Elizabeth Ebert, known to some as the Queen of Cowboy Poetry, has passed away. The 93 year old spent most of her life near Lemmon, South Dakota. During her later years, she traveled the country to recite her poetry.
I recently visited with Elizabeth Ebert in her rural home. She shared her journey with cowboy poetry over a cup of coffee. Many of her memories were of the early days. She was a ten year old in South Dakota during the Great Depression.
“And it was depressed, I can tell you that much. But we got by and we read poetry. We read books and books and books out loud. That’s the way we entertained ourselves when there was nothing else to do.”
Ebert grew up reading poetry and started writing her own when she was four. But for years she crumpled up her work and threw it in the trash.
“I have maybe 10 poems that I wrote in that length of time. It was different. I was younger and it was different and it’s embarrassing to me now.”
She was 65 when she recited her first original poem on stage.
“I went up to Medora on a bet with my husband and said a piece there. And I was asked to come back the next year to do a night show.”
There was only a small audience at that first show. Then Ebert says she met a mentor in North Dakota who showed her how to get her name out into the world.
“The fourth time I spoke, I spoke at the National Cowboy Poetry gathering.”
Nearly twelve hundred people attended that event. Ebert says after that, she recited her work all over the country--and once overseas. She says she earned the nickname the Queen of Cowboy Poetry.
“I get up on the stage and I was grey haired, old. And people look at you and wonder ‘what’s she doing up here?’ So I always started at first my poems by saying ‘my name is Elizabeth but I wasn’t named for Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I was named for my Irish grandmother. And this first little poem is not a true sonnet, but it is called ‘it takes real love’ and this is the poem…
It takes real love to kiss a man whose whiskers poke and scratch
Whose morning breath smells just like eggs
Last years that didn't hatch
It takes real love to kiss a man in cattle checking clothes
Who used his sleeve to wipe the calve
And then to wipe his nose
But there is one situation
Where real love is not enough
You never, never kiss a man
Whose lip is filled with snuff.”
Ebert says traditional cowboy poetry isn’t about politics or religion. It’s just about life. She says it’s usually really funny or really sad. She prefers her serious work--pieces focused on homesteading days and early cowboys.
“I watch cowboy movies all the time. Seven O’Clock in the morning, the world stops while I watch Rawhide.”
Some of Ebert’s poems are personal but she says she doesn’t write about friends and family. To her, the rhymes are the most important thing about cowboy poetry. And--she has plenty.
“The rhymes kind of come naturally but you have to work it around what you’re writing about. I always say have all your cowboys named Bill because it rhymes with still and Phil and kill and all that stuff! It’s just easier.”
Ebert always kept her favorite writing tool with her--a dictionary.
“I’ve got a cowboy dictionary and a reverse dictionary and old dictionaries and new. And one time had 14 dictionaries in the house because you can find out a lot of stuff in a dictionary.”
She says modern cowboy poetry is more focused on the issues and trends in society and sometimes it doesn’t even rhyme. Ebert says her favorite poems are light hearted or simple---like life should be.
Ebert is survived by her three children, six grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.