Singin’ Sam – A Cowboy Folksinger and Poet

Circa 2003

Best known as a cowboy folksinger and poet. Singin’ Sam Agins dedicated his life to the cowboy way and to the preservation of the songs, stories, humor, poetry and crafts that define the cowboy and the True American West.

Singin’ Sam celebrated the common folk in the songs he wrote, collected and performed, and in the stories he told during the half-century he toured the American West. After logging well over a million miles by horseback, burro, pickup truck and a varied assortment of automobiles, entertaining people and collecting material along the way, Singin’ Sam Agins could truly feel the pulse of real Western Americana music and culture. An inspiration for all who came in contact with him. Singin’ Sam’s life was truly amazing.

Whenever Singin’ Sam Agins was asked his occupation. he could make his honest answer one of many possible choices. Singin’ Sam was a folksinger, writer, cowboy poet, trick-roper, horseman, silver and goldsmith, saddle-maker and more, and he used each of these talents at one time or another to make his living.

Singin’ Sam was crippled as they used to say in the 1940s. However, he never let his disability slow him down. He didn’t have time for it. He was too busy showing others that life was a grand and worthwhile adventure. He once told a reporter, “As far as I’m concerned, I’m normal. I can do a lot of things that people with two good legs can’t do. I’m going to show as many as I can that handicapped sure doesn’t have to mean helpless.”

I first met Singin’ Sam in a mercantile store in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, my hometown, having been transplant ed there at the age of seven when my father bought a cattle ranch. Sam had a small workbench in the rear of the store where he hammered out custom-made belts. As a youngster I was fascinated with anyone who could make things. I didn’t notice at first that Sam had a dis ability, but I did notice that he was a happy and good-natured fellow who seemed to be enjoying his work as well as his life.

At age 17, I got a job in town tending an Indian jewelry counter in a hotel. During my lunch hour I would stroll around town. One day I happened onto Singin’ Sam’s little cubbyhole of a shop which opened onto the side walk. We struck up a conversation which eventually led to romance and I began to learn a whole lot more about the man called Singin’ Sam.

Samuel Agins was born in Denver, Colorado on June 4, 1919. He was a premature, breech-birth and blue baby who weighed only two pounds. The doctors didn’t even think he would live. He was also born with an injured spine that produced a deformity of his legs. He lived, but would never walk without crutches.

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His parents, Harry and Yetta Agins, were remark able people and at Sam’s birth these two Russian immigrants with third-grade educations began an amazing journey on behalf of their son and others with disabilities. The first thing they did was travel with Sam and their two older daughters back to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After examining Sam, the doctors at Mayo told Harry and Yetta that Sam was healthy but would never walk, and since there was nothing they could do for him, they should get him a good education.

This last statement was not lost on Sam’s parents. They moved to Corona, California where Harry borrowed $50 from his mother and started a salvage business. Sam spent the first ten years of his life on his back having numerous operations on his legs and feet in attempts to straighten them. He went under ether so many times during those years that all his upper front teeth turned black by the time he was 20 and most of them had to be pulled.

Sam had a wheelchair, but learned to walk with the aid of crutches at a young age. As a child and young man, Sam amazed people because he walked on his crutches without his feet ever touching the ground. Doctors had ordered braces for his legs, but young Sammy felt that they inhibited his movement and never used them.

His parents thought Sam should get a start on the education the Mayo Clinic doctor had recommend ed, so they enrolled Sam in school. Unfortunately, the Corona school board was not so sanguine about this idea. A representative came to the Agins’ home to have a look at Sam. When Sam crossed the room on all fours-his common mode of locomotion around a house with stairs-and smiled up at the woman she looked aghast. Her recommendation was to send Sam to Spadra. His parents traveled to Los Angeles to see this so-called special school. It was an institution for children who were mentally retarded or had severe disabilities. They immediately realized their son could not get the type of education he needed at this place and resumed their fight with the local school board.

They had to sell their milk cow in order to raise the $250 needed to hire a lawyer, but it paid off. They won the case and Sam graduated from high school in 1938. He excelled in many activities and was even the California record holder for chin-ups during those years, doing more than one hundred with one arm. While this achievement is on record, official recognition was denied him because the authorities thought his thin, underdeveloped legs gave him an unfair advantage. As far as I know this record has never been beaten.

During his youth Sam learned to ride horses, trick rope and play the fiddle and guitar. Sam’s parents bought him a violin when he was 6, but young Sam did not care for the violin or the practice it required, and he broke the instrument over the back of a chair in a rare fit of temper. Sam’s father told him he was never again to ask for music lessons or an instrument.

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Sure enough, when Sam was 12 he wanted to play the Violin again. Remembering Sam’s last experience with the violin, his father said. “Go apprentice to the violin maker and earn your own money for lessons.” Sam did, He worked for a local violinmaker and learned the craft then bought a broken violin in pieces and reassembled it with his budding skill. Sam became an accomplished violinmaker and fiddler, entertained locally and rode his horse 25 miles to fiddle for square dances. He began to enjoy being socially in demand and the violin eventually gave way to a guitar that he found in his father’s junk yard. The same Mexican vaqueros who taught Sam to ride and rope taught him to play the guitar. Sam though the guitar opened more doors for him, especially with the girls.

