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Ken Graydon dies at 77; poet and storyteller

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For Ken Graydon, repairing cars was a living.

But writing poetry and song lyrics and tall tales to be told and sung around a campfire was his passion.

For anyone who thinks of poets as smallish, shy, intellectual fellows who look inward, Graydon was a shocker.

He stood 6 feet 4 and, in his prime, weighed 220 pounds. His idea of a fine time was mixing with friends from the disparate worlds of poetry and classic cars, and swapping songs and stories long into the night. His voice was a strong baritone, and he was generous with praise for other versifiers.

Graydon, devoted to the craft of telling stories through rhyme, stories about men who worked outdoors with their hands, often the rough-hewn men who, in his view, are the backbone of the real America, died July 30 at his home in Fallbrook, Calif., after a monthslong fight with cancer. He was 77.

The characters in Graydon's poems are often a mix of saint and sinner, like real people.

"The Parson" tells of a frontier preacher and horse trader who hoodwinks a stranger into buying a bad nag whose "ribs and shoulder bones stuck out / He looked like walkin' death."

The parson has no regret when his congregation accuses him of being ungodly in the deal.

No clouds passed o'er the parson's brow.

His face assumed a grin.

He spoke 'He was a stranger,

And me, I took him in.'

Graydon's poems often have a wistfulness for bygone days, particularly "In Congress," his look at the cemetery in the ghost town of Congress, Ariz.

Here in silent rows convene

You delegates, at rest, serene

To represent the citizens

Of times we will not see again.

For decades, Graydon, wearing his 10-gallon hat and strumming his guitar, was a favorite at cowboy-poetry fests in the Southwest and other gatherings. He liked that word because "gathering" is the term cowboys use to describe herding cattle together. He served as master of ceremonies at the annual Death Valley Encampment.

He compiled his stories, poems and lyrics in a collection called "The Way I Heard It… The Book," and folk singers Glenn Yarbrough and Tommy Makem recorded Graydon songs.

He performed at the annual sea chantey festival at the Star of India tall ship docked in San Diego Bay. His "A Whaler's Tale" was considered a classic, with its mournful story about the perils of the sea:

Just then a great fluke smashed our boat

The whale I didn't see

Now I believe them fish can think

As well as you and me.

Kenneth Hoyt Graydon was born in Long Beach on Oct. 30, 1933. His family moved to the San Joaquin Valley, and he grew up on a ranch in an adobe home designed by his mother. He learned at an early age to admire the cowboys, like his father, and their love for the land.

In "Heaven Scent," Graydon says that for ranchers, "of all of life's perfumes, the sweetest by far / Is the first fifteen minutes of rain."

His admirers have compared Graydon's poetry to that of Walt Whitman, who also celebrated the American working man. Graydon's wife, Phee Sherline, said his personal favorite was the poet Robert Service, best known for his tales of prospectors and others in Alaska.

"He rhymed all his poetry because that's the way his thinking went, and he found the exercise of rhyming fun and a challenge," Sherline said of her husband. "Also, he found that rhyming caught the listener's attention."

Graydon's work often had an environmental or social conscience. His poem about the beleaguered Los Angeles River had the line, "Ooze on, L.A. River, ooze on." In the 1960s, when social unrest beset the country, his lines called for reconciliation, of people to celebrate their agreements, not their disputes.

Every year in late July, members of a group called Songmakers would come to the Graydon spread in Fallbrook to share their "homemade music." This year was no different, although Graydon's illness left him so weak he could not perform. He died the night of the gathering.

His survivors include his wife, brother Don Graydon, stepchildren Drew Sherline, Reid Sherline and Monica Stapleton, and six grandchildren.

A memorial party is set for 2 p.m. Sept. 4 at his home in Fallbrook.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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