Dec. 20, 2004
The Cowboy's Lament
Poem: : "The Cowboy's Lament" from Folk Songs and Spirituals.
The Cowboy's Lament
As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a poor cowboy wrapped up in white linen,
Wrapped up in white linen as cold as the clay.
"Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Play the dead march as you carry me along;
Take me to the green valley, there lay the sod o'er me,
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong.
"I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy"
These words he did say as I boldly stepped by.
"Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story;
I was shot in the breast and I know I must die.
"Let sixteen gamblers come handle my coffin
Let sixteen cowboys come sing me a song.
Take me to the graveyard and lay the sod o'er me,
For I'm a poor cowboy and I know I've done wrong.
"My friends and relations they live in the Nation,
They know not where their boy has gone.
He first came to Texas and hired to a ranchman,
Oh, I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong.
"Go write a letter to my gray-haired mother,
And carry the same to my sister so dear;
But not a word of this shall you mention
When a crowd gathers round you my story to hear.
"Then beat your drum lowly and play your fife slowly,
Beat the Dead March as you carry me along;
We all love our cowboys so young and so handsome,
We all love our cowboys although they've done wrong.
"There is another more dear than a sister,
She'll bitterly weep when she hears I am gone.
There is another who will win her affections,
For I'm a young cowboy and they say I've done wrong.
"Go gather around you a crowd of young cowboys,
And tell then the story of this my sad fate;
Tell one and the other before they go further
To stop their wild roving before 'tis too late.
"Oh muffle your drums, then play your fifes merrily;
Play the Dead March as you go along.
And fire your guns right over my coffin;
There goes an unfortunate boy to his home.
"It was once in the saddle I used to go dashing,
It was once in the saddle I used to go gay;
First to the dram-house and then to the card-house;
Got shot in the breast, I am dying to-day.
"Got six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin;
Get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall.
Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,
Put roses to deaden the clods as they fall.
"Then swing your rope slowly and rattle your spurs lowly,
And give a wild whoop as you carry me along,
And in the grave throw me and roll the sod o'er me,
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong.
"Go bring me a cup, a cup of cold water,
To cool my parched lips," the cowboy said;
Before I turned, the spirit had left him
And gone to its Giver -- the cowboy was dead.
We beat the drum slowly and played the fife lowly,
And bitterly wept as we bore him along;
For we all loved our comrade, so brave, young and
We all loved our comrade although he'd done wrong.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Hortense Calisher, born in Manhattan (1911). She grew up in New York City, surrounded by crowds and excitement and culture, but as a young woman she got married and moved to a small town where she felt increasingly isolated and paralyzed. Then, one day, she got the idea for a short story "A Box of Ginger" while walking her son to school, and it became the first story she ever published in the New Yorker magazine. Hortense Calisher said, "First publication is a pure, carnal leap into that dark which one dreams is life."
She went on to write many novels and collections of short stories, including In the Slammer with Carol Smith (1997) and Sunday Jews (2002). Her most recent book is Tattoo for a Slave, which came out last month.
It's the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Benedict, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1954). She thought she wanted to be an art historian until a college professor wrote on one of her papers that she obviously wanted to be a novelist. She said, "The night I got that paper back, December 19, 1973, I decided to be a writer. I went back to my dormitory room and took out a notebook and wrote, 'I must write in this book every day, it does not matter what, and one day it will turn into fiction.' I don't know how I knew that. But it turned out to be right."
Benedict got a job working for a Mexican-American legal advocacy group and wrote her first novel, Slow Dancing (1985), about an immigration lawyer. She has since published several more novels, including The Beginner's Book of Dreams (1988) and Almost (2001).
She said, "I suppose I'm interested in souls in fluxof all ages. So far, I've taken an optimistic outlook on the matter of change. I want my characters to change for the betterto become deeper, braver, more complete people."
It's the birthday of experimental novelist David Markson, born in Albany, New York (1927). He's best known for his novel Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988), which was rejected 56 times before being published. It's about a painter named Kate who believes she is the last person on earth.
