Cowboy Poetry

Elko, Nevada | Film Short

Documentary, Western

Hannah Logan Peterson

1 Campaigns | California, United States

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This campaign raised $5,745 for production. Follow the filmmaker to receive future updates on this project.

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A short film documenting the 2017 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada that combines footage behind the scenes of the Gathering, with portraiture in the homes of cowboy poets in order to observe each performer and the inspiration behind the work.

About The Project

  • The Story
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Mission Statement

We believe in inclusion! Behind the camera is a Korean-American woman producing, directing, and editing. It is also sound recorded and shot by a woman and man. The performers range in age, race, class, and gender who represent the dissipating cowboy and ranching culture of America.

The Story

Two years ago, around a campfire at the foothills of the Absaroka mountains in Montana, I saw a cowboy approaching with a banjo slung around his back. He began to recite what I would later learn to call cowboy poetry. During his performance, he recanted the loss of his beloved horse, and lyrically described what it looks like to see the breath of hundreds of cattle at the break of dawn. The contrast of the content of his poetry with the rough and tumble exterior of this working cowboy was completely captivating.


To my mind, the myth of the cowboy didn’t hold space for such poetic expression, yet it made so much sense that a culture so uniquely tied to the land would have something to say about it, and I learned that there is in fact a deep history to cowboy poetry. Afterwards, the cowboy poet told me about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering that happens once a year in Elko, Nevada in which thousands of people go to see poets and musicians of the rural West perform. That was the summer before I began my Masters in Fine Arts at the California Institute of the Arts in the school of Film/Video, and I knew then that I would make a film about it.

Cowboy poetry originated on the trail drives north from Texas after the Civil War, as a way for cowhands to pass time around the campfire, telling stories to the rhythm of traditional ballads and the popular poetry of the time. Cowboy poetry is distinctive both in its culturally specific subject matter and its traditional use of rhyme and meter. The particulars of cowboy poetry derive from the American West: horses, cattle, fire, prairie storms, mythic figures of cowboys and ranchers, and the wilderness. 


The National Cowboy Poetry gathering has a long history as a pilgrimage destination for thousands of participants who for six days come together to hear narratives passed down to today’s rural West. In the early 1980’s, a group of western folklorists were given a small grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to preserve American cowboy culture. Hal Cannon, the founding director of the Western Folklife Center, and a handful of others visited working ranches all over the West as ethnographers of the disappearing cowboy culture. After interviewing several cowboys, what they discovered instead was a number of practiced and articulate poets.

In 1985, Canon, with the help of several others, established the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, a town of about 10,000 people. Originally intended as a one-off weekend performance, the Gathering is now a weeklong event that grosses more than half a million dollars, with more than fifty performers and a hundred and fifty performances each year. This year’s Gathering will take place from January 30th -February 4th and its theme is “Real Stories. Straight Up.”


This documentary short opens with a pastoral evocation of an open field at sunset in Yavapai County, Arizona where Gail Steiger has been foreman of Spider Ranch since 1995. The 50,000-acre ranch is flanked with ponderosa pines, cedar mesas, and chaparral, and in the distance we see a cowboy figure approaching on horseback. This puts into context the lifestyle reflected in the cowboy poetry that will be performed at the gathering by poets and musicians, including Steiger himself. Leading up to the festival I will visit at least 3 other musicians and poets at their homes in California, Utah, and Texas including Andy Hedges, Hal Cannon, and the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Inspired by the films of Les Blank, I am interested in capturing intimate glimpses into the lives of the performers both on and off stage. Taking on the style of a more observational film, there will be no narration so the viewer is able to immerse themselves on their own terms.

From Kelly Reichart’s Certain Women to the documentary Sweetgrass by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the contemporary ranching culture of the American west has continually proven to generate much appeal. I am pursuing this project as a way to explore my own fascination with the American West, as well as a means to connect with a lifestyle embraced by a part of the country that increasingly feels divided from the urban centers of the world. Combining observational style documentary at the Gathering with a more composed and even performative portraiture in the homes of the poets, Cowboy Poetry will observe the layers of each performer as a means to get to know them and see the inspiration behind the work. Mixing 16mm film with the Sony A7s, I am interested in using the natural, low light aesthetic to capture this film and to forge a dialogue between the dissipating culture of the cowboy, with that of celluloid itself.


photo credits: Brandon Barnhart, Jessica Lifland 


Use the WishList to Pledge cash and Loan items - or - Make a pledge by selecting an Incentive directly.

crew salaries

Costs $2,000

For 12 days of production for a 3 person crew including cinematographer, sound recordist, and director. We believe in compensating our crew!

travel to cowboy poets

Costs $1,700

Help us visit the cowboys in their homes in California, Arizona, Utah, and Texas! This will help us with gas, food, and accommodations.

camera package

Costs $500

The majority of our equipment will come from CalArts, but this will help us rent an additional sony A7s II for our shoots!

location sound package

Costs $500

We have a lot of sound needs for this shoot including rentals of mic stands, mics and sound recorders!

