. Geno performed with his band at various shows, and he also performed solo at the show called “Blues on the Range” which covered the topic of the African American influence on the Blues and Western Culture.

Wylie and the Wild West

Haling from the great state of Montana this band had an eclectic blend of country and honky-tonk style music. The lead singer, Wylie, switched back and forth between electric and acoustic guitar while the lead guitar player locked things down with a signature “Telecaster” sound. Wylie shared stories of touring with Merle Haggard and sang songs about ranch life.

Hot Club of Cowtown

This three piece band from Austin, Texas plays a “West Texas Swing” style of music reminiscent of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The band is made up of guitar, fiddle, and upright bass. All three players are fantastic musicians; their sound is kinetic and at the very least makes your foot tap. The bass player has a slap bass style that lays down a rhythm to the song while adding a layer of low notes that round out the sound. The fiddle and guitar player traded solos bringing in influences from country to jazz.

The band performed at a number of different shows throughout the weekend, much to the delight of the crowd. They led a dance at the Pioneer Saloon on Friday night, and finished up the week with a stellar performance on the main stage Saturday night.

At that final performance they brought out Dom Flemons for a few songs, each artist taking time to shine in their solos. The crowd ate it up, giving them a standing ovation and demanding an encore. It was a fantastic end to a great weekend of music.

The music of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is really something special. The blend of artists who came to perform this year was really fascinating. What makes this such a unique blend is the educational aspect of the weekend. You not only hear great music, but you hear stories about where this music came from and how it connects to the larger American canon of music. I’ve attended the festival the last two years, and I have learned so much about Cowboy and Western Culture in my time at the gathering.