Poetic Preservation : A group of actors will perform traditional and contemporary cowboy writings at the Gene Autry museum.
By day, they work the ranch, stubborn holdovers of an era that survives mainly in myth.
By night, they jot down their trials and triumphs, hoping future generations will never forget their place in the nation’s folklore.
The American cowboy is also a poet.
“They’re viewed as rednecks and hillbillies,” said actor Bruce Boxleitner. “But there’s a very eloquent voice out there. It’s a way of life that is disappearing but one that should be celebrated.”
This weekend, the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum will do just that when the Green River Ropin’ and Recitin’ Preservation Society Players, made up of film and television actors dedicated to maintaining the heritage of the West, will present, “A Gathering: Verse and Music From Out of the Old West and New West.”
The actors will read traditional and contemporary cowboy poetry reflecting the rancher’s struggle with the land he--or she--loves. A country-western ballad, written by playwright Sam Shepard, will also be performed by singers Kregg Nance and Mimi Craven during a break in the recitations.
Each member of the reading group, which appears every few months at Los Angeles-area theaters, has appeared in a Western film or television show. In addition to Boxleitner, who will appear next year in a new “Gunsmoke” TV movie, other readers include actors Lee de Broux, Lee Purcell, Melissa Gilbert, Martin Kove and Bo Hopkins. It is not certain whether any poets will attend.
The group was established last year by de Broux, a veteran character actor who will play a U.S. marshal in the film “Geronimo,” scheduled for release next month. He said he was roped in the first time he read a cowboy’s poetry.
“These people carry on an oral tradition that has been passed along for over 100 years,” de Broux said.
One of his favorite poems, “Sold Out,” by Vess Quinlan, a rancher from Alamosa, Colo., reveals the pain of a cowboy whose ranch was losing money. The cowboy in the poem had to sell his cows and horses.
The worst will come tomorrow When we load the saddle horses We are past turning back The horses must be sold
“Cowboys live a hard, dangerous life, and know how to express it beautifully,” de Broux said. “They see death all the time.”
The group will also recite the work of women poets from the Old and New West. In most cases, actress Lee Purcell explained, the woman was the one left behind while her husband braved the dangers of the often-lawless territory.
“It got very lonely for these women,” said Purcell, who appeared in the television film, “The Gambler,” with singer Kenny Rogers. “Often, the men would die, leaving (a wife) with 12 kids.”
One poem, “Woman of the Land,” by Gwen Petersen, a rancher from Big Timber, Mont., typifies the struggle:
And now she ran the ranch alone And with her partner gone The only thing remaining true The land was there each dawn
Purcell said that interest in cowboy poetry has grown significantly in recent years. Each winter, the Western Folk Life Center sponsors a cowboy poetry “gathering” in Elko, Nev., where cowboys recite their poetry and participate in writing workshops. Last year’s event drew about 8,000 people.
“We have people coming to hear the poets who are not Western people,” she said, “but who relate to the cowboy’s attachment to open spaces. That need, to want to have a place of your own, is something that everybody feels. They write about more than leather and spurs. They write about love and losses.”
Where and When What: A reading of traditional and contemporary cowboy poetry. Location: Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. Hours: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m Sunday. Price: $10 for members, $15 for non-members. Call: (213) 667-2000, ext. 317.