Awhile back, over at Scott O’Malley’s place, I dropped in to hear some boys play and a feller named Waddie Mitchell tell some of his cowboy poetry. Ordinarily I do not write like this and I never do tell poetry. But when you listen to Waddie you tend to fall under his spell, and you might find yourself writing and talking like he does, only a whole lot worse, as I am doing now. Waddie Mitchell is one of America’s best known cowboy poets and he writes poems he tells. This may sound corny to you—it sure did to me when I first heard it. But then you find out that Waddie’s poems are all stories, the kind of stories that cowboys out on the range or in the bunkhouse would share with each other, often in rhyme. As Waddie says, ““All the time I was growing up we had these old cowboys around. When you live in close proximity like that with the same folks month after month, one of your duties is to entertain each other, and I suppose that’s where the whole tradition of cowboy poetry started. You find that if you have a rhyme and a meter to start that story, people will listen to it over and over again.” Cowboy poems are stories that are meant to be told.
It’s fair to say that Western literature itself begins with a kind of cowboy poetry, starting with a buckaroo named Homer. Not the chuckwagon cook, but the blind bard who spun a tale of the Trojan War about 10,000 years ago. The Iliad is first long poem to be told. And then Homer wrote it down. The rest is history—our history. We can easily forget poetry happened before anyone called it Poetry. As Waddie says, “I can’t ever remember ‘finding’ cowboy poetry--It was always there.”
Moving ever forwards civilization has left a lot behind, including most of the oral tradition. That’s a considerable loss. I must be one of the four or five people still alive who grew up without a television but with a father who was a real storyteller. I suppose a good deal of my professional life has been spent trying to tell stories in the dark that were as alive, as funny and as hypnotic as the ones my dad used to tell us around a vacation campfire. Ideally, you need space for story telling, with the darkness stretching for miles around, and with no competition from any faster than firelight and brighter than the moon. The open range sets the stage for imagination and wonder. For example, Waddie remembers he couldn’t decide if he should tell his 8 year old son the truth about Santa Claus. He was living out on a remote ranch, and he stopped in to talk about it with a man in the nearest building 44 miles away. The guy said he hadn’t learned the truth until he was 14 or 15. Santa lasted a lot longer in the country in the old days, where there was a lot more space and a lot less Santa competition. The man’s parents had helped too, sometimes leaving a torn red piece of cloth on the fireplace grate, and footprints in the ashes. Once they had even gone so far as to use 2x4s on the snowy roof to make sleigh marks, along with a sheep’s foot to create reindeer tracks. That stunt alone was probably good enough for insuring another three great years of Santa faith.
We invited Waddie over to our house this holiday to tell some of his poems and to premiere a brand now work---his own cowboy version of A Christmas Carol. I’m happy to say this was my idea. It came to me five minutes after hearing Waddie in person, and I told him about it the next day, and he said, “let’s do it.”
Charles Dickens was no cowboy, but A Christmas Carol was a story meant to be told. The author himself told it regularly—it was his favorite thing to do (he made even more money reading his works than he did from writing them). Early on Dickens wanted to be an actor—only a sudden case of laryngitis caused him to cancel his audition at Covent Garden—and he continued his public readings long after they became a serious danger to his personal health. As one master stage carpenter told him, “Ah, sir, it’s a universal observation in the profession, Sir, that it was a great loss to your public when you took to writing books.”
Like Dickens, Waddie is a writer/performer, a story teller whose style is in some ways a country version of his city counterpart. Like Dickens, he spends a whole lot of time going around his country telling his stories. Waddie’s “recipe” for a cowboy poet includes a little intelligence, some wisdom and experience, a lot of salt, a dash of wit, a sprinkle of irony. You mix these together, then: “Expose the heart.” That formula pretty much describes what Dickens was up to in A Christmas Carol. He begins with a very shrewd and crusty old codger, loaded salt and irony. Ebenezer Scrooge has ice in his veins; he’s a “wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” But on a very cold Christmas Eve he receives a series of ghostly visitors who take him on a long night’s journey into day. The next morning he is a changed man. As he says, he’s “quite a baby.” And so he is, newly re-born. He has exposed his heart.
I think there’s a reason we tell A Christmas Carol every year. It’s more than a story, it’s a communal ritual. I believe that in some ways we not only follow Scrooge, we are Scrooge. His journey is our journey to recover our lives and expose our hearts at the coldest and darkest time of the year. Scrooge learns to “live in the past, the present, and the future”---this is what it means to “keep Christmas well.” This is a lesson we need to learn every year, and it takes a shared ritual, where we realize that we are “all fellow passengers to the grave,” to help us get there.
Of course all rituals risk tedium—you do something over and over and you become numb to its magic. Ritual becomes merely rote. That’s one reason why it’s worth re-inventing A Christmas Carol every now and then; it’s a way of preserving the story’s ritual power. And it made immediate sense to us to ask Waddie to do it. About the time Charles Dickens was performing in London, and virtually inventing Christmas as we know it, the cowboys were beginning to ride the range in the west. The Christmas carols sung around the Cratchit fireplace were also hummed in the bunkhouse. Like Dickens, Waddie is a popular story teller, and both story tellers know that stories are a kind of magic, the way traditions and knowledge and values can be shared and preserved.
Maybe I should also say Dickens and Waddie aren’t just ritual pracitioners—they are also an awful lot of fun. These shamans know the best way to expose a heart is with a smile and a laugh. A Christmas Carol has a good joke in nearly every line, and Waddie has more than a few in his saddlebag. Like Dickens, he not only opens the heart, he delights it. He makes it dance with joy. We’ll make sure your hearts are dancing at A Cowboy Christmas Carol. Tom Paradise, one of our favorite actors, will be joining Waddie around the campfire to help him out with all those ghosts. Randy Fisher is riding in with his fiddles--- he’s composed some original music for the occasion. Roy and his elves are creating some scenery which will put Waddie out on the range where he belongs. They may also add a torn piece of red cloth and some footprints in the fireplace ashes. All this is done with one thing in mind—to get you folks into our corral so we can let you out again, when we open the gates of wonder. Come hear Waddie tell his poem. It will help you keep Christmas very well.
A Cowboy Christmas Carol
Performances at 7:30 p.m. on December 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24
Performances at 2:00 p.m. on December 11, 18
Performances at 4:00 p.m. on December 12, 19
Performance on Christmas Eve will feature mulled wine and special gift exchange courtesy of THEATREWORKS.
Children 16 and under $15