Sam had gotten the idea he could ride a horse from a Tom Mix western. Tom Mix had broken his leg in real life and as he was under contract to a studio, he went ahead and made a movie in which he had a broken leg and tied his crutches on his saddle for use at his destination. Sam figured if Tom Mix could do it so could he. and his stubbornness paid off. He finally convinced his father to trade for an old broken-down pony for him. It was the first of several horses that Sam would train and ride throughout his life. Sam loved horses, and riding really began to expand his horizons. Being on horseback made him feel equal to others and gave him a freedom that his legs had been unable to offer. This did a lot for Sam’s self-confidence. He spent hours in the saddle riding and exploring the Southern California countryside.

By the time he was 18 he had also learned to drive a car although driving was almost unheard of at the time for someone with his disability. Sam rigged his own controls, which consisted mostly of a broomstick on the clutch, and bought a car. This was the beginning of a long list of vehicles Sam would own and drive across the West. Sam laughed about his early driving experiences, saying he looked like a cat on a hot tin roof as he gyrated his body shifting gears. The automobile expanded his horizons even further and eventually led to a virtual life on the road.

Sam’s parents were worried about his being able to make a decent living and wanted him to be an accountant for their growing business. They had two younger sons who were already working in what was by then a successful auto salvage business. Sam understood his folks’ concern, but he was determined to make it on his own. He joined the quartermaster corps and worked at Mira Loma Army Air Base, eventually transferring to San Bernadino Army Air Base and then to Davis Mon than Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. He became an expert gyroscopic instrument maker and repairman, skills he would later put to use making sterling silver and gold jewelry.

Sunny, beautiful Arizona days began to call Sam. One day while working he heard the song “Don’t Fence Me In.” Somehow it struck a sympathetic note. He just couldn’t see himself chained to a bench and working indoors from dawn to dusk, so he decided to strike out on his own. He took his singing and leather-crafting skills and began making his own living entertaining and selling leather goods.

More than anything else, Sam wanted to show by example that “handicapped doesn’t have to mean helpless.” He wanted people in beds or who used wheelchairs to realize that many of them could get out and make their own way. He practiced what he preached and hit the road working as an Ambassador for Goodwill Industries in Denver, Colorado. He spent five years touring and entertaining shut-ins, people in iron lungs, unwed mothers and prisoners, among others. Sam felt that he had been so lucky he wanted to give something back to society and he told his bosses he wanted to go to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear or see any entertainment. He worked tirelessly and touched a lot of people. In 1950 he was presented with the “Biggest Heart” award by KLZ, a major radio affiliate in Denver. He was honored with the award, given gift certificates and items from local merchants and featured in a nationally broad cast forty-five minute radio play based on his life.

Eventually Sam left the job at Goodwill and decided to go it alone. He began with a series of small workshops and gigs at local guest ranches, but soon made his operation mobile. Summers were hot in Arizona so Sam developed a clientele both north and south and traveled back and forth to dude ranches. In one of his many articles on Sam, Red Fenwick of the Denver Post called him a “Wild Goose Guy,” a title that Sam cherished. He eventually came to roost in Jackson, Wyoming,

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Our lunch hour talks blossomed into romance, but turned into a real donnybrook when rumors eventually reached my parents. Bitter feelings developed, and after a year and a half I ran away. When my parents caught up with me, they gave me an ultimatum: either get married or come home. Sam and I left for Las Vegas later that night. At 19 I believed marriage really was “till death do us part,” and prayed a silent prayer that I was doing the right thing by marrying this 38 year-old man with a disability.

My parents soon informed me that Sam was not welcome on their property. As in the biblical story of Ruth, Sam’s “people became my people and his way. my way.” I didn’t see or hear from my mother or father for five years. I now spent my life on the road with Singin’ Sam.

My icy relationship with my parents began to thaw with the birth of our son, Judd. I learned I could have a relationship with them that worked as Sam encouraged me to meet them more than halfway: he simply refused to spend his time on negativity.

Sam had actually not wanted children. He was secretly afraid they might be born with a disability similar to his, and he did not want another child to have to go through what he had. Luckily, he did not voice any of this to me, because children were part of what I had envisioned for my life. Sam became the proud poppa of two sons; Judd was born in 1961 and Joseph in 1967, both hale and hearty.

Sam had to work hard making belts and sterling belt buckles to support his young family. Eventually he quit the leather business to go exclusively into jewelry. We sold Indian jewelry in addition to the pieces Sam made. He ventured into goldsmithing in order to increase the return on his one-man manufacturing effort. He traveled around on the dude ranch circuit for years, selling jewelry in the day and entertaining the guests at night.

During all the years of Sam’s adult life he was an avid folklorist, collecting cowboy songs, stories and poetry, many of which found their way into his entertainment act. He collected an eclectic group of friends and admirers; Sam rarely met a person he didn’t like. The arrogant and self-centered were the only people he avoided; he simply didn’t have time for them. He was a great listener and people loved to tell him their stories.

