Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cattle Call: A Tribute to Cowboys, Poets, and Other Wanderers

[Okay – I wasn’t really there. I just got so caught up in listening to the CD Emmylou Harris At the Ryman that I wrote this piece as though I were recalling the live performance.]

Emmylou Harris was at the Ryman. There was joy that night – and celebration. There were songs of elation and songs of regret; songs of work and songs of wistful longing. There was Bill Monroe before he died. Every seat was filled. There were beauticians and mechanics; miners and factory workers; carpenters and teachers. It was an audience of regular folks, out on a Saturday night. I had been fascinated by Emmylou Harris since my college days. I don’t know whether it was that clear voice that could simultaneously convey joy and longing, or if it was those eyes and the long, dark hair. Maybe it was the way she moved and carried herself; maybe it was some trait that resonated with my own anima (that creative feminine aspect of the inner self). At any rate, when she would sing, I would listen.

We heard bluegrass numbers and some folk-rock, but when she sang Tex Owens’ Cattle Call, my mind went back to another day. I remembered a day when I was 8 years old and we still had county fairs. Back then we could see prize livestock gathered in the cow barn during the fair, and once my Dad even gave me 50 cents to buy a chance on a beautiful black and white calf. I reminisced further and thought of drives in the countryside where the cattle outnumbered the people. There were visions of barbed wire fences, pastures, creeks, and salt licks.

Hearing the beautiful yodel in Cattle Call as the song continued, I went further back to an earlier day. I thought of that era of westward expansion and cattle drives when the cowboy came into his own as a symbol of rugged independence, idealized in film and rodeo. I wondered if little boys still want to be cowboys the way we did when we watched those Saturday matinees.

Then Emmylou came back to the chorus with the melodic call, and I went still further back to cattlemen of a different era. I thought of that cattleman from long ago who rode the plains of Whitby, England, back in the seventh century. Herding cattle by day and sitting in the mead hall by night, the song finally came to Caedmon. He first captured my heart and imagination in a high school literature class where I heard about that earliest of English poets. Caedmon was a cowherd who loved song, but was too bashful to pick up the harp and sing in the mead hall. Then a lady appeared to him in a vision and told him to sing of the beginning of things. From that day on, Caedmon sang songs of uncommon beauty, inspired by the lady in his dream. She must have looked and sounded a lot like Emmylou Harris.

I was captured by that story of Caedmon because even though I loved the song and was inspired by words, I was also painfully shy and seized by stage fright. I thought, if Caedmon was a cowboy, then perhaps I could be one, too. Caedmon was encouraged by Hilda of Whitby, leader of the local abbey. Later recognized as a saint, Hilda was a champion for poets and the Celtic way. She was an advocate for those early Englishmen and Celtic cowboys as the Latin world was forcing assimilation. She was the great mediator at the Council of Whitby to temper the Latin religious onslaught. Hilda remained a supporter of Caedmon and his non-Latin song. She must have looked and sounded a lot like Emmylou Harris.

Imagine my wonderful surprise when I learned that the American Book of Common Prayer honors the feast of St. Hilda is on my own birthday, November 18. Now each year on the anniversary of my birth, I think of saints and poets and cowboys.

The wafting of Cattle Call returned with the final chorus. The whole audience was enthralled. I could keep going back in time to other cowboys. Father Abraham was a cattleman as well, you know (he has been revered down through the years by all kinds of cowpokes who had names like Roy, and Schlomo, and Achmed). Abe left his homeland and drove his herds along the plains and valleys of Canaan. I don’t know who inspired him most, whether it was Sarah or Hagar, or the Almighty, (tradition indicates the latter) but whoever it was, she must have looked and sounded a lot like Emmylou Harris.


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