This second song is about Cowboy Bill. He was a legend of sorts in those parts, hiring out to any ranch that needed a top notch wrangler. He carried an ancient and still-functioning .36 caliber Navy Colt on his hip everywhere he went. It was the first gun I had ever seen, and it intrigued and frightened me. It was a relic and antique, and some city-slicker offered him a large sum of money for it once, but Bill didn’t even consider selling it.
Instead of a Stetson, Cowboy Bill wore a Yankees baseball cap on his head. When asked why he preferred a cap, he said when chasing strays in the brush it was less likely to get knocked off. A smart man, Cowboy Bill was.
He gave me my first ride on horseback, on his dusty grulla that was squat and powerful, like he was.
We are calling this segment of the series “The Aftermath.” In the late 1960s farming philosophies changed in this area from agrarian to animal husbandry. The cotton fields and soybean fields were cleared, leaving rolling pastureland for livestock to graze. Some continued to grow soybean, but most became cattle ranchers, some choosing goats.
In essence, the sharecroppers became of thing of the past. Some took jobs as wranglers, but most moved on, or opted to become fishermen.
This is a series of several musical poems chronicling the sharecropper era. Fernando approached me with the idea of a series of little stories that tell a larger one, all put to music. I loved the idea. I had these little poems about the sharecropper era and he thought he could make them work. I think you will agree he did a brilliant job.
I spent all my summers in a little country town in very rural Mississippi called Fort Adams. When I say small, I am talking two streets – Front Street and Back Street. Wembley Stadium is larger. There were no more than 50 people in town, others lived out in the country – farmers and fisherman. A little one-room school house still exists where the sharecropper children went to school, when they were not working in the field.
My Uncle Cy ran a dry goods store and fishhouse there. He had everything from canned goods, to Nehi soft drinks, feed and seed, to work clothes and boots, and to sewing implements. The fish house processed the fish and chickens that were traded to him. He was a furrier, bought baby turtles to sell to pet shops, anything to turn a buck.
So, as child growing up in the 60s (born in 1956) I got to witness the last vestiges of this sharecropper era. While there are still farmers who work on a share, I am not sure any suffer as these people did. They lived in little one-room shantys that lacked electricity and water. The only heat came from a woodstove that filled the shanty with a woodsmoke odor.The children seldom owned shoes and a second set of clothes was rare.
We would enter town down what was called The Mile Hill Road…a winding road with deep ravines on either side. At one point it travels straight down for a mile in a steep grade. At the bottom of the hill was a row ofshantys pressed hard into the hillside. None had glass in the windows, or doors. The people who lived there sharecropped and lived hard-scrabble lives.
Hopefully these songs tell their story.
John Eagle (@marshmaster-1johneagle)
THE BLACK VAQUERO: COWBOY BILL
Cowboy Bill smelled of cowhide
And lye soap.It wafted by a small boy,
Who stood firm in his uncle’s store.
“We ova t’ the Artonish, range,” he said,
Swigging his Coke, the dust on his loamy face
Revealing large pores, vertical creases
Like parentheses around his mouth.
Even to a small boy, he was short,
On bandy legs, the shape of his horse’s flanks.
“Why you wear a baseball cap?” the youth asked.
“The brush don’t peel it off.” He winked.
He soon left, his pistol holster slapping his chaps,
The sunlight of the open door
Briefly framing his dark figure.
The Coke bottle sweat on the counter shined,
The store’s dim light shrouding the boy’s thoughts.
Blue steel and leather were his weight,
Bill’s pistol firmly on his mind.
His focus was on Bill riding up in the high hills
Where the snakeroot blossomed low
And the kudzu slithered high.
“Cowboy Bill ain’t gonna shoot you, boy,” his Uncle said.
An arm held across his face,
The boy squinted into the sunset.
He heard the shot echoing in the hills
Up where the mavericks stray,
Lowing for their mothers.
And soon a horse came running.
But it wasn’t Bill.
© 2014 John Eagle, Fernando Gonzalo