Cowboy Songs

A cowpoke laureate from Perris.

Cowboy Frank Morris
  • Cowboy Frank Morris

When Frank Morris talks about going to the city — and he tries not to even think about it — it’s San Diego he is referring to, though it’s a two-hour drive to that city or in the opposite direction to Los Angeles. His home outside Perris, south of Lake Elsinore, is at the end of a winding dirt track on high desert land studded with boulders, chaparral, and coyote brush. His nearest neighbors are some 400 yards away, and that’s too close for Morris.Standing by a rock with his address painted on it, Morris seems to be pointing to the fire-stained clouds splayed over the evening sky like iridescent jet trails.

“Up that hill, I used to have a big old gong set up, you know? I’d sit out here on the porch with a high-powered rifle and a loadin’ die and just sit there and smack that booger and nobody to bother with it. Then I go up there one day and there’s this guy from Orange County. He’s up there scraping the top of this hill off ’cause he was gonna build up there. I go up there to get the dinger, and he comes boilin’ down off this damn hill, and he says, ‘You’re trespassin’,’ and I says, ‘Is that right?’ He says, ‘Yeah,’ and I says: ‘Well, you’re a silly man.’ He says, ‘How’s that?’ and I says. ‘You carryin’ a pistol?’ He says, ‘No.’ I says, ‘I am. You lived here all your life? I have. I just came to get my dinger.’ He says, ‘What the hell’s a dinger?’ ”Morris removes his cap that bears an advertisement for Dan’s Feed and Seed, scratches his cornsilk, short- cropped hair, and looks up at the first scattering of stars low on the eastern horizon. “You believe that? Guy didn’t even know what it was.” He peers at his guest from behind aviator-framed eyeglasses, squints, and crow’s feet appear at the corners of his aqua-blue eyes. “The gong.” He explains. “The thing I was shootin’ at. That’s the dinger.”

Morris leads the way into his barn. A workbench is situated against one wall beneath a quiver of arrows. Behind him is a black saddle studded with silver and covered with dust, a relic of Two Jump’s rodeo days.

Why Two Jump? “Well, it depends on who you ask. I picked it up when I was rodeoin’, ’cuz that’s about what I was good for on a bronc. I had a real proclivity for usin’ m’nose as a manure shovel. They’d knock one out of the gate, and I’d bounce off it on the second jump. My wife, on the other hand, she’s convinced it has somethin’ to do with my sexual prowess. But she’s got two kids.... That’s twice in ten years, so I don’t know what she’s bitchin’ about.”

It is neither bronc busting nor sexual prowess that has the media beating a dusty path to the 37- year-old Morris’s home in the Gavilan Hills. It’s his poems. At the recent Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Escondido, sponsored by Andrew’s Western and Wildlife Art on El Norte Parkway, poets and singers such as Dutch Bergman from Palomar Mountain, Ken Graydon from Fallbrook, Dottie Andrews (a local), and Janet B. Smith from Chicago all performed their own and others’ western words and music. But the name everyone mentioned was Frank Morris: “Two Jump’s comin’ to the next one in October,” the crowd was told. When asked who Two Jump might be, Dottie Andrews presented a clipping from the

Riverside Press, an article titled “Tall Tales and Wild Yarns” by Sandy Pavicic. The article included one of Morris’s poems called “Bull Ridin’”:

  • Ridin’ bulls is a fools occupation, aside from the obvious dangers and hazards, it don’t quite fit my station. Requirements for bull ridin’ are only two-fold, that is if you want to be good. The first bein’ a butt made of iron and the second a brain made of wood. The latter is harder to come by, as most start life with some sense. But it all liquefies and runs out your ears, ’Bout the time your head hits the fence,
  • Bull riders are all masochists, I can prove it beyond doubt’s last trace, Fer who else would climb up on a vision of death and then slap his-self in the face? Who else so loves the taste of fear, so thick in his mouth he could chew it? The most unbelievable part is still on the way, He pays fifty dollars to do it!

“How long have I been scratchin’?” Morris kicks clods of dirt from his boots and thinks. “I been playin’ with it for a number of years. When I was in college, which was a short duration kind of deal, I took a lot of writing classes. I was inter- ested in writin’ poetry. Like free verse. My tastes ran along the lines of Allen Gins- berg, Sylvia Plath. I wrote volumes of stuff, and then I kind of gave it up. I started writin’ cowboy poetry five or six years ago but didn’t do nothin’ with it. I have a real bad habit of takin’ — you know how you’re your own worst critic. I’ll keep workin’ somethin’ down, distillin’ it.... And I’II finally go, ahh’h, this is drivel, and pitch it, you know? Well, [my wife] Maureen started fishin’ that shit out of the trash. I was stuck one day for a story for my book, Tails of the West — which I’m told will be ready next week from the printer — and she says, ‘Here, go through some of this.’ I says, where’d you get this? She says, ‘I got it out of the garbage can.’”

