An' I spots the corral and a standin' alone
There I sees this caballo, a strawberry roan.
The Original Strawberry Roan
The first horse to run off with me was a roan. His coat was the
color of strawberry milk with flies in it. So I recall. I was ten
years old, and the scene of the action was an old rent stable
called Fox Hills Academy, out on the edge of Inglewood, California.
Fox Hills was near the Los Angeles International Airport where, in
the 1920s, fields of wheat, barley and lima beans had been
converted into landing strips. Then men started dreaming up
freeways, and the freeways tore out the heart of the irrigated
desert. Fox Hills is buried underneath the San Diego freeway. Rush
hour traffic snaking across the horizon.
We've come full circle, when a horse in L.A. would be a faster
mode of transport than a car. Ole Winston Churchill mused: the
substitution of the internal combustion engine for the horse marked
a very gloomy milestone in the progress of mankind. Agreed. But I
wanted to tell you about that roan.
The stable was run by an old gal named Mrs. Kirby, who had a
withered left arm and a helper named Smitty. Smitty was cowboy to
the bone, and responsible for turning my brother Pat into a tobacco
chewing, bull riding, bareback-bronc riding, bulldogging,
horseshoeing, horse trader, and all around western character, with
a mouth on him like Slim Pickens. Smitty was the classic sidekick,
with a yen for cheap red wine and a verbal battery of terse, off
color western remarks. He delivered all his punch lines between
spits of tobacco juice.
Back to the runaway roan horse.
I don't recall the horse's name, but he was one of those special
deals my father picked up over at the L.A. horse and mule auction.
Or he might have been a lead pony, gone bad, from the race track.
My father had a line on sour horses from both venues. My old man
was an Iowa horse trader who spent odd mornings playing poker with
Hopalong Cassidy on the backside of Hollywood Park Racetrack.
Let's call this special deal horse Roanie. For the sake of
poetry. Old Roanie had a few temperament problems. Ticks. This was
the 1950s, before
the age of horse whisperers and the gentler means of dealing
with equine psychosis.
If he didn't pan out as a saddle horse, a misfit like this might
be sold off to a second level bucking string in the San Fernando
Valley. There were weekend rodeos at places such as Crash
Corrigan's movie ranch. Usually a horse like Roanie wouldn't pan
out as a bucker and end up running through fences with terrified
amateur bronc riders trying to weather the storm.
I recall my brother Pat, whenever he was around somebody like
myself who was being run off with, might yell: Good luck, kid. Pick
up the mail in Tucson!
Humor gleaned from old Smitty.
Roanie's trick was to walk gently for a one hundred yards, then
suddenly snort and make a savage U-turn, taking off, hell bent for
the barn. If you were a neophyte rider dumb enough to hold on,
Roanie would aim at the low beam hanging over the back barn door.
The great barn door equalizer. He was a head hunter with worn-out
I was mounted on old Roanie, on this particular afternoon, when
he made his U-turn and bolted. I was holding onto the saddle horn
and talking to the Lord as the barn door beam came into sudden,
looming focus. I had a vision of a scene in Washington Irving's The
Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where Ichabod Crane is chased through the
hollow by the Headless Horseman.
And now to the point. I was suddenly a character in one of my
favorite songs: The Strawberry Roan. I was riding the horse that
could never be rode - that frog walkin', sunfishin' beast that
jumped up the east and came down to the west. The worse bucker even
seen on the range. That pin-eared monster who screamed like a
shoat. Oh that Strawberry Roan...
I ducked my head down at the last minute and rode him through
the barn and into history. My personal history. My memory of what
happened to that horse has faded. But that old song is still stuck
in my gut. The most famous bucking horse song ever written. The
I. Let us Now Praise The Bard of the Bucking Horse
My earliest memory is of cowmen and cattle.
I spent my best years as a cowboy of the old school.
I knew every water hole, I think, from the Sierra
Nevada to Utah. And I still look back to long days
and nights in the saddle, at $30 a month,
as the happiest of my existence.
Letter to John I. White
If you're talking cowboy songs and the foundation of Western
Music then, at some point, you have to deal with several pioneer
poets, among them Charles Badger Clark, Gail Gardner and Curley
Fletcher. We'd also give a backwards nod to the lasting influence
of Robert W. Service, The Bard of the Yukon, and the epic rhymes of
Rudyard Kipling. I'm sure you could carry it back to Chaucer, the
Old Testament, and Homer, and end up with whatever the old cave
painters were trying to say, when they painted running lines of
horses on cave walls seventeen thousand years ago.