As a young man, Markson became obsessed with an obscure, stream-of-consciousness novel about Mexico called Under the Volcano (1947). He said the book knocked him out of his chair when he first read it. He reread it half a dozen times, and then began to write long, confessional letters to the author, Malcolm Lowry. He traveled to the remote shack in Canada where Lowry lived, and later wrote a twenty thousand-word thesis about the book for his literature degree at Columbia, even though most of his teachers thought he was crazy.
Markson started out as a writer working on pulp detective novels. Then an editor asked him to write a western, so he decided to try. He said, "After about three pages...I realized that I couldn't take it seriously. So I turned everything upside down, all the men cowards, all the women homely as sin, and played it for the humor."
The result was Markson's first novel and his biggest success, The Ballad of Dingus Magee (1966), which has one of the longest subtitles in modern publishing history. The full title reads, in part, "The Ballad of Dingus Magee: being the immortal true saga of the most notorious and desperate bad man of the olden days, his blood-shedding, [and] his ruination of poor helpless females... interspersed with trustworthy and shamelessly interesting sketches of 'Big Blouse' Belle Nops, Anna Hot Water, 'Horseface' Agnes, and others, hardly any remaining upright at the end."
Markson went on to write a series of increasingly more avant-garde novels, including Reader's Block (1996) about a writer named reader who's writing a book about a character named Protagonist. His most recent novel is called This Is Not a Novel (2001).
It's the birthday of newspaper columnist Max Lerner, born near Minsk in a part of Russia that is now Belarus (1902). His father went to the United States before Lerner was born, and eventually saved up enough money to bring the whole family over. Lerner's father worked in the garment district in New York City for several years, and then spent all of his savings on a farm he'd never seen in the Catskills. It turned out to be so full of stones that it was almost unfarmable. The family later moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Lerner's father ran a grocery store and delivered milk.
Lerner got into Yale University on a scholarship, but as an underprivileged townie, he never fit in with the prep school crowd. He said, "I was short and Jewish, and the beautiful girls didn't want anything to do with me." He enrolled in Law School, but dropped out because he said he didn't want to spend the rest of his life fighting for somebody else's house deed. Instead, he decided to study economics, hoping to understand the forces that had made it so hard for his father to support his family.
After years working as a professor of social sciences, Lerner became a political columnist for the New York Post. He worked at the Post from 1949 to 1991, commenting on everything from nuclear weapons to post-war materialism. He also wrote many books, including The Unfinished Country: A Book of American Symbols (1959) and The Age of Overkill: A Preface to World Politics (1962). Near the end of his life, he published a memoir about his own fight against cancer, Wrestling with the Angel (1990).
Max Lerner said, "When you choose the lesser of two evils, always remember that it is still an evil."
It's the birthday of poet, novelist and essayist Andrei Codrescu, born in an old medieval fortress city in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania (1946). He's best known for his essays, broadcast on public radio and collected in books such as The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans (1993) and The Dog with the Chip in His Neck (1996).
His father disappeared when he was six months old, and he never saw the man again. He witnessed the communist take-over of Romania, and he has always remembered how the smell of apple strudel in his hometown was overpowered by the smell of boots.
Codrescu didn't like literature as a kid because he said, "Writers [were] supposed to glorify the Communist Party and workersgirl meets tractor, boy meets girl on tractor, and tractor meets everybody." But then he discovered the forbidden Romanian poets, and fell in love with poetry. He said, "I realized that language did not have to describe or glorify anything. It existed in its own right."
He and his mother fled to the United States just before he got drafted into the Romanian Army. They landed in New York with a plane full of Yugoslavs who were singing "America the Beautiful." He didn't know any English when he landed in the United States. He said, "It's still a mystery to me exactly how I learned the language. [But] I was 19 years old and I had very urgent things to tell girls." After hanging out with hippies, runaways and poets on the streets of New York for a few years, he published his first book of poems, License to Carry a Gun (1970).
Codrescu went on to write a wide variety of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and then, in 1989, he traveled back to Romania to witness the democratic revolution. While he watched, forty-five years of Communist rule were undone in eight days. He wrote about the experience in his book Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution (1991). He said, "By doing the story, I was paying a debt to my childhood."
Andrei Codrescu's most recent book is the novel Wakefield, which came out this year.
Andrei Codrescu said, "It's not too late to discover America, which seems to get discovered over and over and never definitively."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®