Morris’s two daughters are named Kaycee June and Cecelia Hope. He spells their names with an unlit Camel filter. They are seven and nine years old, respectively. He studies his visitor’s notebook to make sure the spelling is correct. Born and raised “right around here,” Morris is somewhat exasperated by the attention he is getting. “Reporters callin’ up — don’t get me wrong, you seem like a nice fella — agents from Hollywood. Like this one guy calls me up and says,” here Morris goes into an uncanny impersonation of a Swifty Lazar-type with a Yiddish accent: “‘Hello, is this Frank Two Jump Morris?’ I says yeah, that’s me, and he says, ‘Leesen, vee have heard you are a talent! Vee vood like to represent you, vee could do great tings vitchoo.’ Yeah, well, I says, I think you could do great things to me. He says, ‘No, you got us wrong, son. Vee could take you a long vay.’ I thanked him for his time.”

Morris has been speaking at poetry gatherings and to school children, which he enjoys. When he was told his poems were going to be printed and distributed to local schools, he had mixed feelings about it, since no permission was asked and no payment offered. Like many other poets, money is a major concern for Morris. He runs a small landscaping business, which “does all right” and leaves him time to compose.

Among his many influences, Morris cites Baxter Black, author of Croutons on a Cow Pie. His father was a baseball player, “a good one,” as well as “a pill pusher” (a pharmacist) but was not the influence, in terms of cowboy sensibilities, that his Uncle Wayne was. “Now that man, by God, was a cowboy.” Morris lights his Camel filter and goes on. “He run the O Bar N ranch up in Nevada until he died. He had emphysema pretty bad, and the last few years of his life he was runnin’ the ranch, drivin’ around all this heavy equipment packin’ an oxygen bottle with ’im. Son of a bitch could play cards. Taught me how to play...and cheat. He used to cheat all of us when we was kids. There were some casinos in Reno that wouldn’t even let him in. Not that he cheated there, he didn’t have to, son of a bitch could count cards. I still got his hat in the house in there. That was my end of the will. All these vultures were scrabblin’ around for his stuff; I said I’d just take old Wayne’s hat.

“Here’s a story, give you an idea of Wayne. My Aunt Carol lived up there with ’im, you know, and Wayne takes off one mornin’ — and this was toward the end, he was near dead with emphysema. He’d been gone near 12 hours, Carol gets a call from Reno, which is like 160 miles away. It’s Wayne and he says, ‘Carol, bring me another bottle of air. I’m playin’ cards and I’m down to my last 15 minutes, better hurry.’

“Here’s one. It ain’t exactly humorous, but it’s my favorite. It’s called ‘Pay Your Debts.’” Morris recites:

  • The image burns in my
  • brain.
  • The picture of some lone
  • brush-popper movin’
  • across the range.
  • Or makin’ a ford across
  • a raging gorge,
  • brown water surroundin’,
  • the cattle flounderin’,
  • Bein’ cold in the snow
  • with a fair way to go.
  • Midnight, singin’ low to
  • keep the herd slow.
  • Cook’s biscuits, coffee
  • and stew.
  • The brand, in my mind
  • still smokin’.
  • The day of those men
  • ain’t gone yet, my
  • friend.
  • Though we’re down to
  • but a few;
  • some ghosts, this fire and
  • you.
  • What becomes of the tale
  • when we cross the
  • pale?
  • Who will know of those
  • men, with sun-blis-
  • tered skin.
  • saddle leather worn thin,
  • empty poke, but still
  • Kings among men.
  • Our time is not past. We
  • ain’t breathed our last.
  • Vaquero takes to your
  • reins.
  • Cowboys speak of the
  • pains and the glories
  • of this life.
  • The children to tell, of a
  • life that’s lived well.
  • ’Neath the stars, ’round
  • the fire with friends.
  • Buckaroos all. Ride on.
  • Sit tall.
  • Don’t waste your time
  • on lament.
  • Ride. Be bold, and live to
  • the code.
  • Though it be tough meat
  • tastin’ strong.
  • It is owed to those men
  • who rode it back then,
  • and who bore all hardship
  • with song.
  • Long life to the cowboy.
  • Live long.

