Dancin’ in Anson: A History of the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball
by Paul H. Carlson
Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2014
148pp. $26.95. Cloth
For eighty years, the weekend before Christmas has seen revelers from all over the country and beyond head to the northwest Texas town of Anson for a special celebration. Many of them wear elaborate recreations of late nineteenth-century costume—though the rules of the establishment still state that gentlemen must take off their spurs and check their hats at the door. A “reenactment” of the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was first staged in the 1930s, but the tradition dates back further than this, to an almost legendary event held in the town in 1885.
William Lawrence Chittenden, a journalist turned rancher, attended the original Cowboys’ Christmas Ball, and subsequently immortalized it in a poem of the same name. It is on Chittenden’s description of the event—later set to music—that the modern “sworray” is based. An extract from the middle of the poem gives a flavor of the scene:
The room was togged out gorgeous—with mistletoe and shawls,
And candles flickered frescoes, around the airy walls.
The “wimmin folks” looked lovely—the boys looked kinder treed,
Till their leader commenced yellin’: “Woah! Fellers, let’s stampede,”
And the music started sighin’, and awailin’ through the hall,
As a kind of introduction to “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”
Paul H. Carlson, emeritus professor of history at Texas Tech University, has written a well-researched and highly readable history of the ball, with chapters devoted to its historical background, cowboy poetry and pioneer dances, a biography of Chittenden and an explication of his poem, and an account of the present-day ball.
To categorize this book as local history would be to do it a disservice, as Carlson situates the Anson dance tradition in the wider context of the “frontier” way of life. He evokes the landscape during the period of westward expansion, when “the first ranchers lived in tents, lost horses to Comanche and Kiowa warriors, and worried about losing cattle to mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes.” Gradually, land was bought up, settled and fenced in; but even as the open range disappeared, some resisted these changes. Carlson quotes one of the earliest ranchers, who “didn’t think the country would ever be settled. Why should we file on land when we had the free use of it anyway?”
As enclosed ranching supplanted trail-driving, poetry fed a nostalgia for the rough but simple life of the lonely cowboy.
In a survey of cowboy poetry from the 1890s to the present, Carlson notes how the genre has been variously considered as worthless doggerel and as the subject of academic conferences. He is under no illusions, however, as to Chittenden’s literary merit. His “unsophisticated frontier vernacular” has a “refreshing breeziness”—but perhaps more significantly, his work is “American in subject, theme, and style.” These qualities saw Chittenden’s collection, Ranch Verses, go through twelve printings in twelve years—an unimaginable feat for a poet today.
The revived ball has not been without its challenges, most notably a “no dancing” law passed by the city council in 1933. Carlson hints that the conservative element in the community is linked to the historical presence of the Ku Klux Klan. He quotes a resident who remarked in the 1980s, “I feel like some dancing per se is vulgar. . . The music and some of the. . . modern rhythms, appear to me to be the result of native dances that were intended to lead to sexual activity.”
These are tantalizing glimpses of what could have been a much more controversial book. With a certain deference to the organizers of the modern-day ball, however, Carlson largely steers clear of this territory. The event, we are reminded by singer Michael Martin Murphey, is “a no-smoking, no-drinking, family dance,” and Carlson’s treatment of it is similarly inoffensive. The headliner Murphey himself, we are reassured, may have flirted with “outlaw country” in his youth, but “upon advice from his mother and Roy Rogers, he changed his act and returned to his country-cowboy roots.”
Ironically therefore, the chapter of the book concerning the ball today is the least interesting. It suffers from Carlson’s adulation of Murphey. “In many ways,” we are told, “he represents the ideal performer. . . if in the future, Murphey for whatever reasons severs his relationship with the Anson event, the Association will be bruised—at least for a time.” Given that Murphy will be seventy-one in 2015, one feels it would be prudent for the organizers to entertain the possibility of his retirement in the not-too-distant future.
Despite this “safe” approach to the contemporary event, the book is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of cowboy culture, where Carlson is definitely on surer ground. He sums up the enduring appeal of the landscape and the era evoked by cowboy poetry, music, and dancing: “Although it was ephemeral. . . the open range era, by its sheer majestic grandeur continues to capture the imagination of people everywhere.”
Dorothy Lawrenson is a poet in the MFA program at Texas State University.