Poet Laureate of the Oil Patch
The man who was known as “Rod Tailin’ Blackie” was a voice for the ages.
Few occupations have been immortalized in poetry like the gold mining poems of the Yukon penned by Robert W. Service. Alas, the petroleum industry has no poet of that stature to glorify its lifestyle. Perhaps the closest to achieve that distinction was a man whose livelihood came from working as a roustabout and part-time poet back in the mid-1930s. He popped up for a short time and then, much in the manner of the oil patch boomers he lauded, disappeared like a puff of smoke.
Joe Clay “Blackie” Wilson is one of the few oilfield hands who produced a body of poetry concerning lifestyle in the oil patch. Not much is known about Blackie’s early life beyond his spending a number of years as a sailor and even less is known about his life after producing his poems. Some say he died a quiet death, much like his poetry, in Lockhart, Texas, in 1975, but there is no real proof of that.
In the early 1930s Blackie left the sea and sought work in the oilfields of South Texas, where he eventually settled at Freer, in Duval County, a town that was experiencing a sizeable oil boom at the time. While he was working there as a roustabout, the local newspaper, The Freer Enterprise, printed a number of his poems as a regular feature under the name of “Rod Tailin’ Blackie.” In 1938 the paper gathered 115 of those poems into a hard bound volume entitled Bell Bottoms to Boots, which it offered free to those who bought a two dollar one-year subscription to the newspaper.
What follows are a few selections from that collection. The first deals with what he missed by choosing a life of adventure over one of convention:
Plenty to Choose From
There is something about an oilfield that always calls you back
And you can say the same thing about the sea.
I guess that I should be sorry that I listened to their calls
For the two of them have made a tramp of me.
I might have been preaching in a “fundamentalist” town,
Or teaching school in the backwoods at home;
But I saw a walking-beam going lazily up and down
And I felt the slap of spray and tasted foam!
I have spent my life trying between them to choose
And I know not which I love of the two.
I have drifted willy-nilly from ships to drilling crews
And I’ll be a “weevil” and a “boot” until I’m thru.
Why, I could have been farming with a Georgia stock and a mule,
Dodging stumps galore where Caney flows.
Or baling hay for five bales a day —-
Or dragging a sack of cotton down the rows.
Opportunities wasted —- Ah, but it is sad!
And here I am getting older every day.
It galls me to remember the chances I had —-
What a fool I was to throw them away!
I could have been clerking, and in an apron, too —-
And minding every boss’s every rule
Had I never sailed an endless rolling blue
Or made ten bucks a day dressing tools.
In another selection Blackie dwells on the colorful crowd that follows the booms when they gather down at the local watering hole.
The Duval Club
You’ll meet ’em all at the Club Duval
If you’ll only hang around —-
The “booming boys” blowing in
And the “drag ups” outward bound.
It is there a thousand trails
Cross and then go on …
It’s there you will hear a thousand tales
Of wonders they have done.
They’re drilling wells and laying lines
And tearing derricks down …
And all is done in record time
At the Duval Club in town.
You’ll meet ’em all at the Duval Club
Down in the heart of Freer,
For it’s there they go for games and grub
And a frosty bottle of beer.
I like to stand and watch ’em pass
Thru Bennie’s open door
A gay “Hello” —- “Hey, fill my glass —-
“Where have we met before?”
And then the tall tales begin
And last until the dawn.
For it’s there you see the roughneck men
Ere they go drifting on.
I’ve seen ’em there from Mexico
And the South American coast,
I’ve heard them tell of purple snow
And the fortunes they have lost;
Millionaires full of pride and moochers wistful-eyed —-
You’ll see ’em lined up at the bar
Good fellows side by side —-
For all are men with itching feet
Who heard the red gods call …
Why, the trails of the world cut this street
In front of the Club Duval.
Sometimes he writes about the working hands and the lives they led on the job, like this one about roughnecking in bad weather.
God Help the Roughnecks
Down o’er smokey mountain, down thru misty vale,
Down across ranges the whistling norther comes,
Howling like a lost dog with the devil at his tail,
Booming and zooming like the roll of a million drums …
Cowboys rode homeward at the first streak of blue,
Farmers build up their fires; clerks closed the town,
But just out yonder, a driller and his crew
Go in and out, all night long, and down…
I heard the elevators while my clock was striking two,
A clang and a bang, and a “Say what’s eatin’ you?”
