Women You Should Know: The Grand Dame of Cowboy Poetry

“He’d talk about Montana”

And he’d talk about Montana.

And you’d get a glimmer then,

Of the cowboy that he used to be,

And the man he might have been

Before the war and wife and whiskey

Had bent him out of shape.

Now the war and wife were history

And the whiskey was escape.

listen to full poem here

The year is 1989. Elizabeth Ebert is 65 years old, with silver hair and a weathered face. Her voice may be soft and sweet, but her words are sharp with clarity and honest humor. She decided to make the trek from her home on the plains to Medora for a cowboy poetry gathering. Elizabeth has been writing poems for decades, scribbling in the middle of the night, or while at the helm of a tractor. Very few people are privy to her words. Many of her poems end up in her trash or fireplace. Tonight, they become public, and that is forever where they will stay. She is an immediate success. Her 4th public appearance is at the renowned National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.

Cowboy poetry dates back to the Reconstruction Era. After the Civil War, a surplus of feral cattle in Texas and the West provided the resources for a brief lucrative beef industry. In the mid-1800s, cowboys drove large herds of cattle to railroad depots, where they were loaded and then transported to larger cities in the East. This unique set of circumstances helped foster a rich and diverse cowboy culture. Music, writings, and poetry became a natural form of entertainment from the tedium and monotony of long grueling hours in the saddle. Subjects of these poems revolved around the experiences and lives of cowboys and was most commonly written in the traditional forms of rhyme and meter.



Cowboys, circa 1870-1880s (Credit: PBS)

By the 1880s cowboy poetry books began to circulate, as well as western novels, and songs. By the turn of the 20th Century the American cowboy was becoming romanticized in popular film and literature. In contrast, cowboy poetry primarily remained within the working cowboy community, serving as a more accurate depiction of ranch life. The height of cowboy poetry spanned between the closing of the frontier in 1890s, until the 1950s. Published material was limited, and many of the poems were passed on through oral tradition. In 1985, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was established by folklorists and poets, and was hosted in Elko, Nevada. To this day, it is widely regarded as the most prestigious gathering in the Nation. It has helped to revitalize cowboy poetry into the 21st Century. Elizabeth Ebert first recited poems in Elko in 1991, and her last in 2016.

Born to a farming family in 1925, Elizabeth spent her formative years during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. As a young girl Elizabeth developed a fascination with literature and writing. She spent her days studying her father’s westerns and her night’s being read to by her mother. Her family would leave scribbled couplets throughout the house as playful greetings or reminders about chores. As an adult, she attended secretarial school, spent a brief stint in Washington D.C., and studied journalism and English at the University of Minnesota.


Elizabeth Ebert (Credit: Carson Vaughan)

Her schooling would abruptly stop in 1945 when she met her future husband, S.J. Ebert, a World War II vet, at a dancehall in South Dakota. Elizabeth admired his competence and stated the tall fellow was “cute”. After 4 months of courtship, they were married. They honeymooned in a snowed-in cabin in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She spent her next decades as a rancher’s wife, raising children, tending to the home, helping in any capacity necessary, all the while scribbling away at her poems. She was secretive and private about her poems, not even her children were allowed to read them.

Finally, with her husband’s encouragement, she participated at the Medora gathering. Elizabeth was a natural. Quickly gaining popularity for her honest and engaging poems, she became a favorite among cowboy poets, earning the name “The Grand Dame of Cowboy Poetry”. Her peers were equally as floored. The famed poet Baxter Black, a popular performer on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, was enamored the first time he heard her, “It was just one of those grand moments… you could just see a flower growing there out of the rest of us standing around like weeds.”



Elizabeth Ebert (Credit: Carson Vaughan)

She spent her retirement traveling around America with her husband, attending poetry gatherings along the way. The pair would turn a one-day drive into a week-long affair, deliberately choosing small roads, small towns, and hole-in-the-wall diners. She shared those years were the best of her life. Her husband, S.J., was also warmly embraced by the poetry community. He was endearingly referred to as “darling” by the other poets and at one gathering was even gifted an instrument case, luckily filled not with a guitar, but a bottle of Scotch.

Elizabeth Ebert was highly regarded and respected throughout her entire public career. Even in the twilight of her life, she was described by her daughter as, “bright and sharp, to the end”. She made the stories of ranchwomen and cowgirls accessible to a wider audience with equal parts candor and wit. Elizabeth was undaunted by sharing all facets of human emotions, not only leaving a lasting-impression on her audience, but also on her peers. As Baxter Black shared with great admiration, “She started at the top.”

When I Leave This Life”

Let the memories be of the happy times,

Let the sound of laughter grace the day.

Find an old cowhand with an old guitar

To yodel me joyfully on my way.

 

 Poetry Books by Elizabeth Ebert:

  • Crazy Quilt: A Patchwork of New and Collected Poems
  • Prairie Wife
  • Spoken-Word Album: Live from Thunder Hawk

Sources: