Rodeo is an enduring relic of America’s popular culture, drawing capacity audiences to all its venues, from small western cowtowns to Madison Square Garden. The rodeo cowboy, that figure of rugged independence and solitary courage, continues to evoke the spirit of a vanished frontier and the hardy pioneers who conquered it. In this study historian Michael Allen examines the image of the rodeo cowboy and the role this image has played in popular culture over the past century. He sees rodeo as a significant American folk festival and the rodeo cowboy as the avatar of a nearly extinct authentic figure, the “real cowboy,” who embodies the skills and values of traditional western rural culture. Allen’s analysis explores the evolution of the myth of the rodeo man and its subsequent institutionalization and acculturation into the media of popular culture. He also examines the impact on this myth of significant changes in the rodeo milieu—the commercialization of the event and the professionalization of rodeo performers; the arrival on the rodeo scene of performers from outside the white, male, western, rural origins of the traditional cowboy performers. He discovers that America’s—and indeed the world’s—fascination with the rodeo cowboy reflects feelings far deeper than a taste for exciting entertainment. Allen’s discussion of the archetypal figure of the rodeo cowboy will change forever our perception of rodeo, but it will also help us understand how the ancient tension between frontier and civilization continues to play a role in our national imagination.
Michael Allen is on faculty at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He was born and raised in Ellensburg, Washington. After serving with the U. S. Marines in Vietnam, he worked for three years as a towboat deckhand and cook on the Mississippi River. He earned his BA, MA, and Ph.D. in early American history from, respectively, Central Washington State College, University of Montana, and University of Washington. He has taught at Tennessee Technological University, Deep Springs College, Montana State University, Billings, and, since 1990, at UW Tacoma. Michael Allen has published five books: Western Rivermen, 1763-1861 (1990); Frontiers Of Western History (1997, with Mary Hanneman); Rodeo Cowboys In The North American Imagination (1998); A Patriot's History Of The United States (with Larry Schweikart); and Congress And The West, 1783- 1787 (forthcoming). Michael Allen is President of the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame. He lives in Tacoma with his wife Mary, and their children, Jim, Davy, and Caroline.