No one was more surprised to find out Tualatin resident Tom Swearingen was a cowboy poet than he was.
His first inkling that cowboy poetry would play a major part in his life came in the 1980s with the announcement that Baxter Black or Waddie Mitchell would be performing on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. This sharing of the American West experience had everything a 30-something man with rural roots wanted to hear.
He sat rapt as Black expounded on good horses, renegade cows, and stock dogs that survive near misses. Then came Mitchell, one of the backbones of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. “Baxter was on the Tonight Show six times and Waddie four,” Swearingen said.
For a man who does not call himself a cowboy, the switch had been flipped. He followed cowboy poets around the Pacific Northwest while they shared their tradition.
Then in 2010, Swearingen – an advertising copywriter and commercial producer – was brought up short when a trail-riding buddy died unexpectedly. He found out friends were planning a memorial horseback ride the following spring.
“You know what,” Swearingen thought, “I’m going to write a poem and it’s going to be a cowboy poem, because that’s what appeals to me.”
He strung a few lines together, essentially recollecting his friend’s life and a few funny stories. The big day arrived and he nervously shared what he’d written.
“I didn’t know you were a poet,” his friends responded around the circle.
“I’m not,” he said.
“Well, what was that?” they replied.
Swearingen didn’t say much, but he was thinking.
According to folklorists and historians, cowboy poetry goes back to just after the Civil War, from about 1865 to the turn of the last century, during the big cattle drive days. Think in terms of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Cattle were moved from Texas to Canada and all parts between by cowboys who were a mix of freed slaves, Basques from Spain, Native Americans, and poor white guys.
Chances are those cowboys would find a way to entertain themselves around the campfire during those long, difficult cattle drives. It’s not such a long logical leap that they might have chosen a form of entertainment that was familiar, such as songs from the Celtic tradition of Scotland and Ireland or spirituals and sea chanteys.
The cowboys “might have been illiterate, though some weren’t, but the popular poets at the time – Longfellow, Kipling, Robert Service, and Robert Frost — their work all tended to be rhymed and rhythmic,” Swearingen said.
As the cowboys moved along the dusty trail, verses were added or subtracted and shared once again. Slowly, they became oral traditions of the American West that continue to this day, like those of 20th-century poets Bruce Kiskaddon and Charles “Badger” Clark.
Swearingen decided to go pro. But, it wasn’t until a few years later, in 2015, that he met one of his heroes in person.
Baxter Black had been contracted as the headliner at the Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering in Ellensburg, Wash. Swearingen was one of the supporting performers. They bumped into each other backstage and exchanged cordial remarks. Over the next five years, they continued that pattern at an increasing number of events they played together.
Slowly, Swearingen was becoming a figure to be reckoned with in the cowboy poetry scene. He was knocking back awards from the International Western Music Association, the folks who keep track of cowboy poets. In 2019, he was voted Male Poet of the Year, in 2020 his book Reflection tied for the Best Cowboy Poetry Book. In 2022, he won the co-writing song contest with Joni Harms of Canby, plus, once again, Best Male Poet of the Year.
In 2020, Swearingen had been assigned to write a feature on Black for The Western Way, the magazine for the International Western Music Association. The pandemic had just begun when he made the phone call.
“My phone conversations with him to gather information for the article became more than just about the article,” he said.
“Nothing brightened my day more than when my caller ID would pop up Coyote Cowboy Company,” Black’s business name, Swearingen said, “and he would greet me with ‘Baxter here, just thought I’d give you a call to find out how you’re doing.’ And then we’d talk about whatever was on our minds.”
About the same time, Swearingen met a talented youngster.
Swearingen was performing at a benefit for HORSES on the Ranch, an equine-assisted psychotherapy program in Prineville specializing in trauma survivors. He was killing time before his show when he wandered into a local western wear booth operated by Prineville resident Amy Fitzgerald.
She recognized Swearingen and said, “This is my son, Thomas Fitzgerald, he likes poetry.”
“That’s great,” Swearingen said. “Can you share a poem with me?”
Thomas was 8 years old, nervous and embarrassed. He’d been caught off guard and was reluctant. He indicated he had nothing to share.
“Well, you think about it, and I’m going to do my show, and when I’m done, if you want to share a poem with me, I’d love to hear it…. If you do, I’ll give you one of my CDs,” Swearingen said.
He did the show and afterward sought out Thomas. “Did you think about it?”
Thomas said, “Yes, and I’m ready to do a poem.”
Well, he did and got his CD. In fact, he charmed his way into two of them. Since that time, young Thomas has won two International Western Music Association regional awards in 2021 and 2022 for his cowboy poetry and gone on to other performances as time and schooling allowed.
Later that year, Swearingen was sitting in a different audience watching other cowboy poets when he got a text from a friend at yet another gathering: “There’s a young fellow here doing one of your poems.”
He looked at the video and recognized young Thomas immediately. Then he got a second text: “He just did a Baxter Black poem!”
After the performance, Swearingen phoned Thomas’ mother and told her how impressed he was. He offered to give up some of his performance time at the 2021 HORSES on the Ranch benefit if her son was interested in reciting poetry on stage.
Once permissions and schedules had been checked, Swearingen phoned Black and said, “Now here’s the deal, there’s this young fellow who’s doing our poetry in front of audiences…. Do you suppose you could get him a signed and autographed photo of you?”
Swearingen went on, “Baxter loved it that somebody, who at that time was 9 or 10 years old, had discovered his poetry and was bustin’ it out entertaining people … that was just a few months before he passed.”
Swearingen made sure the boy’s performance was videotaped and shipped it off to Baxter. “It was very cool,” Swearingen said. Baxter Black died at home of leukemia surrounded by family and friends on June 10, 2022, at age 77.
Swearingen gave a message to young Thomas, “You left him, my young friend, with a wonderful smile and really made him pleased.”
Swearingen and 12-year-old Thomas will be performing together again at 5 p.m. Sept.16 at Wine Down Ranch in Prineville at a benefit for HORSES on the Ranch. They will be sharing cowboy poetry and passing along the tradition of the American West.
"A Few Lines for Oregon From a Grateful Native Son" by Tom Swearingen I've roamed all corners of this state At lope, or trot, or walking gait. From vantage point of horse's back On vast wide range and single track. Smelled the air of sage scent mesas. Followed ruts and ancient traces Of nomads, beasts, and those who came To stake their claim and bring my name. Watched desert devils spin and dance, Their dust trails haze the far expanse. Then fade and lift to leave behind My outlook clear with inspired mind. Cut the tracks of wild Mustang bands. Packed deep in cool of timber stands. Spent 'nuff time around city walls To know I prefer coyote's calls. Circled herds on high graze grasses. Trailed them down steep switchback passes. Spent lots of nights with stars my lamp, Bedded down in a remote camp. Picked way cross rivers snaking down From mountain range and hilltop crown. Seen life they bring to valley floor, Then fresh the salt at ocean shore. I've come to love this diverse land, Where creative fires can be fanned. Six decades here have made it clear I'm glad my roots were planted here. Oregon is a sacred ground Where coiled up thoughts can be unwound, Then strung in lines to then be sung With passioned voice and angel's tongue. So now my plan's for me to stay Until my final earthly day. If that works out, then I'll be blessed To ride my days out in the West.