For the many unfortunates who managed to miss cowboy poet legend Baxter Black when he spoke at Barnes and Noble Booksellers in early December, you have another chance. And what better way to start Rodeo Week here in Tucson than to mosey on down to Tohono Chul Park and hear Mr. Black spread some of his Western lore and wit.
Granted, you’ll have to come up with some scratch (read “money”) this time around, but think of it as a good cause since you will be supporting that wondrously preserved earth island in the middle of an urban sea. Heck, I hear you can find rattlesnakes in Tohono Chul if you are so inclined.
Baxter Black is as Western as you can get, though he was born in New York City at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital, 16 days after Christmas, in January 1945. He is a war baby and not a boomer, which in my book gives him ample credibility. Before some of you get your feathers ruffled, I am a latter-day boomer, though I take no pride in such a distinction. And though Black may have been birthed near the lapping waters of the Atlantic Ocean, as a result of his father serving in the navy during World War II, his roots are here in the American Southwest, having been raised on a ranch near Las Cruces, N.M.
He has all the credentials, and then some, in regard to being associated with the noun “Cowboy.” There are plenty of posers out there who might pass as a cowboy, on looks alone, but Baxter’s gentle way lets you know he is the real thing. He rode bulls in high school and college and even managed to letter in wrestling, though his slender build defies such a history. He served as president in the FFA (Future Farmers of America) and was senior president in high school. One is not usually elected to any kind of office unless displaying an aptitude for wooing a crowd. He was also a reporter for his school paper, which obviously came in pretty handy later in life.
He is a highly educated cowboy, though he would be the last to flaunt such an achievement. He attended both New Mexico State University and Colorado State University, earning degrees which led to an early career in the veterinary field. I wonder if he managed a tuition break at NMSU since his dad was dean of agriculture. Black finished up his college stint in 1969 and continued doctoring animals until the early 1980s, when a greater calling pulled at his talents. That is not to say he still doesn’t doctor animals today, since he lives on a large parcel of land in the San Pedro Valley doing what cowboys do, ranching.
You can witness Baxter Black’s wit just by reading some of the interviews he has done during the past few years, as well as reading his books and columns, or listening to him on National Public Radio. Black’s self-published book “A Cowful of Cowboy Poetry” is a pretty good start for those who would like to bone up on Baxterism (my noun).
Black began writing poetry in his middle 30s, just as Jimmy exited stage left and Ronnie entered stage right. So it was during our last, deep economic conflagration that Black gave up a lucrative income to test the waters of what would become a modern genre, the cowboy poet. Though Western ballads are as old as the American cowboy lifestyle, the poetry Black gives us is modern, touching on such subjects as “My Kinda Truck,” his deep love for a well-worn pickup, to a poem about a modern ranch foreman whose boss is losing everything, but also how this employee must now tell his wife that they are also about to lose it all as well. Black touches you with laughter as well as with somber glimpses of our modern West.
Black even got me to thinking about my late father when I read “Ol’ Duffy,” about a cowhand who no one would sleep near due to his … well, snoring. During campouts my Dad could easily have been mistaken for a bear in deep hibernation. Nothing could possibly disturb him, but his snoring would have sent cattle on a stampede.
Rumor has it Black has never accepted an award and has no use for our many modern conveniences, stuff like cell phones.
Once asked by a high school reporter what his definition of a cowboy was, he responded “Someone who can replace a uterine prolapse in a range cow in a three-section pasture with nothing but a horse and a rope.” Okay, that pretty much takes out all the posers.
And Baxter Black can call himself a cowboy because he is an example of the Code of the West: lives his day with courage, takes pride in his work, has always finished what he has started and does what has to be done. A cowboy can be tough, but fair, will make a promise and keep it, sticks with the brand, even in tough times, and knows where to draw the line.
The best laugh for me was reading that he wants to be remembered as being “someone who didn’t embarrass his friends.” I’m sure he will accomplish such a feat, but we should be so lucky.