Singin’ Sam had a marvelous sense of humor and a quick wit. At times we would run into annoying people who would ask rude questions related to his disability. He would often handle these with humor, telling people he had been injured in the war when he was in the “underground balloon corps.” One time a man in a parking lot saw Sam making his ungainly entrance into his van and said, “Do you have artificial legs?” Without missing a beat Sam leaned out the window of the van and said, “No… artificial head!” The man went away scratching his head.

During the 1970s Sam released two record albums. He was also invited twice by the Smithsonian Institution to take part in their Festival of American Folk Life at the Bicentennial in Washington, D. C. in 1976, and the Man and His World Expo in Montreal in 1971. He was invited to participate as a folklorist, expert on cowboy songs and jewelry craftsman. These were high points in Sam’s career, and we joked together about the fact that he had finally become old enough to be a credible folklorist.

When he was younger he was determined to make himself fit into a typical, able-bodied world. As he aged, he began to realize that the world needed to accept people with disabilities and make accommodations accordingly. In getting older he had to rely more heavily on his wheelchair because of nerve damage done by the years of walking on crutches. It was then that he began another crusade. By the time we made one of our last trips together to my hometown of Jackson, Wyoming during the 1990s, the Americans with Disabilities Act had already been in effect for a few years. We had planned to stay in motels and I had plotted the route ahead of time, calling the motels and being sure to reserve wheel chair-accessible rooms.

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The first night in Utah the motel manager informed us their one accessible room was already taken, but they did have a nice room they thought would suit. We were dubious; however, the room turned out to be a dream. It was lovely and spacious with extra wide doors and a flat entrance. This euphoria wore off the second night.

The motel, also in Utah, was an older one, built on the side of a hill. There was no place in the parking lot level enough to unload the motorized wheelchair from the van. The situation deteriorated further when we found the bathroom door was too narrow for the wheelchair. I called every motel within a radius of 100 miles, but at the height of the tourist season everything was booked. The motel manager was so embarrassed and apologetic that he got a hammer and saw and began taking the door jam apart. The demolition of the door jam revealed a supporting beam he had to saw into, but an entrance to the bathroom wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair was finally accomplished.

Sam was an absolute fan of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and had written a poem about it in honor of his mother, who had fought with the school board back in the 1930s. He had no patience with non-compliance.

Always on the lookout for opportunities in regard to the ADA, Sam decided to check out some of the establishments around the town of Jackson for disability compliance. The beautiful new town parking lot had coveted public restrooms that were not wheelchair accessible and most businesses around the boardwalk square had at least one step up to enter. Sam went to the local newspaper and gave them an earful. They were listening. They printed his story with picture and banner headline. Sam had peppered his story with humor and an earnest desire for compliance. Jackson listened, became aware and made changes.

After reading all of this you may be wondering if efforts are underway for the canonization of this char acter. Well, not exactly. Like all of us, Sam had his flaws. He never drank or smoked, but he was stub born. I got a glimpse of this trait early when I rode with him and his mother to visit his sister in Long Beach, CA. His mother insisted on riding in the front seat, as she was a notorious back-seat driver. She kept up a constant chatter all the way from Corona to Long Beach, telling Sam to turn here or take that road. He knew the way and drove in silence. Turning down the street his sister lived on, Sam overshot the house, intending to make a U-turn at the first intersection and park in front of the house. His mother spotted the house as we went by and began to berate him for missing it, keeping that up until we got to the intersection. Instead of making a U-turn Sam began driving in a tight circle around and around the intersection. The more she yelled, the more we went around. Mercifully, she finally ran down and he drove to the front of his sister’s house.

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At the end of Sam’s life he became too ill to travel. The Wild Goose’s wings were finally clipped. He scarcely complained about this state of affairs. He did, however, want a fire pit in the backyard of our Sun City home to remind him of the good old days and all the campfires he had sung around all over the West. He would often sit by it in the evenings, remembering some particular campfire in Wyoming, Colorado or Arizona, where he had so enjoyed entertaining the dudes. We had a few serious talks during that time, and once I asked him what he thought was the worst time during our marriage. I was not prepared for his answer. He said, “It was all wonderful.”

by Frederica Agins with Joseph Agins

Singin’ Sam Agins’ folklore collection is permanently housed at the Utah State University’s Fife Folklore Archives in Logan, Utah. Sam’s family has also set up a scholarship fund at the Western Folklife Center to help young cowboy poets learn and carry on the art. He recorded two albums in the 1970s: Singin’ Sam’s Saddlebag of Songs and Singin’ Sam & Friends, and his song “City Boarders” appears on the popular compilation, Back in the Saddle Again from New World Records, which includes songs from such other greats as Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Glenn Ohrlin, Tex Ritter, Sons of the Pioneers, Bob Wills, Patsy Montana and many more. His writings include an autobiography, Three Dimes and a Button, several plays, poems, magazine articles, news columns, a book of cowboy poetry entitled Ramblers Notebook and a photo graphic essay about using wheelchairs entitled “Round Legs.”

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