The old ballad mongers and versifiers, like Service and Kipling,
could spin a rhymed yarn and build the action. You were there with
them in the trenches. Add Scots-Irish melodies and rank horses to
the evolution of the rhyming ballad, and you arrive at Carmen
William Fletcher, the bucking-stock bard from the Great American
Desert. Curley for short.
The original poem The Outlaw Broncho,
which later became The Strawberry Roan, can be attributed to
Curley Fletcher (1892-1954). He wrote it. He'd lived it. He saw his
poem swirl into western history. The swirling became a cyclone that
knocked Curley backwards and taught him hard lessons about the ins
and outs of the music business, song publishing, and the fleeting
nature of fame and fortune.
The poem contains archetypal western ingredients: a great bronc
fighter comes to town, brags a little, and takes on the horse that
could never be rode. The cowboy ends up bucked off and transfigured
by the ride of his life. The reader is with him in every twist and
spin. In the belly of that original poem lay classic and colorful
horse and bucking-stock descriptions that have never been
Respected folklore authority Hal Cannon,
after an informative phone chat with Curley's daughter,
discovered that Curley wrote the poem one night in pencil on the
back of an envelope. The envelope had held Curley's winnings in the
bareback bronc riding at Cheyenne in 1914. Curley lost all the
money in a poker game and was writing the poem to charm his wife,
Minnie, into letting him back into their hotel room.
Curley didn't know, as Hal Cannon states, that he was the first
person to take the excitement and sheer kinetic power of a bronc
ride and encapsulate it in verse. He'd concocted a classic.
Curley Fletcher was born in San Francisco and raised in the high
desert near Bishop, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.
Curley called it: The Great American Desert. He caught the last
wild end of the deal. Fletcher learned about broncs, early on,
rounding up wild horses with a band of Paiute Indians out in the
desolate Owens Valley of California. The scenario reminds me of
John Huston's The Misfits. Mustanging. Horse herds running hell
bent across desert flats and dry salt lakes. Indian cowboys in
Fletcher's early bronc stomping days pulled him towards the
rodeo arena. He rode bulls, broncs, and steer-wrestled, until a
steer jerked its head back and took out one of Fletcher's eyes.
Curley kept following the circuit, but turned more to poetry and
poker. He was better at verse than cards. He took what he'd learned
from his mustanging experience and folded it all into long colorful
ballads. Curley conjured them up on envelopes and scraps of paper
and gave them away to friends.
Curley published The Outlaw Broncho as a poem for the newspaper
The Arizona Globe in 1915. He changed the title to The Strawberry
Roan in 1917, in his first song and poetry collection, Rhymes of
the Roundup. He sold these little songbooks when he travelled to
rodeos across the west. Perfect size for the back pocket library of
the working buckaroo.
Cowboys began singing Curley's ballad as a slow, deliberate
waltz. The tune came from an unknown balladeer. Or maybe a dude
ranch wrangler. Or was it twisted around and borrowed from an Irish
fiddle tune. Who knows? Thus begins the folk process, and the long
rag tag journey of Curley's bucking horse poem, through the glory
days of western music.
If we take a strong gander at Curley's original poem, it bears
raw resemblance to what evolved into the popular song, The
Strawberry Roan, recorded throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, by
folks like Gene Autry, Marty Robbins, and Wilf Carter. The song
became legend in a matter of three decades: millions of 78s sold;
two motion pictures produced under the Strawberry Roan title;
dozens of parodies and follow-ups.
The core of the tale remained the same in all versions. The
bronc ride and the athletic prowess of the roan horse. Curley's
original draft of the poem was rough around the edges. He wanted
the lingo to sound authentic. He called it the vernacular of the
early pioneer of the traditional west. His poem was filled with
words spelled like: gits, and sez and wuz and hoss, capturing the
tone and the slang of the working cowboy. Spelling and grammar be
I wuz hangin' 'round town just uh spendin' muh time,
I wuz out of a job an' not makin' uh dime,
When uh feller steps up an' he sez,
"I suppose you're a bronc ridin' guy from the looks uh yure
With that ragged, bumpy lingo, Curley was not implying cowboys
were stupid. Far from it. In his songbook, Songs of the Sage, he
declares that it is a mistake to consider the early cowboys as
It would indeed surprise the misinformed individual, were he to
hear discussed at the campfire, chuck wagon, or water hole, the
myths of the Greeks and the Norsemen, The Rise and Fall of the
Roman Empire, or the works of Shakespeare. He would be dumbfounded
to find, upon the table in the bunkhouse, The Rubaiyat of Omar
Khayyam, the works of Keats, Voltaire, Dumas, Shaw, Wilde and many
Indeed. Curley's anecdote impressed me enough to make a list of
a few authors I might have missed in school. Maybe these literary
references reveal how in the hell a wild horse wrangler from the
high desert could have writ' such a masterpiece on an empty rodeo
I found this little gem from a translation of the Rubaiyat:
A book of verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of bread - and Thou,
Beside me singing in the Wilderness,
And oh, Wilderness is Paradise now.
