Last month I heard from my old friend Bob Bovee that our mutual friend Glenn Ohrlin, maybe the greatest cowboy singer that ever lived, had passed on at age 88 in Mountain View, Arkansas, where he had made his home for many years. It was only about 10 days before his passing that he’d been out to the Cowboy poet gathering in Elko, Nevada, where he’d been a fixture for many years, and he was telling folks that this might be his last visit out to Elko because he was getting on in years and it was getting hard to make the trip out.
I first met Glenn in 1964 at the UCLA Folk Festival. I’d gone up there with a group of fellow folkie miscreants from San Diego and was sort of playing the fool with a clip-on earring I had put in my nose while walking from the cafeteria up to Royce Hall where the festival was taking place.
I heard this drawl behind me. “It must be one of them hip smokin’ dopies I’ve heard about in California; this one’s got a nose ring.” I don’t remember what I did or said but it must have made an impression on Glenn because later that summer at the Newport Folk Festival, on the East Coast, I ran into Glenn again and he instantly remembered. “You’re the feller from California that had the ring in his nose.” I opined that I was and we got to be pretty good friends after that. Glenn had a style of singing that most no one could copy. He’d learned his guitar licks from a Mexican guitar player during the Korean war but had started collecting songs quite a bit before that, maybe about the time he left his home in North Dakota to head out west and be a cowboy. His transition from North Dakota farm boy to Arizona cowboy to champion rodeo cowboy several times over is in itself a novel in the making. From there to song collector, writer of the best damn book on cowboy songs ever written (The Hell Bound Train, University of Illinois Press) to singer and storyteller and regular on the Folk Festival circuit. Glenn was special. I started having him out as a near regular to the San Diego State Folk Festivals in 1975 or thereabouts, and I’ve lost count of how many festivals he played. I got to the point where a festival didn’t seem right without him being there. Glenn always reminded me of the “nose ring at UCLA” and he’d tell folks, “You may think ol’ Lou is some kind of folk impresario but I knew him when he was a California wild man with a ring in his nose.”
Glenn collected and sang a wide variety of real cowboy songs like “The Zebra Dun,” “The High Toned Dance,” “The Gol Darned Wheel,” “Windy Bill,” “Jake and Roney,” and so many others. He recited the words of cowboy poets in the old style and even a couple of the newer things. He was dynamite in a tall tales workshop where the stories of his adventures rang true but stood up to the best boasts that many of his contemporaries could come up with. He always showed up at a festival a few days early so he could get a chance to visit, and I was always grateful for that as Glenn was one of those folks you just loved to sit and gab with about most anything. I’m going to miss that old cowboy. The world is just a little emptier without him in it. Here’s a little example of Glenn’s storytellin’:
Glenn’s First Years on the Road, 1943
My first year on the road was in ’43; I started out in Nevada, punchin’ cows and started rodeoin’ that year. Got started early in the spring and by the end of the year, in December, I was workin’ for some guys in Arizona named Clemens who was kin to the author Samuel Clemens, in fact the owner of the spread was named Mark Twain Clemens, and his son was Bill Clemens and he was the other boss. And they owned several ranches in Arizona. The first one they sent me and a kid from Texas I was runnin’ with at the time was kinda on the east side of the Superstition Mountains, gathering cows out of the cactus. That didn’t take too long, and they sent me to Chandler, Arizona to a feed lot and I just stayed there a short time as there was no ridin’ to it. So, I quit about Christmas and went down to Tucson and got a job wrangling dudes for a guy named Al Gamble. If you’re into old comic books and stuff, you might have seen “The Terrible Tempered Mr. Bangs” who was a comic character and it was just one panel where everything makes him so mad he just explodes. It just looked like the top of his head would blow off. Well, Al Gamble, the guy I worked for in Tucson was just like that. I always think of him as “the terrible tempered Mr. Bangs.” So right about Christmas I got started working for him. Most of his trade was private schools, where he’d take the kids horseback riding. My job – besides saddling and all that – was to guide these kids on the ride. Well, I was just a big old kid myself and I’d have like 40 or 50 kids and be responsible for them. You weren’t supposed to let any of them fall off or anything happen to them; of course, that’s next to impossible with that many, riding for a couple hours. I don’t think I ever took a ride out that someone didn’t fall off and I was supposed to get fired if anybody fell off. They were very fussy but the very first day, I went to work. It seems like I got started about noon on that first day, I don’t remember why it was, but I took out a school ride and they had a kid on every good horse we had. There was kind of a goofy-looking white horse and they told me to take him for the wranglin’. So, I saddled him up and away I went with the kids. We rode out for about an hour and a little bit more and then turned around to come back. Well, there was a big desert flat out there east of where this barn was. On the way back, this old horse had handled all right. