JOHNNY CLARE by Larry McWhorter (1957-2003)

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JOHNNY CLARE
by Larry McWhorter (1957-2003)

In north central Oklahoma
In the land known as the Osage,
The spring and early summer
Rest so easy on the eye.
Where the lush, green, rolling carpet
Marks the passing of Mariah
As she dances, sometimes gently
With the clouds which dot the sky.

Much like a ballerina
She pirouettes and leaps
Across her stage of prairie
And she seems to never pause
While high above the scenery
A hawk critiques the drama
While voicing his approval
Flapping wings in mute applause.

The deer, the birds, the woodchuck
Bear witness from their browsing
As they share their home with cattle,
The stewards of this land,
Who took the place of buffalo
In harvesting the bluestem
After they themselves were reaped
When progress dealt death’s hand.

Should you travel through this country
Heading west toward Ponca City,
Fifteen miles out of Pawhuska
On the highway state funds pave,
Some fifty yards or so due south
Of tar and asphalt ribbon
Amid the grass wild roses grow
And there you’ll find a grave.

It once lay on the open plain
Surrounded by tall bluestem.
There’s now a trap with shorter grass,
Well kept, devoid of weeds.
It seems so humble at first glance,
Steel fence, a cross of concrete.
‘Til close examination shows
A cast-iron plaque which reads:

“Johnny Clare
May 1890–May 1910
Cowboy employed by Dr. Hall
Thrown from his horse and
Killed at this spot
Courtesy, Continental Oil Company.”

To be a cowboy was the call
This young man gladly answered.
He’d not trade lots with anyone.
In life he’d found his pearl.
He loved to ride and rope rough stock
To test his skill and courage,
To polish up the dance floor
With a smiling blue eyed girl.

Young Johnny lived the cowboy’s life
And lived it to the fullest.
His pride would let no brute escape
As long as he drew breath.
So he thought not of consequence,
And outlaw steer his quarry,
And on the warm, spring, Osage day
He died a cowboy’s death.

Dwight Barnard was the man who found
Young Johnny’s prostrate body,
He’d tried to crawl but soon succumbed
To sun and broken bone.
From pulling grass out by the roots
His hands were torn and bloody.
Wild with pain he’d pawed the ground,
Afraid to die alone.

The horse he’d rode still stood nearby,
The outlaw steer stood with him.
A stout length of manila hemp
Was stretched between the pair.
There were no human witnesses
To relay what had happened.
The truth now lives with God above
And died with Johnny Clare.

A tinker happened by the way,
And saw a small crowd gathered.
The group was friends and comrades
Of this young man who’d been slain.
He reached into his wagon box,
Produced a tarp of canvas,
With wagon sheet for coffin,
To rest the lad was lain.

A short time later, lore maintains,
A buckboard journeyed out there.
It carried Johnny’s mother
To his final resting place.
Her black dress blowing in the wind,
It’s said she stood for hours,
Praying and remembering,
As tears streamed down her face.

Beneath the rich, black Osage sod
Her precious son was buried.
The one to whom she’d given life
And nourished from her breast.
And though her sorrow knew no bounds,
There was one consolation,
At least she could die knowing
Where her Johnny lay at rest.

How many young men like her son
Have gone to seek their fortune?
Their siren call a lowing herd,
The whispering prairie wind,
Which beckoned to the spirit
Of the ones who tamed the West.
Who left their loved ones wondering
If they’d ever meet again.

How many young men like her son
Met death upon the prairie?
Their flesh preceding bleaching bone
In melding with the sod.
So let us think of Johnny’s grave
As everlasting tribute
To those unfound whose dying gasps
Were heard by none but God.

In north central Oklahoma
In the land known as the Osage,
The spring and early summer
Rest so easy on the eye.
The lush, green rolling carpet
Covers Johnny Clare, young cowboy.
But his spirit’s free and dancing
With Mariah in the sky.

© Larry McWhorter, used with permission
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission.

What beautiful language. A much loved and respected cowboy’s cowboy, poet, and musician, Larry McWhorter left behind an impressive collection of poetry.

Listen to Larry McWhorter reciting this poem here.

He wrote about his inspiration for “Johnny Clare” in his book, Cowboy Poetry: Contemporary Verse, where these words are accompanied by a photo of him at Johnny Clare’s gravesite:

Having been in numerous wrecks and tight spots I have to give thanks to God for protecting me through all of them. Through His grace there was always someone close by the times I was badly hurt.

Anyone who has ever had an angry cowbrute on the end of the their rope knows how fast things can get out of hand. A wreck can occur so quickly you don’t even have time to be scared until it’s over.

Don Wells of Pawhuska, Oklahoma gave me a rough outline of this story and told me where the grave was. Having found the spot, I stood there scanning the surrounding area trying to picture how it might have looked nearly 80 years before.

A genuine chill went through my body as I thought of how Johnny must have felt; unable to move and knowing he might not be found or even missed for days.

I visited with an old Osage Indian who was ten years old when the tinker in the poem came to town with the story. His information was invaluable.

Find more to the story and photographs at CowboyPoetry.com, where there is also more about him and his poetry.

The works of Larry McWhorter, J.B. Allen, Sunny Hancock, and Ray Owens are featured in the first MASTERS  Volume 1 CD (2017) from CowboyPoetry.com. They recite their poetry in recorded poems, “live” performances, and also recite other masters’ works (Buck Ramsey, S. Omar Barker, and Henry Herbert Knibbs). Jay Snider introduces the CD.

Larry McWhorter’s friend, Texas singer and songwriter Jean Prescott  produced an impressive double-CD album of his work in 2010, with his recitations and also recordings by some of his friends reciting his work, including Oscar Auker, Red Steagall, Waddie Mitchell, Andy Hedges, and others. Find more about that project at CowboyPoetry.com and at jeanprescott.com.

This photograph is courtesy of Jean Prescott.

Thanks to Andrea Waitley for her generous permissions.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photo with this post, but for other uses, seek permission.)