If chance supplied a loaf of white bread,
Two casks of wine and a leg of mutton,
In the corner of a garden with a tulip-cheeked girl,
There'd be enjoyment no Sultan could outdo.
I'm with Omar. Give me a cask of wine, a leg of lamb, and that
tulip-cheeked gal. I'd be singing in the wilderness too. Khayyam, a
Persian, wrote this in the eleventh century. He was a poet,
philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. He seemed to have
pioneered the quatrain form. I imagine if there were a buckaroo in
the bunkhouse with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on his bedside
table, it must have been Curley Fletcher.
In fact Hall Cannon, in his fine introduction to the reissue of
Curley's Songs of the Sage, states that Curley was an avid reader
and carried The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with him religiously.
Though Curley only finished sixth grade, he could speak French and
Spanish fluently. The plot thickens.
Let's cut loose of the biographical stuff, for a moment, and
look at the heart of the poem. Eyeball those great bronc
II. The Art of the Bucking Stock Lyric
We drank the rivers, we rode the twisters
We stumbled down to the ground
But we'll rake and ride, we'll spend our glory
On our last go round
The Last Go Round, Rosalie Sorrels
When dust rising off the backs
Of large animals
Makes a racket you can't think in….
All this Way for the Short Ride, Paul Zarzyski
Curley kept that dog eared copy of The Rubaiyat in his back
pocket, the cover beat to hell from saddle leather and the rock and
roll of rank horses. From reading Khayyam, Curley surely knew and
appreciated the quatrain form. He also had a great ear for the
elements of rhyme. The art of rhyming words goes back to 10th
century B.C. in China. Rhyming is also found in ancient Greek
literature, and in the Bible. Irish literature introduced rhyme to
medieval Europe. The Irish were masters of the ballad form, and the
news of the day was composed into rhyming ballads and broadsheets
by the wandering bards and minstrels, hundreds of years ago.
Forerunners of the songwriter.
When I think of Curley Fletcher, and the great balladeers or
history, I recall hearing about a colorful ballad-monger of note:
the Irish bard M.P. Moran of Faddle Alley, Dublin. Moran was born
in 1793. He was blind. From an early age Moran could memorize
entire books of the bible after one or two hearings. He was later
transfigured as the ballad singer Zozimus; renaming himself after
an early Christian mystic from Palestine, who lived in the desert
and spoke in tongues.
This character Zozimus prowled the streets of Dublin, in long
black cape and a beaver-skinned top hat, hammering the cobblestones
with a gnarly blackthorn walking stick, shouting his lyrics to the
heavens, as they reverberated out of the gutters of Dublin. He
would spend the early hours of the morning in a pub called The
Brazen Head. (The pub is still there, Ireland's oldest, established
in the year 1198. James Joyce mentions it in Ulysses.)
Zozimus prepared his daily ballads at the pub, after having the
newspaper read to him. He'd versify the news, in his mind, and then
stomp off to his regular spot near Carlisle Bridge, where he'd
bellow and sing his ballads and topical songs. His voice had a
piercing raspy quality on the top end, and a cannon boom roar at
the bottom. He could roar all day and night.
The Irish folk singer Dominic Behan noted: Dublin folks woke up
in their sleep and could hear Zozimus, tap-tap-tapping down the
cobblestones, his blind face thrust up at the stars, and his
blackthorn stick tapping menacingly. If anyone dared interrupt him,
he would heap tremendous abuse on them and shout them down. He
brooked no interference. The greatest of ballad singers had been
Zozimus wrote a few lines, now and again, about old milk horses
making their way in the morning. Though blind, he retained a
wondrous knack for the description of working steeds. Horses
conjured up in quatrain and rhyme. A forbearer to our ballad maker,
The core beauty of Curley Fletcher's original Strawberry Roan
poem lies in the description of the horse, and the poetry of the
wild ride. Curley had a stout hold on bronc vernacular.
