A Cowboy Poet Like No Other

Kerry McCray Holland
By Kerry McCray Holland September 15, 2014 21:57


Alleene Keith, 88, has a soft spot for anything western. Horses, cowboys, boots, wide-brimmed hats, John Wayne movies. You name it, she delights in it – especially a popular western tradition, cowboy poetry.

She discovered the art form eight years ago at Bucksworth Western Wear in Oakdale. The store threw a western-themed party, and performers recited poems that depicted the West, much like cowboys would, gathered around a campfire after a long day on the range.

“I was so impressed,” Keith says. “I told my husband, ‘I can do that.’ ”

Keith went home to Willow Springs, east of Sonora, and composed her first poem, “The Saturday Picture Show,” about the days when she and her friends would gather at the movie house to catch a glimpse of their cowboy heroes – Roy, Tex and Gene – on the big screen.

She went on to write four more poems and performs them at events like festivals and western-themed weddings. That’s a feather in her cap – cowboy hat? – considering she remembers being too shy to say her lines in school plays.

She’s not nervous now, she says, perhaps because audiences show their appreciation. “My poetry has been very fulfilling to me because of the response I get.”

Particularly exciting for Keith was the chance to recite her poetry – she has memorized it all – last October at an Oakdale benefit for disabled veterans. The cause is close to her heart because her late husband, Alva Keith, served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

“That was a real thrill,” says Keith, who wears her signature lipstick-red cowboy boots to most performances.

Keith’s life story is a bit of a thrill, too. It begins in west Texas, where she was born. The family moved to Colorado Springs when she was 7. Her father was a farmer, and her mother raised seven children.

Alleene was a dark-haired 15-year-old, working as a waitress, when her future husband and his friends came in for dinner. Alva was clean-cut, 19 and fresh from Kansas, having come to work at Camp Carson (now Fort Carson) as a carpenter’s helper.

The two eloped 13 days after Alleene’s 16th birthday. She never finished high school. “But just because I quit school doesn’t mean I quit learning,” she says.

A voracious reader, Alleene devoured books about history, especially American and Native American history.

cowboy-poetessFN00259When Alva was drafted into the 11th Airborne Field Artillery in 1942, the couple traveled to California, and Alleene landed a civilian job driving Army trucks at a port of embarkation near Los Angeles. She drove troops, supplies and payroll for much of the war. When it was over, she and Alva settled in Oakdale, later moving to Tuolumne County.

Lifelong fans of westerns, Keith and her husband tagged along when a friend was hired as an extra in 1979’s “The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang,” filmed in and around Sonora. They ended up in the movie and went on to work as extras and play bit parts in others, including “Back to the Future III,” filmed in the Red Hills outside Chinese Camp.

There was a lot of downtime on the set. Keith took her crocheting – she calls it handwork – and caught the attention of costumers. They hired her to embroider a dress for actress Mary Steenburgen.

Impressed, the costumers kept in touch. Years later Keith got a call inviting her to Billings, Montana, where she would duplicate 100-year-old embroidery on a costume for Nicole Kidman in the movie “Far and Away.”

“When they called, I asked who was starring,” she recalls. “They told me Tom Cruise. My husband says, ‘Who’s that?’ ”

Keith’s home overflows with memories of her rich life, most of them with a western theme. There are the apple-head dolls she made by hand, the baskets she wove from pine needles and sweet grass, and the canvas she painted in oil depicting a high-country cow camp.

There’s also a black-and-white picture of her and Alva, taken the October after they married. The two would have celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary in July.

The couple had two children: Lynda Word, who lives in Twain Harte, and Gary Keith of Nevada. Keith also has three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and calls her family “my greatest achievement.”

Keith lives with macular degeneration, so the fine handwork she loved so much isn’t possible now. But she can still write – and recite – poetry.

She recently performed at the wedding of a friend who works at Black Oak Casino, one of her favorite places. Keith wore a white cowboy hat she decorated with a pink rosebud corsage.

She has about four poems in the works, she says, but hasn’t had the dedication to finish them since her husband passed away four years ago.

She recalls one of her poems, “The Big Hunt,” inspired when a friend shared a story with her and her husband about a hunter stalking his prey. What kind of prey she won’t reveal, saying it would spoil the ending for her audience the next time she performs it.

“That one brings down the house,” she says, “and it’s a true story. My husband and I just laughed and laughed.

“I told him there has to be a poem in there somewhere.”

Cowboy poetry is an art form people believe originated with workers on cattle drives and ranches.

Illiteracy was common, so rhyming poems and songs helped them remember the stories and pass them on to the next generation.

Like other cowboy poets, Keith draws on a lifetime of experiences when she composes a poem.

cowboy-poetessFN00250Some of her reflections:

On wartime:  “All of us women thought we were helping to win the war. At that time most women were doing something for the war effort.”

On marriage:  “We always did things together. We hunted and fished, and we built our houses together. The attraction just never went away.”

On cowboy poetry:  “Where do my poems come from? That’s a good question. I don’t know.  When I sit down to write, it just flows.”

On what’s next:  “I can’t imagine. I haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up yet.”


 The Tomboy

By Alleene Keith

When I was just a little tyke

From about the age of three,

I already knew, a cowboy,

Was what I’d rather be.

I wore shirts and blue jeans

With a cap gun at my side,

And had a broomstick pony

That I would often ride.

I shunned tea parties and paper dolls

And other girlish toys.

I chose instead, to play outside

And have shootouts with the boys.

I learned to lasso fence posts,

Sometimes the neighbor’s cat.

And I was seldom seen

Without my cowboy boots and hat.

But when school days approached,

My Mom took me in hand.

To turn me into the creature,

That Mother Nature planned.

We shopped for the necessities

To make the transformation.

And I endured it all…

With only mild anticipation!

As I looked into the mirror

When the makeover was complete,

I saw myself in frills and ribbons

With slippers on my feet.

I was somewhat pleased with what I saw,

And a little surprised, I guess.

‘Tho, deep inside, I felt that I was

Looking at a cowboy in a dress!

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
Kerry McCray Holland
By Kerry McCray Holland September 15, 2014 21:57
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