Poet in Chaps

Scott Hill Bumgardner's lifelong passion for cowboy poetry began when his horse fell on him and broke his pelvis. He began penning poems to keep from going insane during his recuperation. Now he's the president of the Cowboy History and Performance Society (CHAPS), where he strives to preserve cowboy history through verse, story and song.

"It goes back to when a bunch of lonely men sat around -- long before Walkmans or TVs -- and made up some stories," the former police officer says. "Some of them would put it to rhyme." The CHAPS Cowboy Gathering will re-create this sort of communal campfire entertainment with poetry, storytelling and old-time music at Blanco's Bar and Grill. There will even be a chuck wagon in the parking lot selling stew and the like.

For a taste of the sort of poetry the cowboys will be reading, here's a stanza from Bumgardner's Houston's Courage, about Sam Houston's victory over Santa Anna's armies in Texas's war for independence: "More courage was never seen / Than Sam showed in those days / To keep in check an army / To make 'El General' pay."

Bumgardner sometimes includes selections from one John Lomax, whom he considers to be one of the fathers of cowboy poetry. The folklorist was the first to record such notable cowboy songs as "Home on the Range" and "Get Along Little Dogies," and just so happens to be the great-grandfather of the Houston Press music editor of the same name. (Cowboy poetry "is not as bad as you assume it would be," the fourth-generation John Lomax says of the art form.)

Bumgardner has a bit of a family connection to the genre himself. In 1838, his great-great-great-great-grandfather Hugh Kerr wrote what Bumgardner claims to be the first epic book of Texas poetry. It's called Poetical Description of Texas, Narrative of Many Interesting Events in That Country, Embracing a Period of Several Years, Interspersed with Moral and Political Impressions, also an Appeal to Those Who Oppose the Union of Texas with United States, and the Anticipation of that Event.

Now say that three times fast.

Bumgardner often mixes some of his ancestor's verse with his own during performances. One of his favorite Kerr lyrics is about Santa Anna set to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Other poets scheduled to make an appearance are Lloyd Shelby, "Casual Cowboy" Ted Dennison and Rod Nichols, whose poem "Headin In" introduces chapter 23 of Sandra Day O'Connor's autobiography, Lazy B: "Someday this'll be over / just the prairie, grass and wind / I hope He'll let me pass this way / When it's time for headin in."

These rhyming fables created by solitary cattlemen and cowboys working alone in the open country have a small but loyal following. Bumgardner spins stories in historical re-creations at the George Ranch and in connection with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. As to why people still like to listen to a tall tale or a sad song, he has a theory. "Poetry is the basis of all music," Bumgardner says. "Even this crappy rap stuff we're listening to -- although that's debatable."

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Dylan Otto Krider