The CowBoy Handbook
—Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Good Men and True
When one word covers so much territory, it gets spread pretty thin. To sort it out a little, The CowBoy Handbook uses three forms of the word cowboy.
1. Cow-boy (with the hyphen, as used in the 1860s and 1870s) identifies one of the devil-may-care, hell-for-leather cowhands who rode the open ranges and the long trails in the Golden Era in the 1870s and ’80s.
2. Cowboy (without the hyphen) specifies one of the factual and fictional characters who came after the cow-boys. You will find eight varieties listed in Chapter 1.
3. CowBoy signifies that special something, which has attracted people to CowBoy life and lore for more than a century. It has been said, “Cowboy is more an attitude than an occupation.” This book uses a special capital B version of the word to represent that Buckaroo Attitude and CowBoy Spirit. Going beyond job descriptions and titles, CowBoy zeroes in on a special state of mind available to anyone, anywhere, anywhen. You’ll find out how to get to that state in Chapter 21.Return to Cowntents
While the historical cowboy was no Boy Scout, his dime novel incarnation became everything a youngster should yearn to be. When that image was transferred to the movie screen, millions of children were inspired by the heroic feats performed by such actors as William S. Hart, William Farnum, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Gene Autry, Bill “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd and Roy Rogers. The cowboy as depicted in popular literature, radio and motion pictures exerted a benign and uplifting influence on young people throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Then came 1956 and Elvis and rock ’n roll. Coincidentally (or not), the western film and television programs aimed toward a youthful audience went out of production. In a sense, we ceased trying to be, in Gene Autry’s words, “better than we are,” and entered an era in which the glorification of naughtiness became a major obsession. The CowBoy image which had captured the imagination of every child for nearly eight decades was suddenly deemed to be less than “cool,” that supreme state of apparently emotionless ecstasy to which most young people since the mid-’50s so dispassionately aspire.
The role of the CowBoy in our popular culture has changed, but his bootheel remains indelibly imprinted in the soul of our nation. The horrors of violent crimes committed by unsupervised youngsters have made children’s cap pistols and holster sets politically incorrect, and understandably so. While young people may not be as interested in “growing up to be cowboys” as they were in my day, the CowBoy does live on and his folkways are prominently manifested in various aspects of our culture.
Bruce Dillman explains all these phenomena in a breezy, good humored and thoroughly enjoyable manner. The man knows whereof he speaks. His intent to become a CowBoy bore fruit long ago. When I was teaching cowboy-related subjects to my college students in the 1980s, I always jokingly insisted that we had no textbook because I hadn’t written it yet. Bruce has now written it for me (and for all of us), in the process illuminating the subject in so appealing a fashion that you are certain to find the book you now hold in your hands as indispensable as I do. It’s all here, it’s well-organized and it’s “truer’n true.”
Do I still harbor daydreams of being a CowBoy? Positively—and the explanation for these sentiments has been most eloquently provided by Bruce Dillman in the pages which follow. Saddle up and ride with a guide who knows and loves the trail. As is so often the case, the journey is as much fun as the destination.
An old cowhand, asked if he knew so-and-so, said, “We've howdied, but we ain’t shook.” Thats how you and I are now. Well get better acquainted as we ride together on this time-travel trail.
This project started with a song. The world needed one song, which captured the essence of CowBoyness. When I wrote that song, it had a slight drawback. It takes twelve seconds to sing the whole thing—a bit short for public performance. While adding to the song, I discovered the format for The CowBoy Handbook—real cow-boys, movie-hero cowboys, CowBoy activities, the I-can-do Buckaroo Attitude, and a bunch of other stuff—all adding up to your CowBoy heritage. The song (Chapter 23) pretty much says it all. The book fills in details. Lots of details.
Cow-boys, like dinosaurs, are extinct, but they keep coming back. They were only here for 25 years or so (cow-boys, that is), they vanished more than a century ago, yet some people call them an American icon, or THE American icon.
What keeps bringing cow-boys back when other vanished frontier characters stay vanished? Is it a mystique, an image of self-reliance, independence, and adventure? Maybe its the clothes. Maybe it is something more basic.
In the 1980s certain people said, “Nurture your ‘inner child.’” Though the idea never really caught on with the general public, many of us seem to unconsciously do that. We nurture the inner child by taking it to the movies. (That might explain all the explosions, car crashes, and childish plots.)
If we can believe each of us has an “inner child” who wants to come out and play, why not an “inner CowBoy?” Thats one way to explain the worldwide fascination with boots and saddles, hats and buckles, and all they imply. Nurture your inner CowBoy, youll feel better.
You can nurture your inner CowBoy through a popular pastime—“playing CowBoy.” For more than a century countless kids have played cowboy. So have adults, but they called it something else. In a 1993 survey more than one-quarter of adult Americans said that in some way—no matter how they label it—they like to play CowBoy.Some folks get really serious, some are “obsessed with authenticity,” and some just have fun. Few consider this basic question: what draws them to cow-boys rather than river boat captains, railroad engineers, or corporate executives? Is it the clothes? The horses? The guns? The songs? Yup. And theres more. Well get into “meanings” and attitudes later.
The key is how you think and feel. You don’t need an outfit to be a CowBoy (though it wouldn’t hurt).
My CowBoy career started with an outfit—hat, chaps, holster, and cap pistol—and “playing cowboy” with fantasy fights, simulated steeds, and plots from movies and books. My father also liked the game, and when he got me (actually us) a real horse, that cinched it. I played CowBoy from then on.
Other roles took my attention, but periodically I returned from respectability to cowboy-type things, such as saddle making, rope spinning, guitar strumming, and accumulating CowBoy collectibles,. I wrangled horses and dudes in Colorado, chased cows in Kansas, and shot it out with lawmen, then (after I was promoted) with bad guys, and sang cowboy songs in Dodge City. In Nebraska I sold Western wear, speculated on cattle, and rode the Country Music Radio trail, and played in a Bluegrass/Country band.
Research for this book started when I put on that first outfit. Besides the practical experience, I absorbed all the information I could find about cowboy fact and fiction, life and legend, men and myth.
The lines separating the real, the romantic, and the absurd have become as indistinct as a batters box in the eighth inning. The CowBoy Handbook redraws some of those lines.
Enjoy the trails you choose. Now that we've howdied, I hope we get a chance to shake some day.Always your pal,