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Cody (Wyoming) April


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April, 2005
23rd Annual Cowboy Songs and Range Ballads  Cody, Wyoming

JeriD05.jpg (7678 bytes)  Report and photos by Jeri Dobrowski


Painting Cody and the West with Words

For 23 years, cowboy singers and performers have been making their way to Buffalo Bill Cody's home in the Rockies for Cowboy Songs & Range Ballads. The theme for this year's gathering was "Paint the West with Words."

Cody, Wyoming may have the most perfect venue in which to host a cowboy song festival: the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Besides offering classrooms, galleries and a comfy auditorium, those assembled can explore the center's museums: the Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, Draper Museum of Natural History, McCracken Research Library, Plains Indian Museum and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art. And, they have a great gift shop, too!

If all that wasn't enough, there's the town of Cody itself, named after frontier showman, Buffalo Bill Cody. Nestled in the heart of downtown - like an heirloom gem in a Victorian mounting - is the Irma Hotel. Named for Cody's daughter, it's the place where performers and fans gather for a hearty breakfast or a late night jam session. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Irma's fireplace is made of Big Horn Basin fossils, minerals, rocks and ore. The cheery wood bar, a gift from Queen Victoria to Buffalo Bill, is original to the 1902 building.

Central to the Cody event are the symposiums. Speakers invited this year were Mark Gardner, Cascade, Colo.; Greg Scott, Nogales, Ariz.; Gene Davenport, Jackson, Tenn.; Brenn Hill, Hooper, Utah and Hal Cannon, Salt Lake City. Gardner, a Western historian, outlined the work of N. Howard "Jack" Thorp, who collected and printed (in 1908) the first book of cowboy songs (  Scott focused on the turn-of-the-century poetry and prose of South Dakota native Badger Clark. Davenport highlighted the life and works of Bob Nolan, one of the original Sons of the Pioneers. Hill shared his viewpoint as a contemporary songwriter. Cannon introduced his film "Why the Cowboy Sings" and described themes common among cowboy singers.

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Thorp experts Mark Gardner, Cascade, Colo. and Rex Rideout, Conifer, Colo.


photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Mark Gardner and his banjo-mandolin, thought to be the instrument Thorp carried when doing his field research.


photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Rex Rideout


photo by Jeri Dobrowski
A close look at Rex Rideout's 1906 Gibson mandolin

Friday evening's concert at the Cody High School featured Liz Masterson and Sean Blackburn, the Bunkhouse Chorale, Brenn Hill and the New Pioneers. Ken Overcast, Chinook, Mont., served as host. On Saturday, Jim Garry, Cody, assumed emcee duties. That lineup included Kip Calahan, Rydin' High, Gwen Petersen and Leslie Keltner, and the Desert Sons.

The talents of these folks were augmented by musicians and groups who played at venues throughout the museum: Joe Bain, Jake Fleming, Bill Chiles, Hub Whitt, Wyoming Red, Duane Dickinson, Otto Rosfeld, Open Range, Dave Schildt, DW Groethe, Roz Brown, Glenn Ohrlin, Bob Lantis and John Shreve. Nearly 20 others participated in open mic sessions.

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Leslie Keltner, Cody, Gwen Petersen, Big Timber, Mont., and DW
, Bainville, Mont., share the stage during a Saturday session at the
Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

School program presentations included "Songs and Instruments of the Frontier" by Mark Gardner and Rex Rideout; "Play the Harmonica" by Open Range; "Pioneer Party Games" by the effervescent Otto Rosfeld; "Horse Sense" (the basics of gentling a horse) by Larry Thompson and "Rodeo Road" by Kip Calahan.

Weekend classes and workshops were held at the museum complex. Hal Cannon and Brenn Hill directed one workshop toward young, aspiring writers. Hub Whitt nearly emptied the tack room and bunkhouse for "The Cowboy and His Gear." Gwen Petersen presented a rhyme and meter workshop. A video was shown in memory of Lyle "Wild Horse" Cunningham, Miles City, Mont., a regular at the gathering. John Shreve and Jim Garry's presentation was on "The Cowboy Chuck Wagon."

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Hal Cannon, Salt Lake City, takes the stage at the Buffalo Bill, sharing a folksong he learned while doing field research. Behind him is a Charles Belden photo, one of many displayed in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center Photo Gallery.

