Barry Hertz, |
A Cowboy's Prayer
Famous long ago, Charles Badger Clark (1863-1957) -- no relation to the undersigned as far as I know -- has passed out of the memories of all but older South Dakotans and devotees of cowboy poetry. Clark didn't invent this last form, but he surely was, and is, its master. Some of his poems also evolved into folk songs assumed by most who hear or sing them to be of unknown authorship. No serious folk-music listener is unfamiliar with "Spanish is the Loving Tongue," which began its life, sans melody, as Clark's "A Border Affair."
That song does not appear on A Cowboy's Prayer, but the title piece does, and it must be known to Leonard Cohen. Cohen wrote "Ballad of a Runaway Horse," which appears on Emmylou Harris's 1993 Cowgirl's Prayer. "Runaway Horse" opens, "Say a prayer for the cowgirl...." One doesn't expect to encounter Leonard Cohen and Badger Clark in the same sentence, but it is clear enough that the former is conversant in the latter's work. In fact, the song is strikingly like one Clark could have written.
Clark grew up in South Dakota but left his native state for a few years in Arizona, where he sought to rid himself of tuberculosis. He spent most of his time in the company of cowboys, whose ways and yarns enthralled him like nothing he had ever experienced. He started writing up their stories, mostly in verse, and soon they saw print in a variety of popular magazines. A modest, kindly man, he loved nature and wildlife and lived alone and somewhat reclusively, always on the financial margins, in a tiny cabin -- now preserved as a South Dakota State Landmark -- in the Black Hills near Custer.
He was not a songwriter, though he played guitar. He was aware of the concept of "folk songs," and he was pleased when he learned that cowboys were attaching melodies to his ballad-like verses. He did not mind at all that many who sang these songs or recited his words had no idea who wrote them. He just wanted them to mean something to people and to live on.
Alberta-based folk singer Barry Hertz has put 11 Clark pieces to song. Listening, one reflects that these were always meant to be sung. They have the structure and resonance of traditional ballads, or at least idealized versions of them. Clark was a literary man, but one with a keen ear for vernacular expression, and he wrote like an angel with chaps, celebrating range life but not quite sentimentalizing it. Cowboys, who ought to know, thought he got it about right.
Clark was an original and true talent. Consider, for example, the first cut here, "Jeff Hart," whose subject is a cowboy who left the range to fight and die in World War I. It uses this simple couplet as a refrain to growingly devastating effect:
Jeff Hart rode out of the gulch one night.
There's also humor in Clark's worldview, expressed genially in a couple of pieces about the cowboys' love of song and raucous good times, notably "The Bunk-House Orchestra," anchored in the strains of "Turkey in the Straw."
Hertz, who writes the traditional-sounding melodies, plays acoustic guitar and fronts a small, quiet instrumental ensemble -- his own personal bunk-house orchestra -- employing guitars, fiddle, harmonica and bass. His voice, a tenor whose consistent understatement serves the songs elegantly, wears well. It's soft-spoken enough to hint that it is not telling you the whole tale, generously leaving the rest for you to embrace into your own heart and imagination.
Possibly, I suppose, some listeners might object that the songs and melodies feel too much alike. I don't think they do, but the larger point, it seems to me, is that Clark was writing to an era rapidly passing, Hertz singing to one virtually gone. The consistency is in the elegiac tone, and that's as it should be. Surely, in Barry Hertz, Charles Badger Clark has found a worthy receiver of the music that was always waiting inside his words.
7 July 2007