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David Althouse’s "Cowboy Christmas Carol" and Badger Clark's "A Cowboy's Prayer"

While cowboy poetry is a genuinely American genre, cowboys worldwide share the same traditions & values of living close to nature & to God.

David Althouse

David Althouse

Introduction and Text of David Althouse's "Cowboy Christmas Carol"

The speaker in cowboy poet David Althouse's "Cowboy Christmas Carol" spins a deeply spiritual yarn about an old cowboy whose mystical experience leads him to a state of grace and thankfulness that he had been lacking—even though he had lived a relatively carefree life in the open prairie that he loved.

Cowboy Christmas Carol

For a hard-bitten ol' cowpoke like me a Christmas ain't always merry;
I've spent most of 'em a-ridin' fences, a-sleepin' in line cabins out on the prairie.
So for most a my hard life the spirit of Christmas did not abide within my heart.
How I come to possess the spirit is the story I hafta impart.

Tha year was '87 and I was a-follerin' doggie trails,
A-drinkin' rot gut whiskey to forget about my life's travails.
Ih was two days from the line cabin, at a far off lonely place,
A-roundin' up some strays, the snow whippin' crost my face.

Night came of a-suddin' so's I bedded down to rest,
A tin can full o' hot coffee a-restin' crost my chest.
Of a-suddin' I heard somthin' a-flutterin' down from the skies.
I taken a closer look an I couldn't believe my eyes.

It looked to be some kind o' Christmas Angel from the first I did suspect,
What with all the sugar plums a-hangin' 'round 'er neck.
Holly laced 'er halo an' lustrous pearls adorned 'er wings,
An' 'er sweet little silver bell voice was a-trillin' little ting-a-ling-a-lings.

"Cast away your fears, cowboy," she says, "I'm an Angel sent from on High,
And I'm here to do the bidding of the Great Trail Boss in the Sky."
Dadgumit she talked! She's a bonafide Angel fer shore!
Was I'a-goin' feral or was it that bad hooch I drank the night afore?

"It isn't the whiskey," she says, a-readin' my mind.
"You don't even know it cowboy, but it's Christmas time."
She had me dead to rights on that one, an' it caused me much chagrin,
Causin' the last time I partook a Christmas was back in ... heck, I don't know when.

"Why, thar ain't no time fer Christmas out 'ere Angel," I says. "It's absolut' absurd.
I've got fences to mend an' orn'ry doggies to git back to the herd!"
She says, "You've sunk lower than the wild beasts, lower than a longhorn steer,
For even the furry animals keep Christmas once a year."

"Critters a-keepin' Christmas?" I says. "Now this I gotta see!"
"Very well, cowboy," she says. "Come fly the night sky with me."
Well my eyes got as big as poker chips when flyin' she did suggest.
"Just take hold of my arm, cowboy," she says, "and I'll do the rest."

To a quiet faraway meadow we flew, to a lonely stand o' pines,
An' when I looked down a'neath them trees I was in fer a big surprise.
Fer a-layin' thar a'neath them trees all cuddled up on the ground,
Was ever' kind o' furry critter anywhere to be found.

Rabbits, squirrels, birds and deer all a-layin' in one spot,
With a coyote, wolf and mountain lion a-standin' guard over the entire lot.
She says, "They're huddled together because the spirit of Christmas fills the air."
"Mebbe so," I says, "But them smaller critters should be a-scampin' outa thar!"

"They've nothing of which to worry," she says. "Peace fill their hearts upon this night."
"Whatever ya thank," I says, " but they'd best make dust afore first light."
Yet, as I beheld this miracle, I recollect I shed some tears,
A-rememberin' all the wasted Christmases of my long-gone yesteryears.

I vowed I'd do thangs different, that I'd make another start,
That ever' day I had left I'd keep Christmas merry in my heart.
Then I gave thanks to this 'ere Angel fer a-savin' me from my demise.
She just smiled an angelic smile then she a-fluttered back up to the skies.

A-many a year has passed since I beheld that angelic sight,
An' I've tried to keep the promise I made to her upon that night.
Now I'm proud to herd these doggies, an watch over 'em with all I know —
Like extry hay fer the runt calves, when it's a-freezin' an' a-blowin' snow.

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And now I'm thankful that I'm a cowboy, a-roamin' the trails a-wild an' free,
A-watchin' over these orn'ry doggies like the Great Trail Boss a-watches over me.