Here's the key verse, in a cleaned up rendition by Marty
Down in the horse corral standin' alone
Is an old Caballo, a Strawberry Roan
His legs are all spavined, he's got pigeon toes
Little pig eyes and a big Roman nose
Little pin ears that touch at the tip
A big 44 brand was on his left hip,
U-necked and old, with a long, lower jaw
I could see with one eye, he's a regular outlaw.
I guess Curley did see with only one eye. A poet's eye. If
there's a better sketch of a rank, plumb-ugly bronc, I haven't
heard or read it. I'm surprised there wasn't sawdust coming out of
the nag. Some writers wonder what the hell Curley meant by
u-necked. Actually the original was yew-necked. Did he mean
ewe-necked, like a sheep? He never changed the spelling and we'll
never know. His roan had spavined hocks and the ugliest head in
hoss history. Later versions would throw the word cayuse into the
mix, which might mean a northern mustang associated with the Cayuse
tribe of Oregon, or any scrubby looking little horse.
Pin ears? Harry Webb, an old cowboy who used to work for Buffalo
Bill's Wild West Show, described a pin eared horse in a chat with
Walt Thayer in 1979. Harry was talking about the great bucking
horses of the 1920s and 30s.
The greatest of them all, in my opinion, was a beautiful blood
bay called Pin Ears. The tips of this horse's ears were frozen at
the time he was born. He made 53 riders bite the dust before anyone
rode to the finish. That was long before the sissy Hollywooders
thought up the flank strap.
Then we proceed to the wild ride itself. We can see why Curley,
later in life, was hired as a dialogue and color-adviser for
western films. From the original poem:
And he goes toward the east an' he goes toward the west,
An' tuh stay in the middle I'm doin' my best;
Now he's sure walkin' frog an' he heaves uh big sigh
And he only lacks wings fer tuh be on the fly.
Then he turns his old belly right up tuh the sun
An' he sure is a sun fishin' son uv uh gun…
Frog Walking might be described as crow hopping, or a horse that
bucks and hops with an arched back and stiff knees. Sun Fishin' is
described in Ramon Adams' book Western Words as:
A horse when he twists his body into a crescent,
alternately to the right and to the left, in other words
he seems to touch the ground with one shoulder
and then the other, letting the sunlight hit his belly.
Back to old Pin Ears. Harry Webb gives us a real example of the
term sun fishin', and an added lesson on the great old broncs,
before the age of the flank strap:
Pin Ears was a 'sun fisher' and sometimes it looked like he'd
come down flat on one side or the other, but he always hit the
ground on his feet. With a tight buckled flank strap a horse can't
get his head down to buck like the old timers. That's why every
bucker of later years comes out just kicking his heels up and all
but standing on his head. Hard to sit, sure, but I wouldn't walk
across the street to watch a bucker nowadays.
Amen Harry. There wasn't a flank strap on the Strawberry Roan.
And what about that brand on the bronc's left hip? In the original,
published in 1915, Curley wrote: X. Y. Z. iron. Later he changed it
to double square brand. In the Marty Robbins' version it's changed
to: big 44 brand. Glen Ohrlin, in his fine song book, The Hellbound
Train, says that some cowboys even sang: a map of Chihuahua branded
on his left hip. I like that one. It's proof that the folk process
is damned interesting. Ohrlin goes on to illuminate facts about the
Curley's double square brand refers to the
old Double Square Ranch in Nevada which
was actually known among cowboys as having
a cantankerous bunch of horses. I've seen several
broncs in West Coast rodeo strings bearing this brand.
Once Curley hit his stride with the success of The Strawberry
Roan he cranked out more bucking-stock ballads, like The Ridge
Running Roan, and That Bucking Bronc, Coyote. The Ridge
Running Roan ran to twenty-one verses, as Curley tried to outdo
himself with the rankness of this new roan horse. It doesn't have
the poetic balance, however, and the impact of the original roan
Curley explored the physics of bucking in another ballad, Bad
Brahma Bull, recorded by Tex Ritter. The bull is a sun fisher and a
fence rower (scraping cowboys off on fences, I presume), and has
dust is fogging 'right out of his skin.
Back to the poem's journey.
