Empty Saddles

Glenn Ohrlin
October 26, 1926~February 9, 2015
by Charlie Seemann, past Western Folklife Center Executive Director

Glenn Ohrlin, photo by Kevin Martini-Fuller  It is with great sadness that we report the passing of the great cowboy singer, humorist, poet, artist and friend, Glenn Ohrlin. Glenn passed away in the early hours of Monday, February 9th. He had just performed at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering the week before and then driven himself back home to Mountain View, Arkansas. He was 88.

Glenn was at the very first Gathering in 1985 and almost every one since then, and has been a favorite not only of audiences but his fellow cowboys and performers. Glenn was born in 1926 in Minnesota to a Swedish father and Norwegian mother. He left home at 16 to work as a cowboy in Nevada and other western states and then rode bareback and saddle broncs on the rodeo circuit from 1943 to 1965. In 1954 he purchased a small ranch near Mountain View, Arkansas, where he raised a few cattle and horses.

Glenn was a treasure trove of traditional cowboy songs and lore he had collected during his years as a working cowboy and on the rodeo circuit, and when his bronc riding days came to end he began to sing at folk festivals. In 1963 he met folklorist Archie Green, who encouraged him and invited him to do a concert at the University of Illinois. The Campus Folk Song club released Glenn’s first LP album, The Hell-Bound Train, in 1964, introducing him to a wider audience. He appeared that year at the Newport Folk Festival, and his simple, straight-forward performance style, authenticity, and droll humor soon made him a favorite on the folk festival circuit. In 1973 he worked with Archie Green and Judith McCulloh at the University of Illinois Press to write and publish The Hell-Bound Train: A Cowboy Songbook, comprising 100 songs and poems, along with stories of where and from whom he had learned them. It stands as a classic of cowboy song literature and scholarship.

In 1985 Glenn was the first cowboy to be awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor the nation bestows on traditional artists.

Glenn was “the real deal,” having lived the life he sang about. I once asked him what he thought made a good cowboy singer. Without hesitation he replied “Well, first you gotta see how good he rides.”  He also said, about cowboys in general, “You’d better be as good as you look.” That pretty much summed up his philosophy of life. Glenn was one of a kind, a true gentleman, and one of the last links to an earlier generation of authentic cowboys and cowboy singers. We have been privileged to have him with us over the past 31 years. He loved the Gathering, and we are so glad he was able to be with us for this last Gathering, which meant a great deal to him. And to us.  His passing truly marks the end of an era. He will be greatly missed.

Read another tribute to Glenn Ohrlin on cowboypoetry.com.