Commentary on David Althouse’s "Cowboy Christmas Carol"

The idea that the sentiment of Christmas belongs in each heart every day of the year and not just on one celebrated day enjoys widespread lip-service, although it is seldom achieved. This old cowboy intends to change that fact, at least, for himself .

First Movement: Cowboy Work Comes First

For a hard-bitten ol' cowpoke like me a Christmas ain't always merry;
I've spent most of 'em a-ridin' fences, a-sleepin' in line cabins out on the prairie.
So for most a my hard life the spirit of Christmas did not abide within my heart.
How I come to possess the spirit is the story I hafta impart.

Tha year was '87 and I was a-follerin' doggie trails,
A-drinkin' rot gut whiskey to forget about my life's travails.
Ih was two days from the line cabin, at a far off lonely place,
A-roundin' up some strays, the snow whippin' crost my face.

The speaker is a cowboy who has been practicing his profession for many years, and he admits that mending fences while tending cattle out on the prairie has not always been conducive to observing and celebrating Christmas.

He has felt that his mind and heart had been spiritually dry for a long time, but then something happened to change his heart.

During one Christmas season, the speaker was out on the prairie rounding up some stray "doggies," drinking "rot gut whiskey," which helped him forget his hard life. He found himself alone, many miles from the "line cabin." It was cold with snow whipping about his face.

Second Movement: A Mystical Being Appears

Night came of a-suddin' so's I bedded down to rest,
A tin can full o' hot coffee a-restin' crost my chest.
Of a-suddin' I heard somthin' a-flutterin' down from the skies.
I taken a closer look an I couldn't believe my eyes.

It looked to be some kind o' Christmas Angel from the first I did suspect,
What with all the sugar plums a-hangin' 'round 'er neck.
Holly laced 'er halo an' lustrous pearls adorned 'er wings,
An' 'er sweet little silver bell voice was a-trillin' little ting-a-ling-a-lings.

The speaker has bedded down for the night with a tin of hot coffee placed on his chest to help drive out some of the cold. With the night's seemingly sudden arrival, he sees a celestial being approaching from the sky.

The cowboy describes the being in typical cowboy fashion, mentioning "sugar plums," decorating the form of what appears to be an angel with "lustrous pearls" on her wings. He even hears her voice that sounds like a "sweet little silver bell."

Third Movement: Sent by the "Great Trail Boss"

"Cast away your fears, cowboy," she says, "I'm an Angel sent from on High,
And I'm here to do the bidding of the Great Trail Boss in the Sky."
Dadgumit she talked! She's a bonafide Angel fer shore!
Was I'a-goin' feral or was it that bad hooch I drank the night afore?

"It isn't the whiskey," she says, a-readin' my mind.
"You don't even know it cowboy, but it's Christmas time."
She had me dead to rights on that one, an' it caused me much chagrin,
Causin' the last time I partook a Christmas was back in ... heck, I don't know when.

The being does not keep the cowboy guessing who she is; she identifies herself as an "Angel," and she informs him that she is being sent by the Divine or in cowboy talk that "Great Trail Boss in the Sky." Furthermore, she instructs him not to fear.

Of course, the speaker is wonderstruck at first that this Angel sent from "on High" would be visiting him. He suspects he is hallucinating from the bad whiskey or that he is just going wild in the brain.

The Angel tells him that her appearance has nothing to do with the whiskey. He knows then he is in the presence of something divine because she is reading his mind. She then informs him that it is Christmas time, insisting that he did not even know that season was upon him.

The cowboy has to admit that she has him "dead to rights"—he had not been aware of Christmas for so long that he had actually forgotten the last time he had thought about that season.

Fourth Movement: Too Busy to Celebrate

"Why, thar ain't no time fer Christmas out 'ere Angel," I says. "It's absolut' absurd.
I've got fences to mend an' orn'ry doggies to git back to the herd!"
She says, "You've sunk lower than the wild beasts, lower than a longhorn steer,
For even the furry animals keep Christmas once a year."

"Critters a-keepin' Christmas?" I says. "Now this I gotta see!"
"Very well, cowboy," she says. "Come fly the night sky with me."
Well my eyes got as big as poker chips when flyin' she did suggest.
"Just take hold of my arm, cowboy," she says, "and I'll do the rest."

