Baxter Black, the nation’s best-known cowboy poet, whose witty, magnanimous verses about cowpox, fodder, and sweeping vistas elevated the tradition of Western doggerel to something of a folk art, died June 10 at his ranch home outside Benson, Ariz. He was 77.
The cause was leukemia, said his wife, Cindy Lou Black.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider why cowboy poetry even exists. After all, cowboys are not known for their communication skills. Yet the genre is thriving; more than 100 cowboy poetry festivals are held each year, and the itinerant Mr. Black was often the main event.
Drove thin with a mop head-sized handlebar mustache under a gray Resistol hat, modeling himself as something of a Will Rogers from the highlands. He seeded his writing with a blend of soft humor and folk wisdom wrapped in tight rhymes and loose meters, as in his poem “Take Care of Yer Friends”:
Friend is a word I don’t just throw away.
Although it has been used and abused, I still like the sound.
I save it for people who have done me good
And I know I can count on it if it’s ever needed.
Wordsworth isn’t, but Mr. Black made no claim to genius. Cowboy poetry, he said, began as a way to stave off boredom on the trail and to convey stories among men who rarely cracked a book, and endures because it appeals to those who may be intimidated by formal verse.
And, he said, cowboy poetry is fun. Forget about immortality; The Poetry of Mr. Black burst wisely on things like horse manure, the evils of vegetarianism, and the benefits of artificial preservatives:
One day I’ll just sit in my rocking chair on the porch, and everyone will say I look great,
because I’ll be so well preserved, no one will know I’m dead unless they read my expiration date.
His playful couplet was catchy; newspaper profiles often include headlines like “Poem on the Range” and “Write Them, Cowboy.” More than one called him America’s “Poet Lariat”.
Although mr. A former rodeo rider and large animal veterinarian who identified himself primarily as a poet, Black was even more prolific as an essayist and radio commentator. His weekly column, “On the Edge of Common Sense,” appeared in more than 100 newspapers every week for 40 years. His weekly radio show, “Baxter Black on Monday”, was heard on about 150 stations.
If people outside the rural west knew his name, it was probably because of his frequent appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and his years as a guest commentator on NPR, where he specialized in lighthearted tweaking his cosmopolitan listeners.
mr. Black wrote more than 30 books, including poetry, fiction and children’s literature, which his wife said sold an estimated two million copies. He also released several audio recordings of his work – a particularly popular medium among his fans, who would record his tapes on long journeys across the Great Plains.
The writer Calvin Trillin, himself no stranger to casual verse, called Mr. Black ‘probably the most successful living poet in the country’.
Baxter Ashby Black was born on January 10, 1945 in Brooklyn, where his father, Robert, was serving in the Navy.
Robert had a doctorate in veterinary medicine and after the war took his wife, Theodora (Ashby) Black, Baxter and his three brothers to a range of academic positions. He eventually ended up at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where he was appointed dean of the school of agricultural sciences.
Robert Black rose to prominence on the competitive cattle circuit, judging events in the Southwest, an activity that soon attracted his son. In third grade, Baxter had his own cow, and in high school, he had his first horse. In high school, he chaired his local branch of Future Farmers of America (today the National FFA Organization).
“Agriculture, or being close to the earth, is a good way to say it, I’ve always been there,” he told musician Andy Hedges for his 2021 “Cowboy Crossroads” podcast. “There are things a parent can do. give child that no one else can.”
After Robert Black died of a heart attack in 1960, Theodora Black went back to school for a master’s degree and then worked for the state of New Mexico. Her boys also got a job; Baxter worked on ranches and made extra money as a bull rider.
He went to New Mexico state, but his wife said that after three years without a bachelor’s degree, he was accepted into the doctoral program in veterinary medicine at Colorado State University. He graduated in 1969.
Together with his wife, Mr. Black’s brothers, Bob and Steve, are behind; his son, Guy; his daughter, Jennifer Cubbage; and four grandchildren.
After being hired by a cattle ranch in Idaho after graduation, he found himself on the road, traveling from ranch to ranch checking livestock. Along the way, he picked up stories and jokes, and soon discovered he had the ability to relate them to the next batch of listeners.
In 1980, he moved to Denver, where a pharmaceutical company hired him to present his medicines to ranchers and other veterinarians. He found the work tedious and he began to sift through his presentations with some of the stories he’d picked up over the years.
Suddenly he was invited to conferences, not to talk about drugs or cows, but just to talk. When his employer fired him in 1982, he left the world of veterinary medicine behind.
Most of his audience were those who could relate to his stories from the ranch, groups such as the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association and the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association. He was part of the growing circuit of cowboy poetry and began to attract the attention of the national media, who found his ancient wisdom irresistible.
Noting the lack of news about the rural West in national coverage, in 1988 he recorded a poem about a Yellowstone wildfire — “Lightning cracked by the sky like veins across the back of your hand” — and sent it to the United States. NPR headquarters. A few days later, a producer called and asked if they could run it, and if he had more. His commentary would appear regularly for more than a decade.
mr. Black differentiated between his “cowy” audience in the west and his “general” audience on NPR and elsewhere.
“There are a lot of things that are too cranky to play on National Public Radio, like talking too much about cow shit,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2001. “For example, I can let someone slip in the poop, but not hit someone in the face with it.”
He had a busy schedule, up to 150 performances a year, until the mid-2010s when dementia began to undermine his public speaking. But he kept writing. In December 2021, he submitted his last column.
“I consider myself very fortunate to be a part of the wonderful world of horse sweat, soft noses, close calls and twilight on the trail,” he wrote. “I like to live a life where a horse matters.”