Lyon College Regional Studies Center
Creation and Development of the Arkansas Folk Festival
and Ozark Folk Center – An Oral History Project
Interviewee: Glen Ohrlin
Interviewer: Brooks Blevins
Date: June 23, 2003
Place: Mountain View, Arkansas
Blevins: This is June 23, 2003. I’m Brooks Blevins, and I’m here on Dodd Mountain south of Mountain View with Glen Ohrlin as part of the Lyon College Regional Studies Center’s oral history project on the creation and development of the Arkansas Folk Festival and the Ozark Folk Center. Mr. Ohrlin, could you start out by telling us when and where you were born?
Ohrlin: I was born in Minnesota in 1926. Grew up in the Red River Valley at the north end of Minnesota and North Dakota. My relatives are all in North Dakota and eastern Montana and northwest Minnesota. A few in Oregon now, but then we moved to California when I was a boy, and I started cowboying there. There’s a couple that lives in North Dakota . . . Minnesota, North Dakota, along about there.
Blevins: What part of California?
Ohrlin: Oh, it’s down in Burbank just north of LA. The horse industry’s there in the river bottom . . . (?) A lot of rodeo hands there, guys that work in pictures, lot of old-time cowboys.
Blevins: Was your family a ranching family after they got to . . .
Ohrlin: On my mother’s side they were, and farming hands; they did it all. Now my father was a sweeper (?), and his father was a stableman and sweeper (?), had about eighty-five horses, so we’ve all had . . . (?) My grandpa on my mother’s side was in northwestern Minnesota had a lot of horses, bronco horses. They trailed them in Montana and North Dakota. Had seven uncles; three of them were bronc riders. I started with that. We’d do anything.
Blevins: Yeah. As a young man - you were still in California when you became a young man?
Blevins: And you got into the cowboy business, I guess?
Ohrlin: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I worked on ranches in Nevada and Wyoming and Arizona, . . . in California. I started rodeoing when I was sixteen, started in Nevada.
Blevins: And you told me earlier that you moved here in 1954, was it?
Ohrlin: Yes, September of ‘54.
Blevins: How in the world did you end up in Stone County, Arkansas?
Ohrlin: Well, I rodeoed all over the country, you know, nationwide, and knew what everything looked like, you might say, as far as the country goes. At the time I came here, it was one of the last places where land was cheap, and it was in the end of a three year drought, so things looked pretty bad, but I knew how it looked when it was good, and a lot of stockmen were moving into this area from Texas and New Mexico, which they had seven years of drought down there to three here. About twenty-five years I leased a place across the road from Mr. Neff - he was from Texas - and I run cattle there and over here on this side on my place.
Blevins: Now, of course you’re known for your music around here now, and for writing. Were you musical from an early age?
Ohrlin: Oh, yeah, all my life. My mother and dad was, a lot of relatives. People just sang for pleasure, to be doing something . . . for fun.
Blevins: When you first moved to Stone County, did you get involved with any music or anything like that in the fifties?
Ohrlin: No, not at first. I come in ‘54, and ‘63 was the first Folk Festival that I knew anything about. Sang at it, and I had neighbors that I had been aware of several years before that that knew all kinds of old ballads and stuff like that. They saved them, wrote them down, song ballads, and I got to see a lot of that . . . (?) I was always interested in songs, cowboy songs and others, you know, particularly funny songs. Songs like that. Of course, I heard all of the jukebox (?) stuff from people like that driving around the country. I was . . . (?) . . . in Arizona and California, and knew a lot of people . . . (?)
Blevins: Did you join the Rackensack Society when it was first founded?
Ohrlin: I think probably, either towards the end of the first year or right off the bat. I don’t remember exactly. I was in the first 1963 Folk Festival in the gymnasium at the old school, and then some of them met at Dr. Hollister’s, and then they sang there at night. Now, I wasn’t in on that, but a little later that year, they started singing at the courthouse on Friday nights, and I was up there quite a bit, and I’m pretty sure I joined up.