“Send ’em up right, Digger, and by Gawd, I’ll latch ’em on,
But I ain’t no Paul Bunyan, or Strawberry Roan!”
Mud-hogs cough, drawworks crack and roar…
Boilers blow off, and chains and clutches moan…
Rig-lights dance from crown to derrick floor,
For “What’s a little weather to that blonde in San Antone?”
It’s “God help the sailor, and the cop on his beat”…
And “God help the homeless on every dreary street”…
But let’s not forget the driller and his swearing, glaring crew
When a cold, wet Texas norther comes tearin’, wearin’ thru!
Blackie was still there when the boom was over and he lamented its passing with memories of the ones who made it happen in the following poem.
One can hardly realize that most of them are gone.
Silently like ships in the night, one by one,
They went down the dusty road to San Diego.
If we had looked and listened we might have known —-
No mud-hogs coughed, no rig lights shone …
They were here yesterday, now they are gone
Down the dusty road to other roads and on
Wherever boomers go …
On one of ten thousand trails you may find them.
They are drilling wells in far Calgary’s snow —-
On some “monkey” shore you may walk pipelines behind them —-
They are building rigs in the “monte” of Mexico
They are the boomers who scandalized the towns —-
Villagers called them “toughs,” the “rougher” element —–
“Oil-field characters,” so whine the town clowns —-
But God will know in the Final Settlement.
All too often they are thrown in jail.
Strangers always with hard-earned cash to spare —-
Busy on their jobs, they often forfeit bail —-
Thus boomers buy the boots the city marshals wear —-
And your boomer pays off when chiseling merchants steal.
He is too big to quibble at the cost —-
‘Tis a pity he deals with the nickel-squealing “heel”
Who gives the least and profits the most.
But the boomers are gone. Old scores are forgotten.
All night long I wondered, looking, grumbling:
Where is old “Tree Top,” “Po Boy,” and “Cotton?”
Down the street I went stumbling, mumbling.
Where is “Toledo Jack” and “Kelly-Joint Slim?”
And “Hard Luck Johnny” —- Oh! What became of him?
Down the dusty street that leads to San Diego
And then to other roads that go winding on …
(“ ‘Tis slim pickings brothah’,” said a business “wizard” I know,
“Ya see — tha’ boomahs have gone!”)
Once the boom was over and the town began to settle into its post-boom town routine, Blackie became nostalgic for the days gone by. He missed all the excitement and longed for another boom somewhere as a refuge for the likes of him.
Wanted: A Mushroom Town
Well 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 bail
Or you’ll face the morning in a jam
They’re making cement sidewalks, and walls out of plaster,
They’re tearing down the shanties we knew,
Each and every day this town is growing faster
But we know the boom is over and we’re blue.
Freer is on her good behavior and will never be the same —
We’ve seen better towns than this fold up and die.
Remember Borger and Mexia —Before the rangers came?
Well they’ve got a ranger here Aces High.
He’s got a border deputy as quick on the draw as he —
The preachers and the schools demanded a change.
But surely over yonder there surely must be
Another mushroom blooming on the range!
O somewhere surely a mushroom is blooming!
O somewhere surely there’s another rag town booming
Where it’s no crime for roughnecks to throw a jag —
A refuge for the riff-raff, the bob, rag, and tag.
‘Twas too good to last! Now our boom is dead —
We’ve got POLICE alas! Instead of big Ted.
Freer we loved you but you are acting mighty strange —
We’ll feel easier in a “mushroom” on “wide open” range.
So this is a sample of what old Blackie wrote. It pretty well covers why he went to the patch, what the boom was like, and how it felt when it ended. You would have to go far and search long to find another like him with a feel for the working hands who followed the booms in those early days. Few possess an innate sensitivity combined with the first hand experience necessary to express the nature of that way of life. That is why Rod Tailin’ Blackie is the poet laureate of the oil patch until something better comes along.
Bobby Weaver is a frequent contributor to PB Oil and Gas Magazine. His humor column, “Oil Patch Tales,” appears elsewhere in this issue.