“A lot of cowboy poetry,” he says, “they take on the rhyming format because the early ones was done in that way. You know, a lot of guys just sittin’ around the fire, they didn’t have anything to read, so they’d do stories and stuff by rote. It’s kind of traditional.”

Who else is good at this sort of thing nowadays? “The thing of it is, they’re so spread out. That Ken Graydon guy — I’ve heard nothin’ but good stuff about him, though I’ve never heard him. The guys that have come to national promi- nence have been around a long, long time. Guys like Wally McRae from Montana, he wrote one of the modern classics, ‘Reincar- nation.’ You ever heard that? Oh, you gotta hear that one.” Morris clears his throat and grinds his cigarette beneath a boot heel.

What is reincarnation? A cowpoke asked his friend. His friend replied. it starts out when your life has reached its end.

They comb your hair and wash your neck and clean your fingernails and then lay you in this padded box. Away from life’s travails.

The box and you goes in a hole that’s been dug in the ground, and reincarnation starts when you’re planted ’neath that mound.

Well pretty soon the clods melt down, just like your box and you who is inside and then you’re just beginning on your transformation ride.

Pretty soon the grass begins to grow upon your rendered mound, until there, on your lonely grave, a single flower is found.

And say some horse should wander by and graze upon that flower that once was you but now has become your vegetative bower. Well, the posy that the horse ate up, along with his other feed, makes fat and bone and muscle essential to the steed.

But some is left that he can’t use. And so it passes through and finally lays there on the ground, this thing that once was you.

And say someday I wander by and I find this on the ground. And I ponder and I wonder at the object that I’ve found. And I think of reincarnation, of life and death and such. And come away concludin’: ‘Pard, you just ain’t changed that much.’

As for his other reading habits, Morris says, “I’m a voracious reader. I like Winston Churchill, let’s see, Robert Ruark, Elmer Keith, Will Rogers, Jim Carmicheal, Peter Cathaway Hapstick, some of his African stuff, Death in the Long Grass , that’s riveting. I don’t read a lot of history and political comment. I read a lot about religion.”

Is Morris himself religious?

“Nah, shit no. I don’t believe in that crap. It’s just fun studyin’. In fact...” He shuffles through a small stack of typescripts for his book and says, “I’ve been warned about this one. It kind of puts how I feel about religion, and it’s bound to offend someone, though no offense is intended. I don’t mean to say I speak for all cowboys or anyone else here. This is just me.” Morris reads:

Will Rogers said that religion is better lived than preached. You know, I pretty much think he had it right. Religion, to my way of thinkin’ is not so much a way to live, but rather a way not to live. I mean, if you look at most any religion, the Buddhist and the American Indian beliefs being excepted, they mostly all got a hell of a lot more shalt nots than shalls.

I have ever become exceedin’ cautious whenever a fella to whom I am talkin’ brings up the subject of religion in any but a humorous way. ’Cuz if a guy ain’t jokin’ about religion, his or anybody else’s, then you can bet your last money that he not only believes this stuff but is fixin’ to make you a convert if he can. If he can’t, bend your ear considerable and by tellin’ you how in error you are in whatever beliefs you hold dear, do his dead level best to twitch and hobble you into the right and true faith.

Note: All religions are the right and true faith. Just ask any adherent to any of ’em...the two above mentioned bein’ excepted. In fact, I have been told so many times, by so many different religionists that I am bound for perdition, that the idea has got to be some comfortin’ to me. Only thing is, that all those folks tell me a different way to go to the good place. I kind of feel sad for them, though. At least I know where I’m a’goin’ and that I’m doin’ all the right stuff to get there. If hell, as all the good folks say it is, is a place where one is tormented by the things one fears and dreads most, then I am fair sure that it is a place where all the horses are rank, bitin’, kickin’, humpy-backed sons-o- bitches, where the beer is of poor quality, expensive and warm on account of all the soggy wood smoke and campfires and that the women are ugly in and out, won’t smile, won’t dance or give you none of the sweet stuff either.

That bein’ the case I ain’t too worried. I been to lots of rodeos just like that.

Morris seems to resist the idea of becoming famous for his writing, though many have told him this is inevitable. “I didn’t get in this goddamned thing to get famous. I’ve found somethin’ out already about gettin’ famous; there ain’t no money comes with it. With fame and 50 cents you can get a cup of coffee any- where you want. If it gets to a point where it’s not fun to do, I’ll quit doin’ it. When it’s all said and done and they lay the dirt over me, I’d just like to be remembered as an honest guy, a fair guy who treated his dogs good.”

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