While local cowboy poet Dee Strickland Johnson sings lighthearted fare about "Old Spice Girls" and boots that were made for ridin' instead of walkin,' she has also produced a body of historic work that is increasingly getting noticed.
Johnson, whose stage name is Buckshot Dot, will perform at the Phoenix Art Museum at noon and 7 p.m. Thursday in a one-person show called "A Woman of the West." A retired history teacher who taught for a period at Payson High School, Johnson welcomes the critical acclaim.
"I taught American history, and I'm very much interested in Arizona history," Johnson said. "The focus of my writing right now is Arizona history."
One poem she wrote earlier this year depicts an incident that happened in Tombstone in January, 1882 four months after the fight at the O.K. Corral. In it, she recounts the visit of Rev. Endicott Peabody to the raucous Bird Cage Saloon on a Saturday night.
After inviting the sundry sinners to church the following morning, Peabody takes up a collection right there on the gambling hall floor...
"Frank Leslie tossed a nugget on the table,
Then Ringo threw two $50s on the board.
The pile was quickly mounting,
Why, it seemed no one was counting
That night tough Tombstone gambled for the Lord."
At the end of the poem, some seven footnotes fill in historic details and help place the poem in context. Johnny Ringo, she tells readers for example, was one of a cattle rustling gang that called themselves "the cowboys."
Johnson, who says she prefers to be known for her historic work, doesn't slight northern Arizona, where she has lived for much of her life.
In a poem called "Rim of the Mogollon," she describes what must have been going through the minds of Native Americans as the first white men arrived in their land...
"Did they watch as lumbering wagons approach?
Think their way of life eroding?
As they pondered their plight and decided to fight,
Did they sense a dark foreboding
As the pale faced people, sturdy and strong,
Eased their wagons down over the rim?
The dark ones recoiled, felt their land despoiled,
And pondered a future grim."
But Johnson says historical poems can still stretch the truth a bit.
"They're factual as far as history can be considered historical," she said. "But as we all know, everybody is always changing history. I take little liberties to fill in the details of a true story, like I'll say somebody said this or that. We really don't know exactly what he said."
Always the entertainer, Johnson also tries to approach her historical work from a lighthearted, even humorous perspective. A poem called "The Rhyming Robber" is a good example.
It tells the factual tale of a bandit who worked the Holbrook area nicknamed Red the Rooster a Robin Hood-type character who left a rhyme at the scene of his crimes as a calling card. Before he was finally apprehended, The St. John's Herald printed a verse it received from Red...
"I am the prince of the Aztec!
I'm perfection at robbing a store.
I've a stake left me by Wells Fargo;
Before long I'll have even more."
Johnson's performances Thursday at the Phoenix Art Museum, at 1625 N. Central Ave., are open to the public and free. She'll be appearing in conjunction with the Cowboy Artists of America Exhibition which runs through Nov. 18, Jan Kruleck-Belin, museum education director, said.
"Dee first performed here last year, and she was great. We're very excited to have her back," Kruleck-Belin said.
Other upcoming venues at which Johnson's historical side will be featured include The Storyteller's Tellabration on Nov. 17 in Pine, the Barry Goldwater Lecture Series Feb. 27 at the Kerr Cultural Center in the Scottsdale Borgata, and a March 3 performance at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.
Johnson finds her growing recognition in the Valley ironic. After spending winters there for many years, she and husband John just this year sold their downtown Phoenix condominium and moved to the Rim country full time. She is also careful to keep her new found respect among the Valley's cultured in perspective.
"When you play museums, it means they're starting to see you as an old relic," she said.