Traditions of Cowboy Storytelling
Once upon a time in a small town nestled in the American South Plains, on a sun soaked early autumn afternoon, a cowboy dressed in black strummed the cords of the banjo with his callused hands. For those old enough, the notes conjured images of cowboys, sprawled around a glowing campfire after an exhausting day on the cattle drive. These cowboys produced the tunes that carried the words of time-honored tales to eagerly awaiting ears. This afternoon in 2015 was no different.
On Tuesday, September 22nd, the afternoon sun begun its long decent westward through a cloud-spattered sky. Strangers walked the weathered limestone hallways of the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, past the warm greetings of volunteers dressed in traditional frontier clothing, under the watchful eye of a preserved steer hanging above, and alongside aged wooden wagons onto an outdoor brick patio. The stale air of a dying summer day gave way to a warm, steady breeze. Under the sporadic shade of looming trees, an eclectic audience sat in carefully composed rows of gray metal chairs. Pregnant mothers wearing bold, white sunglasses sat with fidgety toddlers, grandfathers dressed in standard ranching attire watched the crowd fill the patio, and dads in embossed work shirts greeted their waiting families. Young elementary students were engrossed in the pages of their newly purchased Hank the Cowdog books. They quietly read aloud to the eager ears of mothers and grandmothers. Parents read aloud to young children sitting in the shade of their umbrellas. In this rare moment, bound books outweighed the sights and sounds of digital devices. Adults waved to friends as a young boy waded through the crowd behind his mother talking to anyone who would listen. His words filtered through the low rumble of chitchat and the hum of a distant freeway, “This sun is really bright. Look at all these people. I couldn’t find a parking spot but I did!” A game of tag commenced at the entrance of a dark, wooden barn with young boys in shorts and tennis shoes yelling, “you’re it”. The screech of a microphone check echoed off the tin roofed porches of the patio as a woman leaned over and asked a shy looking toddler, “you ready?”
Under the swaying arms of a metal weather vane, a man dressed in black mounted the small stage. He caught the watchful eye of a few, but did little to interrupt the lives of the bustling audience. With his back to the audience he began to unpack his banjo. A tan cowboy hat shielded his face as he focused on his busy hands. A glimpse of his face yielded a life weathered by hard work. His long-sleeved, black button up work shirt served as a canvas to colorful embroidery across his shoulders and along the cuffs. The accompanying black jeans were complimented by a leather belt and black cowboy boots. His attire signaled the presence of a true cowboy, who had taken the time to put his best foot forward for an important event. There was nothing fake about this man’s appearance or mannerisms. Before long, a woman equal in age joined him on stage. He turned to greet her, yielding bright red embroidery on the front of his shirt, topped off with a white handkerchief tie emerging from under his buttoned collar. The wind rustled her short, curly, salt and pepper hair as she slung the strap of her mandolin across her shoulder for the sound check. She wore a sequined, long-sleeved, denim cowboy shirt accompanied by a long, black skirt and matching boots.
The sound check completed, the man in black visited with folks in the shade. Four elementary school children nervously approached the man in black, books in hand. Their eyes widened with excitement as one of the girls nervously waved for her mother to join them before they committed to the encounter. The man in black smiled and said, “no problem”, as he signed their books and posed for a group picture. Others took note and a small line quietly formed behind them. The man in black never appeared rushed as he gave a warm smile and hello, taking the time to visit with each of his admirers, young and old alike. A quiet bustle of activity slowed the line to a small trickle, concluding with the man in black quietly tucking his classy, black pen away. The gentle breeze carried faint sounds of cowboy boots quickly scurrying to their seats.
“We at the National Ranching Heritage Center are proud to present John R. Erickson.” The crowd erupted in applause. “Mr. Erickson has written and published 75 books and more than 600 articles, and is best known as the author of the Hank the Cowdog series of books, audio-books, and stage plays.” The man in black then took the stage with his female partner. He strummed his banjo evoking the lore of cowboys past and present before singing the soft lullaby of his first verse, “he’s happy with his dogs, he should have kissed a frog.” His first song served as a calling card, the ringing of triangular dinner bell out on the ranch. It quieted the game of tag, summoned children to settle down and cozy up to the figurative campfire for a round of songs and stories. Children nestled into their parent’s laps, finding just the right spot to rest their head. And with the humor of a seasoned ranch hand, Mr. Erickson greeted the audience, “Don’t y’all have any better place to go?”
