CACTUS TRACKS & COWBOY POETRY
By Baxter Black
275 pages, $23
In The Buffalo Evening News, Sept. 18, 1958, Charles A. Brady informed surprised readers that Robert W. Service, the sourdough poet whose 1907 ballad "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" everyone knew and many could recite, was dead at 82.
No one did literary news better than Brady. Always droll in his erudition, always possessing the salient literary fact, Brady knew, for example, that in 1917 the Yale School of Engineering, with 34 votes, nominated Lord Alfred Tennyson as its favorite poet. Service was second with 33 votes.
Brady cited Service's numerous books of verse, the likes of "Lyrics of a Lowbrow and Rhymes of a Rolling Stone." Service's single health book, "Why Not Grow Young?" (1928), Brady reported, was wonderfully batty. It recommended eating 22,000 potatoes a year.
That was Robert W. Service, bard of the Yukon, the prospector's poet.
Here's Baxter Black, cowboy poet, in this new collection, "Cactus Tracks." Black doesn't have anything yet that is in the major league of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," though he's working hard at the versifying trade, reciting poems and spinning yarns on NPR's "Morning Edition." He has been at it since 1988 and he has, Black tells us regularly in his sidebars, a sizable following.
Here's what gets them going:
'Twas the night before Christmas and Rudolph was lame!
The vet from the North Pole said, "Footrot's to blame.
I'll give him some sulfa, it's the best I can do,
But stall rest is needed the next week or two.
"Great Scott!" cried old Santy, he turned with a jerk.
"I won't git through Pierre if my headlight don't work!
On Interstate 40 I'll surely get fined
and lost in Montana if I'm flying blind!"
There is the Nation of Islam, the Cherokee Nation, the Navajo Nation, and the nation of people who listen every day to NPR. Pumping iron in the morning, this nation listens to "Morning Edition." Chopping celery at dusk, it listens to "All Things Considered." Some listeners say Sylvia Poggioli's name with her whenever she pronounces her name. Catholics get special indulgences for doing this, time off from their Purgatory sentences. Listeners admit Baxter Black is a mighty fine handle for a cowboy poet.
NPR is one of the last great reserves of genteel American populism. It gives us the news, tells us the stories and plays us the music we want to know. It wants to embrace our diversity. It hymns a jovial inclusivity. It proclaims its universalizing grasp. In the morning, Baxter Black. In the evening, Andrei Codrescu.
National Public Radio. "All Things Considered." These names have sock. They're big ones.
Not everyone in the United States, of course, listens agreeably to NPR or accepts its comprehensive representation. Not everyone is of NPR Nation. Ask Chuck Colson, or any of the crypto-secessionist Christian Right intellectuals, how national National Public Radio is.
Why isn't Baxter Black on TV in some Montana Mayberry sitcom? He has the voice, a wired windy Western voice, a comic Wyatt Earp mustache and an antic cowboy look. He has the character. He's NPR's cowboy poet and former large-animal veterinarian. Put him in L.A., give him a situation.
A piece from Baxter Black on "Morning Edition" is usually amusing. A book of Baxter Black is another matter. Cowboy humor quickly palls. Black's cowboy poetry, I think, fairly operates in "Hee Haw" territory. I had high hopes reading his film review of "Babe" and was disappointed.
"Ballads of a Cheechako" (1909) is generally considered Service's best work. How much of it can you read: "The Ballad of Pious Pete," "The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill," "The Ballad of One-Eyed Mike," etc.? These are verses best sung around a fire at night.
Always welcome the stranger who can do a recitation. Here's Baxter Black, at his best, fresh off the range.