Activity Ideas

Cowboy Music and Poetry

photo of branding on the Rocker 6 Ranch

After the Civil War, young men looking for work found it in Texas moving the cattle herds north to railroad cars bound for eastern markets, better grass and new territories in the northwest. Together, these cowboys and their animals endured great adversity and experienced the freedom of living on the land, much of which was, as yet, untouched and unmatched in its vastness and grandeur. Nelson Story cleared the way for emigrants along what would later be named the Bozeman Trail when he drove Texas Longhorns to the gold mines of Virginia City, Montana.

Along the trail, these cowboys told stories and sang songs to pass the time and to put into words the power of their experiences on the range. Night riders sang to calm the cattle in the dark and to keep themselves awake. Many of the cowboys had Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Gaelic roots, and they based their music on what they knew — traditional ballads of the British Isles.

As the West was developed and the railroads came to Texas, the cattle drives were no longer necessary. But the original cowboys of the trail-herd days persisted, passing on their oral, musical and occupational traditions to future generations of cowboys and ranchers. Many of their traditions survive today and are recited and sung by cowboy poets and singers across the West. Modern-day ranchers, cowboys and cowgirls continue to write original work as well, relating their experiences as cattlemen, horsemen and human beings living in direct relationship with animals and the land.


D.W. Groethe with his guitar

1. Bring in a Montana cowboy singer and poet for a 1-2 day class visit. D.W. Groethe is a musician, songwriter, poet, historian and performer whose work is a reflection of his life as a cowboy in the far northeast corner of Montana. A North Dakota native and descendent of Norwegian immigrants who homesteaded in Williams County, North Dakota, Groethe has a deep respect for those who came before, Native and immigrant alike. In the classroom, he combines his knowledge of western history, his work as a cowboy and his poetry and music to demonstrate the origins of cowboy culture and art.

Groethe was selected to perform at the 2003 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, where he played with Red Steagall and shared the stage with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.

“When he sings, you hear the bawling calves, smell the fire at branding time and shiver at the chill of a skin-stripping prairie wind. You ache at the contradiction of ranch life, starving to death to do the thing you love.”

Chris Jorgensen, Billings Gazette

2. Share traditional and contemporary cowboy poetry and music with students (see resources below). What are the common characteristics? Why did cowboys memorize these poems and songs, rather than write them down? Have students read the lyrics and discuss similarities and differences. Look for connections to students’ lives and ask them to share their knowledge of and experiences with cowboy life. Ask students to write a poem about some aspect of their own lives. Make suggestions to spur ideas: fishing, biking, school, horses, family etc… Ask students to share times that they have sat around and told stories or sung songs. What kind of stories/songs were they? Did they remember them and retell them in another setting?

3. Present a map of the West and use it to illustrate the routes of the cattle drives. Pinpoint where your community is in relation to the trail drives. Discuss similar activities that are conducted by ranchers today. How do they move cows and get them to market?

4. Bring in examples of cowboy gear and ask students to bring in examples from home. Discuss the various items and why they were necessary for cowboys to wear or to use. Ask students to tell stories about the gear they bring in — who does it belong to, where did they get it, why do they wear it?

Saddle bronc riding at the Dillon Rodeo.

5. Discuss the rodeo as an outgrowth of the cowboy/ranch life. Consider the various events: tie-down roping, team roping, bulldogging (steer wrestling), bronc riding and barrel racing. What ranch tasks do these events mirror? Ask students to relate their rodeo experiences.

6. Discuss the lives of Native Americans as cowboys and ranchers. Use the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit “Legends of Our Times: Native Ranching and Rodeo Life on the Plains and Plateau” at Consider western myths of cowboys and Indians and use the exhibit to dialogue about myth versus reality and how cultures affect and influence each other.

Potential Content Standards (not grade level specific)

  • Art: 1.1, 1.3, 1.4; 3.1, 3.2, 3.3; 4.1, 4.2; 5.1-6; 6.3, 6.4
  • Social Studies: 2.5, 2.6; 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5, 3.7; 4.1-7; 6.1-6
  • Speaking and Listening: 2.3, 2.4, 2.5; 3.2, 3.6, 3.7; 4.3;
  • Writing: 1.1-4; 2.1, 2.2, 2.5; 3.1-3; 4.1-3; 5.1-2
  • Literature: 1.1-6; 3.1-3; 4.1-3; 5.1-3
  • Reading: 1.1-5; 4.2, 4.3, 4.4
  • World Languages: 4.1-4; 8.19.2, 9.3

Selected Resources


Western and Cowboy Poetry at the Bar D Ranch

Western Folklife Center

The National Museum of the American Indian

PBS: New Perspectives on the West


Cowboy Poetry, by DJ O’Malley

Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry, edited by David Stanley and Elaine Thatcher

All This Way for the Short Ride, by Paul Zarzyski

Cowgirls, Women of the American West, by Teresa Jordan

Graining the Mare, The Poetry of Ranch Women, by Teresa Jordan

Cowboy Crumudgeon and Other Poems, by Wallace McRae and Clinton McRae

Bronc to Breakfast and Other Poems, Mike Logan


Why the Cowboy Sings, Western Folklife Center

I’ll Ride That Horse: Montana Women Bronc Riders


Tales from the West River, D.W. Groethe 2003

There’s a Place, D.W. Groethe 2000

I’m Pulling Through, Stephanie Davis, 1996

River of No Return, Stephanie Davis, 1996

Words Growing Wild, Paul Zarzyski, 1998

Back in the Saddle Again: American Cowboy Songs, compilation, 1983

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