Then the speaker protests that there is no opportunity for observing Christmas out here on the prairie with "orn'ry doggies" and "fences to mend."

But to his excuses, the Angel counters that he has allowed himself to sink lower than the animals, adding that at this time of year even the animals celebrate the spirit of Christmas.

The cowboy protests that "critters a-keepin' Christmas" is something he would have to see to believe.

And so the Angel tells him to take hold of her arm, and they will "fly the night sky" to a place where she will prove the truth of her statement. With eyes as big as "poker chips," the cowboy obeys the Angel, and they fly off.

Fifth Movement: An Astral Meadow

To a quiet faraway meadow we flew, to a lonely stand o' pines,
An' when I looked down a'neath them trees I was in fer a big surprise.
Fer a-layin' thar a'neath them trees all cuddled up on the ground,
Was ever' kind o' furry critter anywhere to be found.

Rabbits, squirrels, birds and deer all a-layin' in one spot,
With a coyote, wolf and mountain lion a-standin' guard over the entire lot.
She says, "They're huddled together because the spirit of Christmas fills the air."
"Mebbe so," I says, "But them smaller critters should be a-scampin' outa thar!"

The Angel brings him to an astral meadow that looks very much like a place the cowboy would recognize with a "lonely stand o' pines."

But when he looks down, he can see "rabbits, squirrels, birds and deer," and "a coyote, wolf and mountain lion" are guarding them all as they rest peacefully in one area.

This inspiring scene offers an allusion to Isaiah 11:6 (KJV), describing the peace that reigns with the experience of Christ-consciousness:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

The Angel explains that the animals had all huddled together because the spirit of Christmas is filling the atmosphere But the cowboy, practical man that he is, remarks that those little critters ought be scampering away from those bigger, dangerous ones.

Sixth Movement: The Peaceful Night

"They've nothing of which to worry," she says. "Peace fill their hearts upon this night."
"Whatever ya thank," I says, " but they'd best make dust afore first light."
Yet, as I beheld this miracle, I recollect I shed some tears,
A-rememberin' all the wasted Christmases of my long-gone yesteryears.

I vowed I'd do thangs different, that I'd make another start,
That ever' day I had left I'd keep Christmas merry in my heart.
Then I gave thanks to this 'ere Angel fer a-savin' me from my demise.
She just smiled an angelic smile then she a-fluttered back up to the skies.

The Angel insists that it is only peace that reigns upon this night; yet the cowboy still insists that those little critter better be making "dust" before dawn.

Yet, even in his practical, worldly stance, the cowboy finds himself moved to tears, remembering all of his many past "wasted Christmases." And he then finds that his heart is changed.

The cowboy vows to keep Christmas in his heart from now on. He knows that his life has been saved from his "demise" by this Angel of God, who after smiling at the cowboy's gratitude "a-fluttered back up" from whence she came.

Seventh Movement: Thankful for Being a Cowboy

A-many a year has passed since I beheld that angelic sight,
An' I've tried to keep the promise I made to her upon that night.
Now I'm proud to herd these doggies, an watch over 'em with all I know—
Like extry hay fer the runt calves, when it's a-freezin' an' a-blowin' snow.

And now I'm thankful that I'm a cowboy, a-roamin' the trails a-wild an' free,
A-watchin' over these orn'ry doggies like the Great Trail Boss a-watches over me.

The cowboy’s story demonstrates a change of heart, from one who had focused too much on the material world to one who would henceforth keep the spiritual world in his consciousness.

Although he had always been a good man, because of the mystical experience of being reminded to keep Christ-Consciousness in his heart, mind, and soul, he becomes even better.

From the moment of that experience on, the speaker becomes thankful for his life. He becomes more aware that "the Great Trail Boss" watches over him the way He watches over the cattle.

That mystical experience places God's essence in the cowboy's awareness, allowing the cowboy to realize his love for the Divine every day of his life.

This inspirational tale reminds readers of the omnipresence of God. The cowboy speaks his own language and honors his Maker in his own personal terms. The name of God used by the cowpoke, "the Great Trail Boss," demonstrates the uniqueness and closeness that he personally maintains with his Divine Creator.

The many names for God simply represent God’s different aspects and varied relationships with His children, as only One Divine Being exists and unifies each heart, mind, and soul of humanity.

