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The true origins of “The Strawberry Roan”

By: Mick Holder

This is the story of how one poem about an outlaw horse which couldn’t be rode; a poem which became a song, started in a burg under the Pinals, and eventually traveled the world. It has been called America’s greatest horse ballad and perhaps the “…finest tribute to an outlaw horse,” ever penned.

Popularized by Marty Robbins, the story goes that in 1940, Robbins once convinced a Phoenix radio station that he could sing The Strawberry Roan better than the singer they had hired. He did, and he got the job. Robbins would go on to perform the song for the rest of his career.

bigstock-Rodeo-Cowboy-And-Horse-2361986Yet it is the story behind “The Strawberry Roan” which brings us back to Globe and the poet who first penned those words, and the musician who made it into a song.

Curly Fletcher was a showman and early promoter of western ‘performance productions’- the early harbinger of modern rodeos. But his passion was poetry and that is how he would often refer to himself- as a poet.  His work, and his ppassion took him all over the country and he often found himself in Globe. He and his brother, were in fact, the first promoters of the Gila Valley Winter Stampede. He would perform his poems at these ‘’performance events” and the poem which became a famous song was originally titled “The Outlaw Broncho” (original spelling). It was published in the Arizona Record in December of 1915, and later published as part of a collection in 1917, 1926 and 1931.

The poem, which tells of an outlaw horse that no cowboy could ride, struck a cord with

audiences and it was picked up by the Broadway musical production, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” in 1931 giving it an even wider distribution. For those of you unfamiliar with this musical, you might know it by it’s later title, the award winning production of “Oklahoma.” In a piece done by John White in 1970 for the Arizona Record (Miami’s Newspaper), in which he outlines the origins of the song, White tracks it to Curly Fletcher and Globe, though he states that the music itself was ‘worked out’ by an unknown balladeer.

Tamale Joe: Ed Hargett

However, for those who still have ties to that time period, there is only one man who could have given The ‘Roan, it’s tune. That man was “Tamale Joe”, aka Edward William Hargatt.

Hargatt had come to Globe with his wife Mary Fuentes from San Antonio Texas in approximately 1905 to find work with the mines.

When that proved to be bad for his health, he turned to selling his wife’s tamales who, it is said, would make them by the ‘washer tub’ full and he would sell out daily. He was also musically versatile enough to be at home with most all the different cultures and music in Globe and it is said that his rendition of the Old Cornish hymn “ Asleep with Jesus” caused many a Cousin Jacks to move back to Wales.

The story goes, that as he was listening to the cadence of Curly Fletcher recite his poem of the outlaw roan at one of those early ‘performance contests,’ he began tickling the keys of the piano. While Fletcher was reportedly annoyed with this distraction during his recitation, the audience in attendance that day was thrilled. Cowboys who heard the song, offered to drag a piano up to the rodeo grounds the next day so Tamale Joe could perform his rendition during the scheduled arena performances. Tamale Joe assured them that his guitar would be just fine. And so it was that “The Strawberry Roan” was first performed on that bright sunny day at an arena in Globe Arizona, by Tamale Joe.

Curley’s brother Fred, later contacted him and asked that one of their contract employees be taught the cords and from then on you could say, the ‘horse had left the barn.’

Curley spent many years in frustration trying to gain royalties for his original work but never succeeded.  It seemed ironic that he didn’t credit Hargett’s contribution himself. Perhaps he thought it might weaken his own claim. In the thousands of reprints and uses he did not receive even a “thank you,” but then again, neither did Tamale Joe.

 

 Marty Robbins singing The Strawberry Roan.

 

Mick Holder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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    I met an old man who claimed he wrote The Strawberry Roan in the early 1900s. He also said, as a kid he rode in the chuck wagon on a cattle drive with the black man who wrote the Yellow Rose of Texas back in the 1800s. I spoke with him around 40 years ago. The rodeo champion Shoat Webster brought him to my home in Lenepah, Oklahoma to meet me. I wish I had written down his name.

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