OL’ PROC, by Wallace McRae


by Wallace McRae

Old-timers in the neighborhood
Would bandy words on who was good
At puncher jobs for hours on end when I was just a kid.
They’d get wall-eyed ‘n paw and bawl
And swear, “By damn I knowed ’em all.
If’n Josh he wasn’t best trailhand, I’ll eat my beaver lid!”

“Down and dirty, I’m the dealer
Old Bob Seward? Best damn peeler
Ever snapped a bronc out, jist give me one he broke.”
“Give you say? That’s what I heard.
You’re right that Bob’s a tough ol’ bird.
But better practice cactus pickin’ and work on your spur stroke.

Cain’t stay astraddle one of his his’n
When he pops the plug and goes t’ fizzin’
She’ll be adios caballo and howdy to the nurse.”
They’d move from bickering bronc peeler
To rawhide hands ‘n fancy heelers.
“Red Carlin?” “Young Mac Philbrick?” They’d testify and curse.

They’d analyze Link Taylor’s cuttin’:
“His bag-splittin’ way of calf denuttin’
Is pure askin’ for trouble, ‘sides he don’t cut by the sign.”
“You cut your calves by the moon?
Keep on night brandin’ and pretty soon
The sheriff’ll change yer address and you’ll be twistin’ hair
and twine.”

On they’d rave and postulate
‘Bout who was fair and who was great.
As they scratched brands in the hot dust, I’d never say a word.
But in their jousting verbal battle,
Among the boasts and barbs and prattle,
I sat in youthful judgment as they sorted out the herd.”

So, I came early to understand
The names of every good top hand.
In my scope of country, from hearing tough hands talk.
But when they’d crow and blow and boast
The one name that came up the most
Was a wily wild horse runner they simply called “ol’ Proc.”

“You boys jist start ’em. I’ll stop ’em.”
Old Proc’d say and then he’d chop ’em
Off at some escape route. He’d wheel ‘n bring them in.
“Proc thinks horse,” I’d heard them say,
And finally there came the day
That I would get to meet this fabled mounted paladin.

My mother’s father, John McKay,
Up and said on fine spring day
While I was staying with them, “Minnie, get your bonnet.”
“Let’s go up by Castle Rock
‘N see some country, visit Proc.
If you’re late, I’ll be upset. You can bet your life upon it.”

He never paused for her reply.
My grandma fussed around and I
Asked grandpa, “Is he the wild horse man?” “That’s him,”
my grandpa said,
As we ricocheted and bounced our way
In a tobacco-stained green Chevrolet
My grandpa told “Proc stories” and chewed and spit and sped.

From all the tales Grandpa told me
I felt like an authority
On this ranahan, Joe Proctor, who came north with Texas cattle.
His wife had been the JO cook.
But Proc had sparked and won and took
Her for his bride. They fought and won the homestead battle.

I couldn’t wait to meet Mr. Proc,
Whose peers all praised his ways with stock.
But when his calloused hand gripped mine, surprise hit me
in waves.
Those old cowboys who cut no slack
Deemed it unimportant Proc was black,
And wasn’t worth a mention that Joe Proctor’s folks were slaves.

© 1992, Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission.

View Andy Hedges’ recitation of this poem at the Western Folklife Center’s 2019 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Earlier this year, Wallace McRae, third-generation Montana rancher and National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow, told us about  this poem, which is based on a real person, Joe Proctor, who came up to Montana with Texas cattle. His grandfather talked about him, and told how he and his wife were the only Black people he ever knew.
There was a Black woman who was a cook at an area ranch, and Joe Proctor would ride over to visit her and they eventually married. Some of their descendants still live in the area. Wallace McRae’s grandfather would say that Joe Proctor was widely respected as “a heck of a hand.” Wallace McRae said that Joe Proctor died before he had the chance to meet him, and added that he took a bit of liberty in the poem.

