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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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Barrett Warner Reads "Spanish Johnny"

Barrett Warner Reads "Spanish Johnny"

"Spanish Johnny" was published in McClure's Magazine in June 1912 and was included, with eleven new additional poems, in April Twilights and Other Poems (1923). In a March 1912 pre-publication letter to S.S. McClure, Cather wrote, "I'm so glad you liked 'Spanish Johnny.' He was a real man whom I heard when I was a little girl, and I never heard him utter a sound except to swear or sing." 

Spanish Johnny makes another appearance as a character in The Song of the Lark (1915) as a friend to Thea Kronborg—a Mexican who sang and played the mandolin. As Cather wrote, "Spanish Johnny was the first Mexican who came to Moonstone. He was a painter and decorator, and had been working in Trinidad..."

In an interview in The Poetry Review 16 in 1925, two years after the publication of the second edition of April Twilights, Cather said:

"I am afraid you will have a hard time proving that I have been an 'effective force in American poetry.' I do not take myself seriously as a poet. However, since you ask me which ones of my poems I prefer, I will tell you some of them. 'A Likeness,' 'A Silver Cup,' 'Going Home,' and 'Macon Prairie,' I think are the best ones. I believe 'Spanish Johnny' is most popular."

Perhaps because of that popularity, singer-songwriter Paul Siebel enlarged upon Cather's poem several decades later in his song by the same name which was also later recorded by Waylon Jennings and Emmy Lou Harris.

Spanish Johnny

The old West, the old time, 
The old wind singing through
The red, red grass a thousand miles,
And, Spanish Johnny, you!
He’d sit beside the water-ditch
When all his herd was in,
And never mind a child, but sing
To his mandolin.
The big stars, the blue night,
The moon-enchanted plain:
The olive man who never spoke,
But sang the songs of Spain.
His speech with men was wicked talk —
To hear it was a sin;
But those were golden things he said
To his mandolin.
The gold songs, the gold stars,
The world so golden then:
And the hand so tender to a child
Had killed so many men.
He died a hard death long ago
Before the Road came in;
The night before he swung, he sang
To his mandolin.

Barrett Warner Biography

Barrett Warner gets kicked for a living at various thoroughbred nurseries, and once a day tries to walk down to the South Edisto River to listen for a tell-tale splash. He is the author of Why is It So Hard to Kill You? (Somondoco Press, 2016) as well as My Friend Ken Harvey (Publishing Genius Press, 2014). He has won the Salamander fiction prize, assorted poetry prizes, and the Tucson Book Festival essay prize. He has also been awarded a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for his personal essays on farming and the rhythms of farm life. In May, 2019 he received the nonfiction fellowship at the Longleaf Writers’ Conference. He is a founding editor of Free State Review.

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