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with him. I hadn’t suspected anything, and I didn’t know about this quirk that he had, and we’re about a quarter mile from home and a kid fell off his horse and the horse started to run on home, so I jumped this white horse off to catch the kid’s horse and bring him back to him so the kid could come in ridin’ instead of walking or ridin’ behind on someone else’s horse. And I just jumped him out into a run and then I thought better maybe I’d better take a look at the kid to see if he’s okay and just put him on behind me or somebody else. I went to stop this white horse and I couldn’t stop him no way or even slow him up a little bit; he was just what they call “cold jog” when he gets to runnin’ other horses. I found out right then. And I yanked and called and hollered and did everything I could to stop him and I couldn’t slow him up even a little bit. Well, it wasn’t very far in so I thought well maybe I can turn him and run around in a circle and come up behind him and when he runs into the other horses he’ll stop. I managed to bend him around to the left and he starts making this big circle. Well, there’s a big cholla cactus right in front of us and you all know about cholla – it’s the worst stuff in the world, there’s nothing like it. It’s awful. Every joint’ll break off and hang to ya. This cactus cholla was big and the horse tried to jump over it but landed right in it. He came out really unwound and he almost bucked me off. I had the reins froze in one hand and the saddle horn in the other and he bucked awful hard. I’d rode quite a few broncs up to that year, but somehow I never did get with him and I landed back of the saddle, just hangin’ on for dear life. His head came up and he ran on home. And this terrible tempered Al Gamble was standing there watching the whole proceedings just like a movie happening right there in front of him, and when we come thundering into the home corral, the horse’s underside and legs all covered with cholla and a few joints hangin’ on me about as high as my knee. He was standin’ there just hoppin’ up and down. I can’t tell you all the things he called me, accused me of, and everything else. Finally, we got everything straightened out and by nightfall he’d kind of cooled off a little. Then he got to ribbin’ me about this horse runnin’ off with me. I said, Well he’s “cold jog,” and he said, “No, he ain’t, you just didn’t pull on the reins.” I said, “I sure did; I pulled for all that I was worth.” He said, “Naw, you froze up, you didn’t pull on the reins,” and I always argued that I did. I worked for him for about four months and every once in awhile he’d look at me and start to chuckle and wonder why I didn’t pull on the reins. Well, it happened they didn’t use this horse hardly at all after that.
Just out east of there a little bit was one of these private schools and they’d call us up from time to time and say there were loose horses on their ground and we’d come out and chase them away. And they were good customers so he’d always send me and Harvey, his nephew, out to run them off. On this day there was only me and Al there and I was already riding a Colt I had saddled. The school called and said there are loose horses on our grounds, could you come and run them off. Al said sure, and he comes out of the office and says I wonder what I ought to ride and I says why don’t you ride the white horse, Al, and he says yeah, okay, and he catches him and saddles him up and away we went. Well, we got out there, and there were a few horses on the school grounds and we hazed them out onto this desert flat and he got them into a run about a quarter of a mile or more. I was behind and Al was ahead and the horses in front of him. He hollers back I guess we’ve run them far enough and he starts to stop this white horse and it looked to me like he just flattened out a little bit more. Then he was in the same shape I’d been in. Yankin’ and yellin’ and tryin’ to get him to stop but it didn’t slow him up at all in fact he just picked up speed. Finally, he realized he wasn’t gonna get him to stop so he hollered back it me, “Hey, Glenn, come and pick me up, catch me you know.” So, I acted like I was spurrin’ my horse to catch up, but actually whenever I got close I’d hold back a little. I didn’t want to catch him, in fact I wanted him to run him clear out of the country. We went on for a ways like that going lickety split and out in front of us was a highway that made a turn at right angles to the way that we were going. I hollered, “You better turn him so you don’t cross that concrete pavement and maybe get run over or have a terrible fall.” He said, “Yeah, you’re right,” and he managed to bend him around to the left like I had done, and he took off across the flat. Well, there was a lot of mesquite and brush out that way and I thought he knew about it (he’d been there a lot longer than I had), and there was a dry river bottom and out through the brush was a bank about ten feet high. I’m tailing along after him through the brush and all of a sudden he’s gone. So, I rode up to the river bank and looked out and there sat Al on the white horse cussin’ and looking terrible. Finally, he realized I was there and he looked back up at me and I says, “Why didn’t you pull on the reins?”
That white horse got me away from there finally. There was a guy from back east spending the winter there. He’d go riding every day and then he’d stand by the corral and look at this white horse. I realized that the guy thought that it was one hell of a horse. So, one week Al couldn’t pay me my wages for the week, which was 15 dollars a week including room and board, and I saved all the money I made there. He said can I give you something instead of the 15 bucks and I said, “Yeah, give me the white horse.” He knew the horse was worth 30 bucks anyway and he sort of grinned and said, “Okay, I’ll give you the white horse and he fixes me up a bill of sale that didn’t have to have a brand inspection, no brand on him. Later that day when that feller went horseback riding, I saw him standing by the corral just looking at the white horse, gazing at it. When I went and stood beside him he said, “Glenn, what would Al take for that white horse?” I said, “He can’t take nothin’ for him; that’s my horse.” He asked what I would take. I said, “I’d take $300.” He gets out his billfold and he’s paying me off and in a little bit Al came by and the man said, “Mr. Gamble, would you put the white horse in a box stall. He’ll be a border ’til I leave and go home to Michigan.” Al said, “Oh sure, Glenn, you catch him, so I caught him and put him up. The fella left and Al says, “I suppose you made a few bucks, didn’t ya?” I said, “Yes, I did.” He says, “Well, dammit, what’d you get for him?” Well, I told him and it was pretty bad for a little bit. I thought he was actually gonna die. Anyway, that was my gettin’ away money. He said he needed me, but he was sort of glad to see me go.
Note: This is a reprint from the March 2015 Troubadour.