Academic journal article Ethnologies

"And Brewsters Pay for Smiles": Ray Bagley's Alienated Verse

Academic journal article Ethnologies

"And Brewsters Pay for Smiles": Ray Bagley's Alienated Verse

Article excerpt

Ray Bagley, a predecessor of later, more prominent Alberta cowboy poets, was born in Iowa in 1880 and immigrated to Alberta with his family at the age of 12. (See Lyon 1991 and Marty 1989 for overviews of Alberta cowboy poetry.) Among his other occupations, Bagley worked as a dude wrangler (a horse worker employed in the tourist industry, preparing mounts for visitors to dude ranches, often leading them on trail rides, and providing local color for their vacation experience) for the Brewster family, outfitters of the holiday club, the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies.(1) Most of the poems collected in his 1960 anthology Those Other Days were written while he was active with the Trail Riders and reveal the alienation and contradictions at the intersection of tourism, entertainment, and everyday life where the image of the cowboy has been shaped and marketed.

Tourist and show business themes, rhetoric, and attitudes in Bagley's verse make it arguably not folkloric, especially in the light of this observation by Roger deV. Renwick: "... [M]odern folk poetry usually takes as its topics real people, institutions, places, and events from the shared environment that's within daily experience and reach of both maker and audience. Folk poetry effectively passes its judgment on social matters of the indigenous, everyday, practical, lived sort" (1993: 55). This paper does not intend to challenge this expectation of folk culture but assumes instead that such verse as Bagley's occurs at an intersection between folk and popular culture. The repetition of the term "intersection" from the previous paragraph is intentional; just as the meeting of industrial, imaginative, and quotidian activities produces contradiction and alienation, versifiers who lack the support of a tradition (be it folkloric, industrial, or academic) are by definition alienated.(2)

Bagley was not a learned writer and can hardly be considered representative of sophisticated culture, nor did he have access to technological, commercial means of production and distribution, so despite the influence from popular culture (greeting card verse, perhaps, as well as popular song and poetry) in his work, we cannot say that he was producing popular culture. Renwick's description assumes a monolithic folk community which may or may not be detectable in reality; how much Bagley spoke for a community is not clear. His verse generally avoids "everyday, practical, lived" concerns and echoes the romance and escapism of popular culture. There are, however, some formal elements of folk verse in his work, and whatever "topics" or "matters" Bagley chose to write about, his voice is certainly "indigenous." Indeed, his fascination with image, particularly that of the westerner, represents a provincial obsession.

The presence of cowboys in Alberta has been extremely useful for a variety of business and political enterprises in the province, the Trail Riders and other Brewster concerns among them, though ranching was only one of several formative Alberta industries (which include farming, mining, and petroleum, as well as tourism), and the number of persons occupied in it must never have been very large. Nevertheless, the cowboy is frequently presented as emblematic of the province.

Despite its rusticity, the cowboy image, from the days of Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill, is a product of popular -- that is, industrial and technological -- culture. The Calgary Stampede (an annual rodeo which has come to include a variety of entertainments and which carries social, commercial, and political clout in this city analogous to that of the Mardi Gras Crewes of New Orleans) was founded by Guy Weadick, a professional entertainer with Hollywood connections (Livingstone 1996: 96-99). The Stampede affirms the identification of the rodeo cowboy, a professional entertainer, with the working cowboy; this identification was also encouraged throughout much of the century by the prominence in Alberta of country singer Wilf Carter, a transplanted Nova Scotian who appeared in the rodeo as a young man (Lyon 1987). …

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