III. Where Good Men Die Like Dogs
If you steal my purse, you do me no wrong,
But God forbid you should steal my songs
For it's down in hell such likes belong
And not with decent people.
Zozimus (M.J. Moran)
In 1931 The Strawberry Roan was sung by Everett Cheatham in the
Broadway play Green Grow the Lilacs. Tex Ritter sang four songs in
this show, as the character Cord Elam. The play utilized
traditional cowboy songs and told the story of a cowboy falling in
love with a farm girl.
Cowboy themes were "in." In the early 1940s Rodgers and
Hammerstein were much intrigued by the success of Lilacs. They
collaborated on their first classic musical, Oklahoma, based on the
plot of the Green Grow the Lilacs. In 1934 Cole Porter concocted
the western hit, Don't Fence Me In, from a poem he'd purchased for
$250 from a Montana poet named Bob Fletcher, no relation to Curley.
Bob Fletcher had to sue Porter's publishers to get his name on the
song, which was later recorded by Roy Rogers, Bing Crosby (a
million seller), Ella Fitzgerald, and Willie Nelson.
In 1938, the renowned American classical composer, Aaron
Copland, utilized traditional cowboy songs in his popular ballet
Billy the Kid. Copland also used western and folk music in the
ballet Rodeo, and portions of that score were used in commercials
for the American Beef Industry.
By the mid-1930s, western music was popular and The Strawberry
Roan was growing famous, while Curley Fletcher was mostly ignored.
Old Strawberry entered that netherworld where lyrics were duded-up
by Tin Pan Alley pros, and copyrights were applied for. The checks
were in the mail, but not for Curley Fletcher. Around this time
there was a singing duo who called themselves: The Happy Chappies,
made up of Fred Howard and Nat Vincent. They published and sang
several versions of the songs; some with a refrain added:
Oh that Strawberry Roan, Oh that Strawberry Roan
They say he's a cayuse that's never been rode
And the guy that gets on him is sure to get throw'd…
I remember hearing my Grandfather sing this chorus. The Happy
Chappies version was a minor hit, later recorded by The Sons of the
Pioneers, with Leonard Slye (Roy Rogers) on vocals.
Curley met The Happy Chappies, and he was eventually given
credit on the back of their song folio for composing the original
poem. Most of the money still went to the duo. Curley kept trying
to set the record straight. If you didn't lawyer-up, back then, you
were lost. I am reminded of a quote on the music business
attributed to the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson:
The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long
plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die
like dogs. There's also a negative side.
Cowboys didn't have the inclination to pick up a phone and hire
a lawyer. Naw. Instead Curley published his original version of the
song, once again, in his Ballads of the Badlands, a song folio
sitting here on my desk. It states inside that the song was written
to be sung in cowboy style. I can only imagine that cowboy style
means a slow waltz on a plunky guitar, sung with a dust-blown slur
or a mouth full of chaw. The illustrations in Ballads of the
Badlands were drawn by Curley's father in law, Guy Welch, a painter
and muralist I've written about in the essay: The Michelangelo of
the Western Saloon. Welch painted cowboy murals up and down the
west coast, trading drawings, paintings, and murals, for drinks and
The songbook Ballad of the Badlands includes a brief note from
The author has spent his life in that part of the West known as
the Great American Desert…he has been a cowboy, muleskinner,
prospector and what not, but refuses to admit ever having herded
Then Curley discovered that the roan song had appeared in John
Lomax's early cowboy and folksong collections, but Curley
Fletcher's poem wasn't mentioned. The Lomax family were early
pioneers of song collecting, but their sources and attributions
towards authorship were sometimes questionable, or at the very
least imaginative. They also understood copyright law. Back in
those days it was open season on the so-called traditional ballads.
Even musical arrangements can be copyrighted, so the publication of
major song collections could be a lucrative endeavor.
John Lomax first attributed The Strawberry Roan to a dude ranch
cowboy named Whistle in 1929. Go figure. Curley was fed up with the
Lomax tribe, publishers, song stealers, and the bogus huckster-life
outside the high desert and the real west. He fired off a letter to
John Lomax indicating the authentic date when the song was first
published under his name. He added:
Anyone laying claim to having heard or read the
The Strawberry Roan prior to those dates, above mentioned, is a
damned liar, branded so in the eyes
of God, myself, himself and the devil.
Lomax eventually set the record straight, but culled the song
from future editions. Lomax probably didn't want to be involved in
monetary or legal hassles. But the saga goes on, and song-mongers
and ballad thieves clustered around the Roan like flies.