Wallace McRae is most well known for his own least favorite poem, “Reincarnation.” A closer look at his work shows a body of serious work as well as his unique humor.

Find his stirring, masterful poem, “Things of Intrinsic Worth,” performed in 2013 and a part of To the West, a feature-length documentary work-in-progress by H. Paul Moon.

Wallace McRae has retired from public appearances. Find more of his poetry and more about him in our feature at CowboyPoetry.com. He relishes being known as “The Cowboy
Curmudgeon” (which is the title of one of his books). You can share this post, but please don’t otherwise use his poem without permission.

The Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (January 27-February 1, 2020) in Elko, Nevada will have a focus on the historic and contemporary culture of Black cowboys through performances, exhibits, films, and more.

Noted photographer and journalist Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is most famous for her Depression-era photograph of a migrant woman, and she captured images of other migrants and workers, including cowboys.

This 1936 photo by Dorothea Lange is from The Library of Congress. It is captioned:

Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Texas. Born a slave about 1850, south of San Antonio, Texas. Came to Carrizo Springs during Civil War with white men seeking new range for their cattle. In 1865, with his master was one of the first settlers. He knew Billy the Kid, King Fisher, and other noted bad men of the border.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem with this post, but for other uses, request permission. The photo is in the public domain.)

TALENT, by Rod Nichols


by Rod Nichols (1942-2007)

Lord knows why the boss ever hired him,
he wuzn’t what you’d call a hand,
he stayed in our way or in trouble,
not much of a cowboy that man.

I think that the boss would’ve fired him,
just waited to find the right way,
til after our supper one evenin’
he took a mouth-organ and played.

It might have been Red River Valley
or Down In The Valley so low
or Kathleen or Come To The Bower,
to this day I don’t rightly know.

But that doesn’t really much matter
cause whatever tune that he played,
when that rascal pup started playin’
we all wuz right glad that he’d stayed.

Have you felt the warm wind on the prairie,
the soft mourning call of a dove,
then you may have some sort of feelin’
for what we wuz all thinkin’ of.

The cares of the day soon forgotten,
they vanished without any trace,
there wuzn’t an hombre among us
without a big smile on his face.

The Lord gives to each man a talent
to use or to hide as he may,
there wuzn’t no doubt ’bout his talent
whenever that feller had played.

Lord grant me just one little favor,
please help me a bit now and then,
to call on just half of such talent
to shine as a light before men.

© 2002, Rod Nichols
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Texas poet Rod Nichols left many gems. He is greatly missed by his many friends. He wrote this poem soon after September 11, 2001, when he told us he had sensed a growing interest in cowboy poetry and music, and wrote, “… Here is one more that speaks to the use of the talents that the Good Lord has given us all whatever they may be.”

Find more about Rod Nichols at CowboyPoetry.com.

This 1937 photograph by noted Depression-era documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is titled, “The Texas cow-puncher in town for the day. The ranch for which he works is 90 miles away, and the road which leads to it passes one house on the way. Van Horn, Texas.”

The photograph is from the digital collections of the New York Public Library. Find more about it here.

Find more about Dorothea Lange in many sources, including a biography from Ken Burns’ film, The Dust Bowl,  at PBS.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem with this post, but other uses require permission. The photograph is in the public domain.)

THE BORDER AFFAIR, by Charles Badger Clark


by Charles Badger Clark (1883-1957)

Spanish is the lovin’ tongue,
Soft as music, light as spray.
‘Twas a girl I learnt it from,
Livin’ down Sonora way.
I don’t look much like a lover,
Yet I say her love words over
Often when I’m all alone—
“Mi amor, mi corazon.”

Nights when she knew where I’d ride
She would listen for my spurs,
Fling the big door open wide,
Raise them laughin’ eyes of hers
And my heart would nigh stop beatin’
When I heard her tender greetin’,
Whispered soft for me alone
“Mi amor! mi corazon!”

