#TuesdayTrivia: Mark Twain

Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, is an American icon. But in his time, he wasn’t the only one in his family with name recognition.

Twain’s older brother, Orion Clemens, was a newspaper publisher and had studied law under Edward Bates, who later became President Abraham Lincoln’s Attorney General. Orion was appointed the first (and only) Secretary of the Nevada Territory by Lincoln, and was second-in-command to the Territorial Governor, James Nye. A popular figure in Nevada politics Orion, acting as temporary Governor in Nye’s absence, deftly avoided the “Sagebrush War”, a boundary dispute between Nevada and California.

stagecoach

Orion was accompanied by his brother Sam as he traveled by stage from Iowa to his new post in 1861, and their journey is memorialized in the book Roughing It by Mark Twain.

DEFINING GENRE: or when is a Western not a Western?

One of the most difficult things about writing fiction is deciding on a genre, particularly when your work hits several of them tangentially.

For instance, my style is more literary than contemporary.  But the Literary genre requires more than a literary style.  It identifies character-driven stories that explore the reactions of characters to universal situations, situations often fraught with emotion.

In the broad sense, my novel LET THE CANYONS WEEP does those things, but some would not label it as Literary Fiction because there is too much resolution.

What do I mean by “too much resolution”?  Literary Fiction is focused on making the reader do some deep thinking, and usually leaves at least one open question in the reader’s mind.  My novels are character-driven and, at the end of the books, the major conflict is resolved. However, there are questions left open pertaining to the future of the characters and how deeply the issues will affect them going forward.

On the other hand, most genre fiction has a definite set of rules to follow.  A Western, for instance, is plot-driven, and will usually flow this way: hero cowboy/lawman/rancher fights the bad-guy/rich-guy/land-grabber and saves the girl/ranch/town.  A twist on that involves a woman, sometimes posing or dressed as a man, fighting obstacles to win the guy/ranch/revenge.

Now I realize this is very simplistic view of a plot and many variations are possible, but most Westerns will follow this formula.  And just as Romance readers expect a happy ending, most Westerns readers will expect the formula to be followed, at least to some degree.

So how is my novel, set in the 1880s Arizona Territory, not a Western?  To start with, the bad guy’s death is the opening catalyst for the novel, not the thrilling denouement.  The cowboy wins the girl (and the ranch) very early on.  However, the repercussions of the dead outlaw’s deeds figure prominently in the story until the very end.  And to top it all off, the hero manages to create a situation that threatens both his happiness and that of his woman.

So to sum up, a novel that’s set in the Old West but that deviates from the expected norm is, by definition, not a Western.  LET THE CANYONS WEEP is a Literary novel set in a Historical time period and most definitely not a Western.

 

Tuesday Trivia #25: The Sod Shanty

So you’ve left your home somewhere in the east and staked out your forty acres on the plains. The government is gonna give you a mule. And all of a sudden, you’re a farmer, living off the bounty of the land. Sounds like a great life, right?

What you might not have realized before you got there was that there’s very little building material on the plains. But you’ve got a wife and two kids, some chickens and maybe a goat or a pig, and you just can’t stand around all day out in the open. For one thing, Indians. For another, cattle ranchers. Both are now your natural enemies (not to mention rain, snow, sleet, heat and tornadoes).

One thing raw farmland does have a lot of is dirt. And grass. And that’s what you’ve got to build your house with. If you’re lucky, your field will have lots of medium-sized rocks in it and you can start building with them as a base. Or if you’re really lucky, there’s a hill on your 40 acres that you can burrow into, and then you’ll only have to build the front of a house. (Just don’t forget the chimney pipe!)

Dirt floor’s fine for now, so you’ll start by pacing off a one-room home.  And that’s where you start stripping off the grass. You’re gonna want strips about 4” deep and between 2 and 3 feet wide*. It’s gotta be nice and wide because thinner strips wouldn’t be stable when you stack ’em. And that’s just what you do: stack ’em up to make the walls of your house.

Taller grasses can be cut into thatch to make a weather-proof roof (the kids can lash them together), though you’ll have to create some sort of support for it – maybe woven willow branches or the boards from your wagon. Maybe add a window made of oilcloth or canvas. And what you wind up with looks quite a bit like this:

A Little Old Sod Shanty

A Little Old Sod Shanty

The best thing about the sod shanty is that it’s pretty well-insulated: it keeps cool in summer and warm in winter (at least compared to the weather outside). The worst thing about it is scent of poverty it gives off. But someday, maybe, when the farming starts to pay off and you have six more kids working the fields – someday you’ll maybe build yourself a real wood cabin.

But for right now, it’s “the little old sod shanty in the west”.

*My note: The strips are very similar to the sod we use today for lawns.

Tuesday Trivia #22: The Round-Up

In most of the Old West, the ranchers managed two yearly round-ups. A spring round-up was done to identify and brand the new calves in a herd, and castrate any male calves that were not needed for reproduction (these cattle were called “steers” and often outnumbered the females).

It was a big job to get cattle from the open range to the railhead or directly to market. Round-ups for this purpose were usually done in the fall and could take several weeks. The cowboys might live out on the range for that entire time, accompanied by a ramrod (boss), a chuck wagon and possibly a cook. In addition to food stores, the chuck wagon carried their water and emergency medical supplies.