Locals and visitors turned out in droves for poster signing events held around town. Performers sang for their supper, crooning to diners in local eateries during the lunch and supper hours. Then there were the jam sessions. Whether it was the mountain air, conducive facilities or the right phase of the moon, Cody was abuzz with great jam sessions every night. And, those lucky enough to be at Cassie's Supper Club caught Kip Calahan doing a nightly set with the house band.

photo by Jeri Dobrowski

Leslie Keltner, Cody, Wyo., Kip Calahan, Animas, N.M., Linda Hausler, Livingston, Mont., and Liz Masterson, Denver, Colo., harmonize during a jam session at the Irma Hotel. Fiddle player, Billy Browning, Casper, Wyo., lends his talents to the great sounds.


photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Norrine Linderman, Billings, Mont., and Leslie Keltner, Cody, team
up for a duo during one of Norrine's sets at the Irma Hotel.

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Hub Whitt, Thermopolis, Wyo., on guitar and Stan Howe, Helena, Mont.,
on fiddle delight dancers after hours in downtown Cody.

photo by Jeri Dobrowski

Bill Chiles, Idaho Falls, Idaho, finishes a song at one of Cody's great jam sessions. Chiles captivated diners at Maxwell's, a popular local eatery, on Saturday night when he sang for his supper.

Cody's cowboy music event is great fun in a laid-back setting. The town is friendly and easy to navigate. Although close to Yellowstone Park, lodging is plentiful because it is the off season. It is rumored that next year's event may be moved to Mother's Day weekend to coincide with Cody Wild West Days. Be sure to check with organizers before making plans to attend in 2006. You may access the Web site for Cody's Cowboy Songs & Range Ballads at

2005, Jeri Dobrowski

The following additional report by Jeri Dobrowski first appeared in Tri-State Livestock News:


Jack Thorp and Badger Clark in Cody spotlight

Cody's Buffalo Bill Historical Center covers all the bases when planning Wyoming's Cowboy Songs & Range Ballads festival. There's plenty to delight the ear, but there are also seminars for the cerebral cowboy music connoisseur.  In its 23rd year, education is central to the April event.

Mark Gardner, Cascade, Colo., opened the symposium with comments on N. Howard "Jack" Thorp. Referred to by some as the godfather of cowboy music, Thorp compiled and published the genre's first songbook in 1908. Further, he is credited with having written one of the most heart-rending cowboy ballads of all time, "Little Joe the Wrangler."

Thorp was an easterner, make no mistake. He played on the same polo team as Theodore Roosevelt. However, he had the adventuresome heart of a cowboy and found his way west. In 1889, Thorp transcribed two verses of "Dodgin' Joe" as sung by a group of black cowboys near Roswell, N.M. The next day, he set off on a 1,500-mile journey that took him in search of songs. He sought out cowboys, sheepherders, saloon keepers, gypsies, medicine show professors, theater and circus performers. Collecting cowboy songs became his life's work.

Gardner's presentation wasn't all talk. He produced a diminutive banjo mandolin or piccolo banjo, similar to the instrument Thorp carried on his travels. While the words are similar, Gardner's style varies greatly from today's interpretations. For more on his work, go to

Badger Clark was the focus of Greg Scott's address. An educator and historian from Nogales, Ariz., Scott is particularly interested in Clark's works written while he lived in Arizona Territory. A contemporary of Thorp and frontier photographer L.A. Huffman, Clark was drawn to the desert because of tuberculosis. He spent four years there, during which, Scott contends, Clark turned to words as much to heal his body as to stay connected with family back home in South Dakota.

Clark blossomed in the desert - as surely as flowers follow rain. After penning "In Arizona" and "A Bad Half-Hour," both poems, Clark added short stories to his repertoire. In 1910, Clark returned to South Dakota. In 1915, he published Sun and Saddle Leather. Scott ranks the classic among a handful of poetry collections every Westerner should own.

Culminating a decade's research, Scott just published a collection of Clark's short stories, previously unpublished or out-of-print poems, essays and letters and an assortment of his best known poetry. Available in one volume,
the hardback is available through

For more information on Cowboy Songs & Range Ballads, contact the Buffalo Bill Historical Center at (307) 587-4771 or online at

2005, Jeri Dobrowski


(See our feature here on Greg Scott's book, book, Cowboy Poetry, Classic Poems & Prose)


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