Moonlight in the patio,
Old Señora noddin’ near,
Me and Juana talkin’ low
So the Madre couldn’t hear—
How those hours would go a-flyin;!
And too soon I’d hear her sighin’
In her little sorry tone—
“Adios, mi corazon!”

But one time I had to fly
For a foolish gamlin’ fight,
And we said a swift goodbye
In that black, unlucky night.
When I’d loosed her arms from clingin’
With her words the hoofs kep’ ringin’
As I galloped north alone—
“Adios, mi corazon”

Never seen her since that night,
I kain’t cross the Line, you know.
She was Mex and I was white;
Like as not it’s better so.
Yet I’ve always sort of missed her
Since that last wild night I kissed her,
Left her heart and lost my own—
“Adios, mi corazon!”

…Charles Badger Clark, 1907

Badger Clark’s poem has been sung by many, from Ian Tyson to Bob Dylan, best known as “Spanish is the Loving Tongue.” In Git ALong, Little Dogies (1975) John I. White tells that Prescott, Arizona cowboy singer Bill Simon put it to music in 1925, a few years after he did the same for Gail I. Gardner’s “The Sierry Petes.”

Badger Clark got his cowboying experience in Arizona. He became the Poet Laureate of South Dakota, where he was born and lived for most of his life. He wrote many lasting poems, and others that found their way into song include “The Old Cow Man,” “Ridin’,” and “To Her.”

Find much more poetry and more about Badger Clark in features at CowboyPoetry.com.

Enjoy Dave Stamey’s great rendition of “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” from a 2013 Western Folklife Center National Cowboy Poetry Gathering performance.

Michael Martin Murphey has a likewise outstanding recording.

We’re considering a future MASTERS CD of Badger Clark’s poetry. Do you have a favorite poem or favorite recitation? Do you recite a lesser known Clark poem? Email us.

This 1936 photograph by noted Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange seems to fit the mood. It’s from The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

(This poem and photo are in the public domain.)

CATTLE by Berta Harte Nance (1883-1958)


photo by Dorothea Lange, The Library of Congress


by Berta Harte Nance (1883-1958)

Other states were carved or born
Texas grew from hide and horn.

Other states are long and wide,
Texas is a shaggy hide.

Dripping blood and crumpled hair;
Some fat giant flung it there,

Laid the head where valleys drain,
Stretched its rump along the plain.

Other soil is full of stones,
Texans plow up cattle-bones.

Herds are buried on the trail,
Underneath the powdered shale;

Herds that stiffened like the snow,
Where the icy northers go.

Other states have built their halls,
Humming tunes along the walls.

Texans watched the mortar stirred,
While they kept the lowing herd.

Stamped on Texan wall and roof
Gleams the sharp and crescent hoof.

High above the hum and stir
Jingle bridle rein and spur.

Other states were made or born,
Texas grew from hide and horn.

…by Berta Hart Nance

In his 1941 book, The Longhorns, J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964) writes, “The map of Texas looks somewhat like a roughly skinned cowhide spread out on the ground, the tail represented by the tapering peninsula at the mouth of the Rio Grande, the broad head by the Panhandle. But ‘Cattle,’ by Berta Hart Nance, goes deeper than the map.”

Berta Hart Nance (1883-1958) was the daughter of a rancher, who was also a Confederate veteran, Indian fighter, and cousin of Jefferson Davis,” according to the Texas Almanac, which includes more about her life and writings. In 1926, her book-length poem about Texas was published, The Round-Up. She had two other books of poetry published, and her work was included in many anthologies.

Find more about her and her poem at CowboyPoetry.com.

This 1938 photograph, “Cattle range on the high plains of the Texas Panhandle,” is by noted Depression-era documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). It’s from Library of Congress U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs. Find more about it here.

Dorothea Lange is best known for her Depression-era photograph of a migrant woman. See that photos and others in a 2013 Picture the West at CowboyPoetry.com.

Find a brief biography of Dorothea Lange, a part of Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl, here. The Museum of Modern Art has a gallery of photos.