Blevins: How did you come to the attention of those folks, or did you just show up and say, “Well, I can sing”?
Ohrlin: Yeah, I took my guitar and went down there and said, “I know some songs.”.
Blevins: Did you play mostly cowboy songs back then?
Ohrlin: Well, some of the time I did. Sometimes I didn’t. I just did old songs the people could here. But there were a lot of old, really antique cowboy songs in this area that had already kind of died out out west that you never heard, sounded like antiques. I liked them. After I got involved in the music scene, people seemed to like that.
Blevins: Well, tell me what you remember about that first Folk Festival in ‘63.
Ohrlin: Well, it started off with a guy, Roy Mack from over towards Leslie, and late in life he discovered he was a Scotsman, and he learned to play bagpipes, and the program opened with him marching up the middle of the gymnasium - seats on both sides - playing his bagpipes. He was wearing the kilts and everything. I was sitting there in the front. There was an old guy sitting by me looked around, kind of looked at him, turned to me and says, “By God, she sure do make a hell of a racket on that thing, don’t she?”
Blevins: That kilt had him thrown off a little bit, there, didn’t it?
Ohrlin: I think so, yes. But Roy Mack was a nice guy, and he was from Arizona. We knew a lot of the same people there, and I said, “Did you ever cowboy any?” and he said no, hadn’t. I said, “How you know so many cowboys?” He said he tended bar all over Arizona. [laughs] Can’t do that here.
Blevins: Yeah. That’s the first time I’d ever heard that bagpipe story about the Folk Festival.
Ohrlin: Oh, yeah.
Blevins: I didn’t know they started it off with the bagpipes.
Ohrlin: Well, they was kind of pushing British background, Scottish, and all that stuff. That didn’t mean all that much to me.
Blevins: And you mentioned that you performed at that ‘63 festival.
Blevins: The songs that you performed at the festival, were they mainly the kind of traditional ballads, or did you sing some cowboy songs too?
Ohrlin: Well, they’re traditional. I can’t remember [what] we did the first year. The second year I remember - that was in ‘64 - I sang . . . (?) . . . and Ralph Rinzler was here from Newport, Rhode Island, looking for people to invite to the Newport Folk Festival. He invited me to that . . . (?) . . . met everybody in the business . . . (?) . . . done a lot of work along that line.
Blevins: So was the Newport festival the first festival you ever went to away from here?
Ohrlin: Yeah. Outside, yeah.
Blevins: Did anybody else from Stone County go to that particular festival?
Ohrlin: Yeah, Jimmy Driftwood and . . . Ollie Gilbert. She knew a thousand songs, really.
Blevins: Well, in those early festivals, of course, Jimmy Driftwood - as we were talking about earlier - it’s hard to tell, I guess, exactly what role he played in the whole thing if you just read what’s been written. A lot of it comes from him, I guess, but was he sort of the leader of the musical part of that?
Ohrlin: Oh, yeah. I think so. He was . . . [recorder was shut off temporarily at Mr. Ohrlin’s request] Me and Bookmiller Shannon rode from here in my car to Los Angeles. Of course, I knew my way around then, Burbank. . . . (?) . . . Driftwood and Ollie Gilbert flew out. Then we were going to San Francisco and we all rode in my car . . . (?) . . . Ollie and Jimmy flew back to Little Rock. I drove back . . . (?) . . . Took my time coming back, drove across central Nevada, northern New Mexico. Every place I wanted to stop and look around, Bookmiller said, “Well, this isn’t getting any closer to Arkansas.” [laughs]
Blevins: He was ready to come home, wasn’t he?
Ohrlin: Yeah, he was.
Blevins: Did you go on that first trip to Washington, D.C. with them in ‘63?
Ohrlin: Oh, no. No. I can’t remember exactly when that was. It seems like when there was a chance of getting the Folk Center here, things tightened up pretty much. Some of us got shuffled around, kind of out of the Rackensack.
Blevins: You think some of that had to do with maybe because you weren’t a native of the Ozarks, or because of the style of music you played?
