The Strawberry Roan

Wednesday, February 01, 2012   

An' I spots the corral and a standin' alone

There I sees this caballo, a strawberry roan. 

Curley Fletcher,

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 brakes.

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 Strawberry Roan.

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.

Curley Fletcher

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 bested.

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 their wake.

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 damned:

 

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 clothes."

 

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 illiterate:

 

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 others.

 

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 winnings envelope.

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 lyrics.

 

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 born.

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, Curley Fletcher.

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 Robbins:

 

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 brand:

 

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 poem.

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 food.

The songbook Ballad of the Badlands includes a brief note from Curley:

 

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 sheep.

 

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 of us

wanted Kitty.

 

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.

 

IV. Endings

 

But I bets all muh money thar's no man alive

That kin stay with that bronc when he makes that high dive.

Curley Fletcher

 

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 month.

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, and illustrations.

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