Frank Dobie had an opinion on just about anything.|
In 1941, the noted
Texas storyteller and University of Texas faculty
member pondered the literature of two distinctly Texan industries – cattle and
oil. “Compared with the literature and art reflective of cattle,
cowboys, trail driving, horses and other factors of life on the range,” Dobie
wrote in his weekly newspaper column, “the literature and art reflective of the
oil business…are slender.”
For the most part, that’s held up, at least
in terms of fiction. The trail driving era has Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning
“Lonesome Dove,” but the Texas oil patch has yet
to be the setting for any novel likely to become a classic.
writers have not recognized the romantic in the muddy, greasy, stinky world of
oil production. Three years before Dobie lamented the literary dry hole of the
energy industry, a weekly newspaper in South
Texas was peddling a little book of oil field verse called “Bell-Bottoms to
Boots” by a sailor-turned-roughneck named Joe “Blackie” Wilson.
liked poetry, but likely would have dismissed Wilson’s effort as so much doggerel.
Still, the poems have a ring of truth.
In rhyme, Wilson
tried to distill life in and around the Duval County town of Freer, the state’s
last truly wild and wooly oil boom town. The first boom came in the late 1920s,
but a second boom that began in 1932 for all practical purposes suspended
the Great Depression in that part of the state.
C.L. Day started a weekly
newspaper, the Freer Enterprise, as the second boom gathered momentum in
1933. At some point, “Blackie” Wilson came to the area to work in the fields.
Soon he began submitting poems to the newspaper.
The poems proved to
be a popular and Day decided to capitalize on that.
“Hundreds of subscribers,”
he wrote, “have been so well pleased with ‘Rod Tailin’ Blackie’s’ poems that they
have preserved them in scrap books. In order to gratify your desire for a book
of poems by your favorite author, we have gone to considerable trouble and expense
to publish Bell-Bottoms to Boots so that you may be able to secure your
favorite poems bound in a beautiful book, without extra cost.”
a person did have to pay $2 for a subscription to the Enterprise to obtain
a “free” copy.
From this distant perspective, it’s hard to imagine that
the oil patch workers spent much time pondering poetry. But they couldn’t work
and raise hell all the time. Nor could the boom that lured them to South
Freer is still on the map, but the boom finally played
out. As Wilson wrote:
boys, the boom is over—they’re throwing drunks in jail|
“The dealers and the
dolls are on the lam.
“If you do any serious drinking be sure to arrange for
“Or you’ll face the morning after in a jam.
“Freer is on her good
behavior and will never be the same.
and Mexia before the rangers came?
“O somewhere surely there’s another
rag town booming
“Where it’s no crime for roughnecks to throw a jag.”
Freer Enterprise went out of business in 1972 and these days Wilson’s book
of poetry is as scarce as sissies on a drilling rig.
So what was Wilson’s
story? As the title of his book suggests, Wilson had been a sailor. One of his
poems offers strong evidence he was born and raised around Normangee
in Leon County.
“There is something about an oilfield that always calls
And you can say the same thing of the sea,” he wrote.
I should be sorry that I listened to their calls,
For the two of them have
made a tramp of me.”
The book contains no author’s blurb, but the author
hints at further autobiography in “The Chronic Urge.”
Wilson wrote: “Life
gave me a sledge [hammer] when I wanted a pen
And rock when I looked for a
I slaved a
while, got drunk on gin
And wrote verses of my woes.”
The booze overrode
the muse until, “I begged of Life for a place in the shade
That I might write.
she put me to work with a pick and spade
And gave me a Baptist wife.”
That apparently cured Blackie’s boozing as sure as big-hatted rangers tamed Freer
and the other boom towns.
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