However long it took, a cowboy would draw his wages at the drive’s destination. Many would then find themselves unemployed until the following spring. Since the work load was so light in the winter, particularly in the northern territories, only a few favored cowboys were actually employed year-round. It’s no wonder that most cowboys were young, unmarried, and tended to drift from one town to another.

The Old Chisholm Trail

Tying in with this week’s Tuesday Trivia, I hereby present:

The Old Chisholm Trail

Come along, boys, and listen to my tale,
I’ll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm trail.

Refrain:
Come-a-ti-yi-yippy, yippy-yay, yippy-yay,
Come-a-ti-yi-yippy, yippy-yay.

I started up the trail October twenty-third,
I started up the trail with the 2-U herd.

Oh, a ten dollar hoss and a forty dollar saddle,
And I’m a-gonna punch some Texas cattle.

I’m up in the mornin’ afore daylight
And afore I sleep the moon shines bright.

It’s cloudy in the West, a-looking like rain,
And my danged old slicker’s in the wagon again.

No chaps, no slicker, and it’s pouring down rain,
And I swear I’ll never night-herd again.

Oh, it’s bacon and beans ‘most every day,–
I’d as soon be a-eatin’ prairie hay.

I’m on my best horse and I’m goin’ at a run,
I’m the quickest shootin’ cowboy that ever pulled a gun.

I went to the boss to draw my roll,
He had it figgered I was nine* in the hole.

Goin’ back to town to draw my money,
Goin’ back home to see my honey.

With my knees in the saddle and my seat in the sky,
I’ll quit punching cows in the sweet by and by.

*Nine refers to nine dollars; this cowboy had drawn more in advances than he had earned.

This song has at least a dozen more verses, and it’s very easy for children to learn. With this one, and other simple ditties like it, each cowboy would select the verse that he liked best and sing it (or even make up his own verse), while all joined in the refrain. It was usually sung with the refrain after every verse, but usually recorded with the refrain after every 2 or 3 verses.

I Ride an Old Paint

This is one of the first cowboy songs I ever learned. It’s simple and it’s sung quite slowly, making it an ideal introduction to Old West music, particularly for children.

I Ride an Old Paint

I ride an old paint, I lead an old Dan,
I’m goin’ to Montan’ for to throw the hoolihan.
They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw;
Their tails are all matted, their backs are all raw.

Chorus:
Ride around, little dogies, ride around and slow,
For the fiery and snuffy are a-rarin’ to go.

O, when I die take my saddle from the wall,
Put it on my pony and lead him from his stall.
Tie my bones to his back, turn our faces to the west,
And we’ll ride the prairies that we both love best.

Chorus:
Ride around, little dogies, ride around and slow,
For the fiery and snuffy are a-rarin’ to go.

Notes: A “paint” is a pinto pony; an “old Dan” is an old mule; and throwing “the hoolihan” (or “hooley-han”) describes a certain method of back-handed roping.

THE STREETS OF LAREDO

This is the sad story of a cowboy who’s gone wrong and is going to his grave, and the companions who still bear him in their hearts. The melody is from an old Irish song, The Unfortunate Rake (which, by the way, was also the inspiration for that New Orleans Blues standard, St James Infirmary.)

As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a young cowboy wrapped up in white linen,
Wrapped up in white linen and cold as the clay.

“I see by your outfit, that you are a cowboy,”
These words he did say as I slowly passed by.
“Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story,
For I’m shot in the chest, and I’m dying today.

 

Chorus 1:

“So beat the drums slowly and play the pipe lowly
Play the death march as you carry me along.
Take me to the green valley, there lay the sod o’er me.
I am a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.

“Once in the saddle I used to go dashing,
Once in the saddle I used to go gay.
First to the cardhouse* & then down to Rosie’s,
But I’m shot in the breast and I’m dying today.

“Bring 16 tall cowboys to carry my casket,
Bring 10 pretty women to sing me along.
Take me to the green valley, there lay the sod o’er me
For I’m a poor cowboy and know I’ve done wrong.”

 

Chorus 2:

We beat the drums slowly and played the pipe lowly
We played the death march as we carried him along
For we all loved our comrade, so brave, young and handsome
We all loved our comrade although he done wrong.

 

* Corrected 6/4/15 thanks to a reader. BTW, I never thought “courthouse” made any sense.

Tuesday Trivia #8: A lasso by any other name …

Cowboys seldom referred to their ropes as lassos. They usually just called them ropes, and the act of catching a steer was called roping. In the Southwest, the rope was also referred to as a lariat or riata, both from the Spanish “la reata”, again meaning rope.

At the end of the riata was a small reinforced loop, through which the other end of the rope would be passed to create a noose. This reinforced loop was called a honda.

Tuesday Trivia #4: What’s in a Name?

Today’s trivia concerns some new words I’ve learned during my research, as well as one that’s often misunderstood.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to match the words A through D to definitions 1 through 4:

A.  Porter
B.  Hogan
C.  Laager
D.  Kiva

1.  A camp defended by a circular formation of wagons.
2.  An underground chamber used by Native Americans for ceremonies
3.  A traditional Native American dwelling made of logs and mud
4.  An Irish drink made from malt that’s been charred

Now, now, no googling. Go with your gut! I’ll post the correct answers Wednesday evening.

UPDATE: The correct answers are:

A4, B3, C1, D2

How many did you get right?