Ohrlin: No, not a bit. It’s just . . . The only explanation I could tell that made any sense to me was what I’ve seen was scorekeeping. Never been enough of anything. There’s not enough land, there’s not enough water, not enough rain. Some timber, but there’s not enough. Everybody ain’t going to get rich. Business is kind of hardscrabble, and everybody feels like fighting over every little thing there is. It’s a real, true poverty kind of culture. Almost nobody is big about it. If there’s anything small they can think or say or do, they’ll do it, and it ain’t even an issue, which is entirely different than what I was used to. Nobody bothered me out here so I didn’t care, you know. I think . . . (?) . . . They kind of tend to bunch up here and protect each other, whoever most . . . (?) . . ., and I’ve always been pretty independent. I think that was one of the strikes against me.
Blevins: So really . . .
Ohrlin: But I grew up hearing an awful lot of the same music everywhere I went. It doesn’t just exist here by any means. There’s just a few exceptions.
Blevins: So really, the road to try to get the Folk Center here, you weren’t involved with a whole lot of that?
Ohrlin: No, no. I was kind of out of it.
Blevins: And when the Folk Center first opened up in ’73, you probably weren’t invited to play out there, were you?
Ohrlin: Oh, no. That was strictly for the Rackensack. I’d been maneuvered out of that.
Blevins: After Jimmy Driftwood went and started his own little operation and left the Folk Center, did you eventually go in?
Ohrlin: Yeah, when Bill McNeil went out there to be the folklorist, then I got interested, because I knew the people he knew, knew they were good people, and serious about what they done, that it wasn’t so full of bullshit. That was when I got interested. I think Bill invited me up because he knew me by reputation as (?). I wrote a book, a collection of cowboy songs and stuff. He used to borrow my book as a roadmap to find people in the northern plains to invite to the Smithsonian festival. He wound up with . . . (?) . . . Nobody had ever even . . . (?)
Blevins: So Bill McNeil already knew about you before he even came here.
Ohrlin: Yeah, before I even saw him.
Blevins: Of course, you’ve been here now for almost fifty years in Stone County.
Ohrlin: Yeah, in one more year.
Blevins: You’ve talked a little bit about it, but how would you describe life in Stone County in 1954, when you first came? How did people make a living, or did they, and . . .
Ohrlin: They just barely did. Most everybody . . . In 1954, there was very little money here, and no jobs. They were losing population, but they still had free range anywhere it wasn’t fenced up, and I kind of made my extra living out rodeoing - go on weekends . . . (?) Of course, you gotta win to make it, you know, so it’s a pretty tough game, but I got by. Then I worked for a few years at a woodworking plant in town. All I remember about that was somebody trying to get me fired all the time so they could get somebody else in there. I went through that tooth and nail; every day was a battle. I figured I deserved a job as much as anybody. It is the United States whether they like it or don’t. I kind of think maybe they don’t like it, or didn’t. Anyway, that’s all in the past. But there’s a lot more money going around now. Poor people are richer now than . . . (?) . . . In 1970 I worked on the Census, and . . . Long forms. There’d be a place you had to ask what they’d made in 1960. About the most money I run into when I was doing that was two people, who were teaching, made twenty thousand, you know, and that’s as good a job as there was available here at the time. You know, most people made . . . (?) . . ., but they worked . . . (?) . . . So there’s . . . Well, a minimum wage would be enough. People coming in, new businesses . . . You know, it’s better than that now.
Blevins: Well, of course, the tourist industry and the Folk Center opening up thirty years ago I guess counts for a lot of that.
Ohrlin: For some of it, yeah, and of course, the agriculture is better than it was then, because like calves that I sell for three to five hundred dollars now, back then I would - in the seventies, even in the sixties - I’d have been lucky to get a hundred dollars for the same calf. Your income from agriculture has multiplied . . . (?) . . . I think with cattle shipments . . . (?) . . . I read in an agricultural magazine . . . (?) . . . have brought in thirty million to this county, and the best year the Folk Center ever had - and that’s the biggest thing as far as money is concerned - they just cracked a million dollars. Gross, mind you. But it [cattle farming] isn’t glamorous and won’t get attention, and everybody drives right by without seeing it.