Mr. Erickson humbly told of his transformation from cattle rancher to recognized author, explaining that,
“I wrote [my books] to be read aloud by families sitting around the kitchen table, by a family say in Lubbock.”
To further his vision, the advent of audiobooks presented the opportunity for the stories to come alive through the oral tradition of storytelling, enhanced by the inclusion of songs written and performed by Mr. Erickson and his wife. This performance of Hank the Cowdog in Concert was a sampling of such storytelling.
When examining the elements of cowboy storytelling, which naturally elicit audience participation and engagement, several themes emerge. First and foremost is the sense of community. Mr. Erickson’s books are not something to be read alone but rather experienced communally. His audience ranged in age from newborns to senior citizens, the majority of which participated equally in the experience. Young children silently crept through the audience to sit on the stone patio in front of the stage while adults slowly ignored the hustle and bustle of daily life to gaze at the author, contemplating his story. These shared experiences allow stories to be passed down from generation to generation. First published in 1982, it’s likely that some parents read these books as children themselves and were now introducing their own children to the series.
When the author read an excerpt from his book, the context of his story appealed to multiple generations. He told of an escaped bull on the ranch and the ranch dogs’ mission to wake the family, alerting them of the danger, which for some appeared to be a complex and unfamiliar event. He compared the dogs’ mission to a military operation, complete with “artillery barks” and combat humor, “I’m locked and lowered”, “What?” said Hank, “Licked and livered” he replied. The author was not afraid to incorporate more advanced vocabulary words, such as “scolding”, “ordinance”, and “marveled”; however, he naturally embedded context cues and clarification ensuring that even his youngest listeners followed along. In contrast, the storyteller was not afraid to use slang, “Hey, you big ape! Watch what you’re doing!” which elicited roaring laughter from the mouths of little boys. His words gifted the audience with a rich description of the events, allowing the listener to focus on the story as it related to their own individual experiences. “If you owned one, then you know that yellow labs are the sweetest, kindest, loving, forgiving, and most attentive dogs” he explained. He included details, such as the cowboy wearing his boots on the wrong feet as he strutted into the dark front yard in his pajamas. In a digital age where stories are readily presented through pictures and videos, Mr. Erickson painted a verbal masterpiece that unfolded in the minds of each of his listeners.
From the beginning, Mr. Erickson recognized the vast audience as an active partner in this shared reading experience. He welcomed feedback as he set the tone for Hank’s moonlight mission stating, “Raise your hand if it gets too scary.” The author skillfully applied an arsenal of dramatic elements evident of a seasoned storyteller. His booming voice provided inflection and emotion specific to the story. On occasion, he skillfully utilized pitch changes and accents embedding an additional layer of character emotion, which resonated specifically with younger audience members. Mr. Erickson’s humor colored his story from every angle imaginable, while providing explanation to those who needed it:
"A big, yellow Labrador retriever stumbled out of some wild plum thickets on the south side of the road, and—this is the most amazing part, so pay attention—on his head he was wearing a BIRD CAGE...that’s right, he’s a bird dog after all."
His humor united the audience in laughter and smirks, as they looked around referencing their neighbors. It allowed listeners to participate in the experience without disrupting the flow of the story’s presentation.
The evening’s acoustic finale came via the rhythmic variations characteristic of blue grass music. Like his other songs, episodes from his books perfectly accompanied the folk song nature of this genre. In unison, the audience listened as the lyrical story unfolded while tapping the toes of their cowboy boots, sparkling sandals, and running shoes, and then clapped in harmony between versus. A little boy of three or four clapped his hands in the air as he danced in circles around an older sibling sitting on the concrete patio. “Oh, rotten meat, rotten meat! The odor’s deliciously subtle and sweet. Coyotes love to cheat and we love to eat. This life would be rotten without rotten meat.” With fresh memories of humorous lyrics lurking in their heads, it’s easy speculate how many families spent the evening gathered around the kitchen table or snuggled up on the couch, reading the tales of Hank the Cowdog.