Cash Pledge

Costs $0

Hard Drives

Costs $300

Documentaries take a lot of footage to create, and this will help keep our footage safe

About This Team

Hannah Logan Peterson - director / creator


Hannah completed her BFA at the New School in New York where she studied documentary and experimental film theory. She worked as an apprentice to Alex Gibney on the feature documentary Going Clear, the Amazon series the New Yorker Presents, and the Netflix series Cooked prior to coming to California. Additionally, she served as a staff member for the 2015 Flaherty Film Seminar. Most recently she worked with writer and director Sean Baker on his forthcoming feature, The Florida Project as well as his award winning short film, Snowbird. In addition to working in various roles such as AD, DP and producer in several of her fellow students’ films, she is currently writing and directing a trilogy of narrative short films set in Los Angeles.


Alexander Girav - director of photography 


Alex is a director/director of photography based out of Los Angeles. His aesthetic approach is meditative and atmospheric, often blurring the line between narrative and documentary. His short films have been shown at the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles as a part of the Calarts Film/Video Showcase in 2014 and 2016. He has worked with filmmakers Nathan Silver and Jack Dunphy, and his music video work as been featured on websites like Pitchfork, Fader, and Vice.


Mireya Martinez - second director of photography


Mireya is a filmmaker, aunt of two and photography aficionado. She earned her undergraduate degree in Communication from Cal Poly Pomona and is currently pursuing her MFA degree in Film Directing at the California Institute of the Arts. While at CalArts, Mireya has collaborated on numerous projects in the roles of producer, co-producer, gaffer and AC. Her past experiences include doing freelance photography, interning at a game show and, of course, babysitting. She is obsessed with trying to accurately capture the human in all of its tatteredness and beauty, and is currently working on writing and directing a narrative short film about a family. 


Pin-Hua Chen - sound recordist 


Pin-Hua graduated from California Institute of the Arts with an MFA in sound design in 2015. Currently she works as a freelance sound editor for independent film studios, as well as a sound designer for independent film and animation. 


Key Actors: 


Andy Hedges is a songster, reciter and guitarist. His varied repertoire includes classic cowboy recitations, obscure cowboy songs, dust bowl ballads, and blues. Andy taught himself to play the guitar when he was 14 and began collecting classic cowboy poems and traditional cowboy songs. He has released nine albums including four joint projects with songwriter Andy Wilkinson. His latest album Cowboy Songster Vol. 2 is a recording of Andy performing old-time songs in the solo tradition with only guitar accompaniment. Andy lives in Lubbock, Texas with his wife and children. Don Edwards said that Andy “makes no claim to being a cowboy but he has the cowboy spirit, integrity, and the heart that makes his music so undeniably real. Andy could very well carry on the traditions when all us old guys are gone. I'd feel assured in knowing the music of our great American West was in good hands."


Hal Cannon is a songwriter,  musician, radio producer and folklorist. The founding Director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, and its famous child, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Hal has published scores of books and recordings on the folk arts of the West including his best selling anthology, Cowboy Poetry, A Gathering. 


Gail Steiger is a songwriter, filmmaker, cowboy and foreman of the remote Spider Ranch in Yavapai County, Arizona, since 1995. He has been playing guitar and writing songs for over 30 years, and often recites works by his grandparents, Delia Gist Gardner and Gail I. Gardner. Gail also collaborates with his brother Lew on various film and multimedia projects, including the acclaimed documentary, Ranch Album. He’s released two CDs, The Romance of Western Life in 1999, and A Matter of Believin’ in 2015. Gail is a member of the Western Folklife Center’s Board of Trustees.


Ramblin' Jack Elliott chose the cowboy way at the age of 14, trading life at home for one on the rodeo circuit. By age 20, Elliott’s rough-edged enthusiasm and musical instinct drew the attention of his avowed idol, Woody Guthrie, initiating a close, invaluable and lifelong association. He was also a good friend of Johnny Cash. Ramblin’ Jack became a latter-day troubadour, whose love for a good song is equaled only by an abiding respect for his fellow man and a profound contempt for injustice. Along the way, he inspired several generations including a young Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. This National Medal of Arts recipient and two-time GRAMMY winner is a truly unique American treasure.


Dom Flemons, “American Songster,” sings and plays banjo, guitar, harmonica, fife, bones, bass drum, snare drum and quills. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Dom was a major producer and performer in the Arizona folk music scene, as well as a slam poet and founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a North Carolina-based GRAMMY-winning African-American string band. Dom focuses on music rooted in history, but with a contemporary approach, creating old-time folk music with a new sound. In July 2014, Dom released his third solo record, Prospect Hill, an informed and invigorated take on ragtime, spirituals, jug band music, Piedmont blues, fife and drum music, country music and ballads. He is joined by his duo partner, Brian Farrow.


Current Team