Introduction and Text of “A Cowboy’s Prayer”

Badger Clark's "A Cowboy's Prayer" with the subtitle "Written for Mother"offers a prayer that would make any mother proud, as he celebrates his free lifestyle of living on the open range. Each octet stanza features the rime scheme ABABCDCD. This Badger classic was first published in The Pacific Monthly, in December of 1906.

About this poem/prayer, Katie Lee writes in her classic history of cowboy songs and poems starkly titled Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story, and Verse, "The language is true to his free-roving spirit and gives insight to the code he lived by the things he expected of himself."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see my article, "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

A Cowboy's Prayer

(Written for Mother)

Oh Lord, I've never lived where churches grow.
I love creation better as it stood
That day You finished it so long ago
And looked upon Your work and called it good.
I know that others find You in the light
That's sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.

I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That You have made my freedom so complete;
That I'm no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.
Just let me live my life as I've begun
And give me work that's open to the sky;
Make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won't ask a life that's soft or high.

Let me be easy on the man that's down;
Let me be square and generous with all.
I'm careless sometimes, Lord, when I'm in town,
But never let 'em say I'm mean or small!
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hawse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that's done and said
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.

Recitation of "A Cowboy's Prayer"

Commentary on Badger Clark's "A Cowboy's Prayer"

This poem, written in the traditional ballad form, reveals a grateful cowboy, who loves his rustic way of life and gives thanks for God for it.

First Stanza: Addressing the Lord

Oh Lord, I've never lived where churches grow.
I love creation better as it stood
That day You finished it so long ago
And looked upon Your work and called it good.
I know that others find You in the light
That's sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.

The speaker begins his payer by addressing the Lord, telling Him that he has never been one to attend church, because "[he's] never lived where churches grow." But he admits that he loves creation just as the Lord finished it before mankind began to build things.

The speaker then confides that while others may find the Lord "in the light that is sifted down through tinted window panes," he feels Him near, "In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains."

The speaker wants to assure the Divine that despite his absence from houses of worship, he worships without a house while simply stationed out on the open plains created by the Great Creator.

Second Stanza: Thanking the Lord

I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That You have made my freedom so complete;
That I'm no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.
Just let me live my life as I've begun
And give me work that's open to the sky;
Make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won't ask a life that's soft or high.

The speaker offers his heartfelt gratitude to the Lord for his blessings. He is especially grateful that the Lord has made "[his] freedom so complete." He then catalogues the places where he would not feel so free, places where he would have to heed the call "of whistle, clock or bell."

He asks the Lord to continue blessing him this way: "Just let me live my life as I've begun / And give me work that's open to the sky." He avers that he will not ever be asking "for a life that's soft or high."

Third Stanza: Praying for Wisdom

Let me be easy on the man that's down;
Let me be square and generous with all.
I'm careless sometimes, Lord, when I'm in town,
But never let 'em say I'm mean or small!
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hawse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!

The speaker then asks for the guidance and wisdom to treat other people with respect and honor. He admits that sometimes he is careless, especially when he is in town. But he asks that he never be mean or small. He wants others to think well of him because he behaves properly.

The speaker asks for three things, honesty, cleanliness, and freedom. Thus, he asks the Lord to make him, "As honest as the hawse between my knees, / Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains, / Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!"

Fourth Stanza: Praying for Guidance

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that's done and said
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.

Again, the speaker acknowledges that he is not perfect, that at times he forgets proper behavior. He admits that he does not know all that God knows: "You know about the reasons that are hid." And he declares that the Lord knows him "better than my mother did."

So the speaker asks God to guard and guide him by watching over him, and when he misbehaves, he begs the Lord to "right me, sometimes, when I turn aside." He asks God to be with him as he moves "on the long, dim, trail ahead / That stretches up toward the Great Divide."

He masterly employs the metaphoric Great Divide to signal the afterworld as well as a great Western geological phenomenon.

"A Cowboy's Prayer" sung by Pete Charles

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 25, 2015:

So glad you appreciated my piece. I love cowboy poetry, especially the truly spiritual ones, like this poem by Badger Clark. Thanks for the kind words. Hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New New!

Surabhi Kaura on December 24, 2015:

Hi Dear Linda,

I haven't heard about him. Thank you for introducing him. He seems to be a spiritual poet. It was nice to read "A Cowboy's Prayer" and your analysis on it. Wise use of words and interpretation. Praise be!

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