To quote folklorist Austin Fife:
How could Curley Fletcher anticipate, as he sent his Strawberry
Roan to the Arizona Record, where it was first printed in 1915,
that it would sell a few million 78 rpm records, appear in scores
of song folios and other books, and provide the making for a movie
script? He even ended up paying royalties for a right to publish a
tune and refrain for his own song!
Curley thought the authorship matter was finally settled. Hold
on, partners. Enter, stage left, vaudeville cowboy singer,
arch-Hawaiian crooner, and world class windy story teller: Powder
River Jack Lee, who performed with his wife Kitty. Powder River
Jack made bogus claims to having written the Roan song, and also
asserted he'd written Gail Gardner's classic Sierry Petes (Tying
Knots in the Devil's Tail.) Author John I. White says that Powder
River Jack suffered from an overactive imagination.
Curley Fletcher and Gail Gardener, who'd become pals, went
searching for Jack's head, and tracked him down in Phoenix. But
Powder River was a slippery character.
Gail Gardner reminisces thirty years later:
That dude come swingin' into Phoenix thirty years ago packin' a
steel guitar and a hula skirt fer his wife, Kitty. They found
a rather sorry reception for that sorta music on the radio, so he
bought hisself a fancy cowboy outfit, loaded him and Kitty down
with belt buckles 'n boots and began singin' every cow song he
could wrap his tonsils around. Curley and me got pretty damn sore
about his liftin' our songs without
so much as a by-your-leave, but when we got together to see what
we could do about it, we found our only recourse was to sue him.
Hell, he didn't own the clothes he stood in, and of course neither
Next, Hollywood took interest in The Roan. In 1933 Ken Maynard
appeared in a movie titled: The Strawberry Roan. In that scenario
the roan is a renegade stallion, and ranch wranglers are trying to
round him up. In 1948 Gene Autry starred in another version, this
time a young kid is injured by being bucked off a wild roan, and
his father wants to shoot the horse. Gene Autry steps in, singing
all the way, and tames the horse, hoping to give it back to the kid
and cheer him up. It was Gene's first color film.
Then came the parodies and take offs. In the early 1940s a blue
version surfaced, titled: The Castration of the Strawberry Roan.
One source claims Curley wrote it himself in New York City. Maybe
Curley wanted to douse his frustrations, and kill off, or neuter,
his beloved old roan. Lord knows they'd never put this version in a
Broadway Musical. Parental guidance suggested.
A bootleg version of this bawdy song exists, and the vocals are
alleged to be The Sons of the Pioneers, though they didn't put
their name on it for obvious reasons. In my first meeting with Ian
Tyson, back in 1986 in New York City, we began work on the song
Navajo Rug and drank mucho red wine. Later in the evening Ian sang
The Castration of the Strawberry Roan into my reel to reel tape
recorder. Unfortunately, the tape has disappeared into history.
Maybe it surfaced in The Bronx, and ended up as a rap song. The
folk process prevails.
The version begins thusly:
I was layin' round town in a house of ill fame,
Laid up with a rough, tough hustlin' dame,
When a hop-headed pimp with his nose full of coke
Beat me outta that woman and left me stone broke.
That's the tame part. You'll have to hunt up the rest for your
own edification. Omar Khayyam is turning pink.
But I bets all muh money thar's no man alive
That kin stay with that bronc when he makes that high dive.
So it goes. We could look even deeper into the song, but the sum
power and mystery of the balladeer's art is greater that the
dissection of lines. The song has endured. The parodies and
imitations abound. Curley went on to work as a magazine columnist,
essayist, and prospector. His last years were spent seeking out
mining properties in California. At one point he owned a mine with
Tex Ritter. The money never lasted. Curley gambled or gave it away
to cowboys down on their luck. The fame and fortune hustle always
paled against those early days and nights in the saddle, at $30 a
Curley died in San Jose, California, in 1954. I'd like to think
his grave marker says something raw, like: I Never Herded Sheep. I
hope they buried him with his copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,
and the empty rodeo-winnings envelope, upon which he'd scrawled, in
pencil, the classic bronc poem of all time. The Strawberry Roan.
Writ' by a great poet, branded so in the eyes of God.
Tom Russell's newest record: Mesabi, and his art book Blue
Horse/Red Desert, are now available from www.tomrussell.com
Special thanks to Gary Brown for the historical posters, photos,