April 4, 2018
Hail and Farewell: Elizabeth Ebert, “Grand Dame of Cowboy Poetry,” 1925-2018
by Simon Reichley
Buckaroos, bertsolariak, and vaqueros, please remove your Stetson and join us in a moment of silence as we honor the memory of Elizabeth Ebert, the “Grand Dame of Cowboy Poetry,” who passed away on March 20th, at the age of ninety-three.
Ebert was perhaps the best loved and most talented cowboy poet of her generation, though it wasn’t until her sixties that she began to share her writing with the world. According to Carson Vaughan, who has written about Ebert and cowboy poetry in American Cowboy and the New Yorker, and who wrote a New York Times obituary for Ebert this week, the now-legendary cowgirl poet first performed in 1989, at a cowboy poetry gathering in Medora, North Dakota.
Ebert’s star rose quickly after that first reading. Baxter Black, a cowboy poet who once performed on the Johnny Carson show, and who had been the form’s most prominent practitioner, immediately recognized Ebert’s talent, and began encouraging her to submit her work to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, the largest and most prestigious such event in the country. She performed there for the first time in 1991, and for the last in 2016.
As a young woman, Ebert had been an admirer of Dorothy Parker. She left home to study journalism and creative writing in Minneapolis, and lived for a year in Washington DC waiting tables. As she told Vaughan in 2016, “At the time I admired Parker’s long cigarette holder and wished to go to New York and hobnob with the literati” — but after a year in the city, “all I wanted was a piece of prairie that I could call my own and a lot fewer people around.” Later in life she came to think of Parker’s poetry as “cynical and slightly smutty.”
Ebert published two collections of poetry in her life, Crazy Quilt in 1997, and Prairie Wife in 2006. She also appeared on two albums, Live from Thunder Hawk and Where the Buffalo Rhyme. One of her best loved poems, “He Talked About Montana,” can be read here.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.