Blevins: So you still raise cattle?
Ohrlin: Oh, yeah.
Blevins: How big a place do you own here?
Ohrlin: I got a hundred and sixty-six acres.
Blevins: Well, what do you remember about . . . especially, I guess, the late sixties and 1970’s when the folk music boom was, I guess, at its height, and people were just coming in here from all around?
Ohrlin: Yeah, they were, and they come . . . I’ve had as many as a hundred people with me right here. I own, you know . . . Across the road there’s two fourteen by fourteen feet. I counted sixty people going up there.
Blevins: I’ll be.
Ohrlin: I had my barn full, and a few people in the house. Some camped out on a place across the road, the old Neff pasture. I had it leased for about twenty-five or thirty years. People would drive down in there and camp someplace, and I’d have to get them unstuck, because they was always driving in the wettest place they could find.
Blevins: Well, I know a lot of people back in those days were upset at the hippies coming in here.
Ohrlin: Yeah! Of course, they . . . There was one year when it was almost all hippies. Of course, that’s plumb outlandish right here, and . . . Anyway, one year, somehow word got out it was a rock festival, and thousands and thousands of hippies, and they camped in the forest, they blocked off the roads. Then it come a kind of a flood, washed their stuff away. Cars went down the river, and clothes . . . Downtown it smelled like somebody was burning a haystack. [laughs]
Blevins: So they thought they were coming to a rock festival instead of a folk one.
Ohrlin: I think that just happened once. And then one year there was a motorcycle gang from North Little Rock come up there and announced next year they were coming back and taking over. They were kind of would-be Hell’s Angels, and . . . (?) When they came back the next year to take over, almost every shopkeeper had a shotgun in the back of the cash register. [laughs] They’d told em they were back to take over. (?) That was getting a little serious, but I think they had . . . (?) . . . But then for several years I booked a festival that paid real good in California, in San Diego, the same days that this was on, so I missed it [Arkansas Folk Festival], missed the crowds.
Blevins: So you’re still pretty active on the Festival circuit?
Ohrlin: Yeah, and there isn’t an awful lot of folk festivals anymore, but this year I had Chicago in February, and Lowell, Massachusetts, in July, and El Paso, Texas, the Border Festival in January, and . . . (?) . . . the Border Festival. Then I’ve had a cowboy poetry gathering in Monterey, California, several years. That’s about as much as I want to do. I was in Elko, Nevada in January. Cody, Wyoming . . . (?) . . .
Blevins: Now, do you still perform at the Folk Center?
Ohrlin: Yeah. Yeah, I was there Saturday night. . . . (?) . . . I’ll be there Wedneday.
Blevins: Well, I know right about the time the Folk Center first opened in the early seventies there were different splits in the Mountain View musical community. They had a . . . .
Ohrlin: Well, everybody that was levered out of the Rackensack about that time got together and started the Mountain View Folklore Society and played on Saturday nights, and they asked me to help. Drew up their bylaws for them, corporations and non-profits, and that went okay for a while, but I thought, “Well, maybe there’ll be . . . (?) . . .” There was about forty of them. And they didn’t want to fight. And some of them got . . . (?) . . ., plumb nasty . . . (?) . . . They had two factions of Rackensack at the Folk Center . . . (?) . . ., and I believe some of them people decided to . . . (?) . . .
Blevins: Now, how’d it get to that point? How’d it get so bad?
Ohrlin: Oh, there was a gal that worked there at Tommy Simmons. I don’t want to have to . . . [recorder turned off temporarily at Mr. Ohrlin’s request]
Blevins: Well, I think so. We’ve got some information we can use, and we’ll go ahead and wrap it up. I thank you very much, Mr. Ohrlin.
Ohrlin: Just, I would like to keep this under wraps.*