Friday, April 04, 2014


getting in touch with my inner hobo

One summer during college I lived in an apartment next to some railroad tracks.  In the middle of the night the train whistle would sound, the headlight on the engine would sweep an arc of brightness across the bedroom ceiling, and the cars would clack-clack by for a few slow minutes.  I loved it all.  When I saw the boxcars during the day, the names on them read like poetry.  I had a few friends back then who hopped trains illegally, around Maine and elsewhere, but I never did myself.  But I thought about it, during those young-and-stupid years!  Really, though, as with so many other things, I'd rather stay home and read about that kind of life than actually live it.  That way I can preserve the romanticism I continue to feel about hoboes and the open road.  On this theme, more music books from my collection, today.  The first: 

The Hobo's Hornbook: A Repertory for a Gutter Jongleur collected and annotated by George Milburn (Ives Washburn 1930).  The author says in his introduction that "...the folk-lorists, busied with mountaineers, Negroes, and cowboys, have made but scant attempt to catch and embalm specimens of the American vagrant's balladry.... John A. Lomax only found one.  Carl Sandburg's American Songbag, perhaps the most comprehensive collection of American folk-songs yet published, includes a slim collection of four."  (p.xvi)  To right that wrong, Milburn gives us 280 pages of hobo songs on the themes of life on the road, trains, prohibition, the Wobblies, hobo gatherings, monikers, migratory work, the police, etc., and also a nice glossary of hobo language.

I bought this copy from a local bookseller (sadly now deceased) in the year 2000 for twenty bucks. I love its burlap-y cover.  Another item from the book room - I also purchased this softcover staplebound pamphlet locally but I don't remember when or for how much.  I think I bought some old vinyl records with it, from the same dealer, in a lot.  I know I've had this for at least fifteen years:

Hobo Songs, Poems, Recitations, Etc.  (International Brotherhood Welfare Association 1920s?).  This fragile publication has a few pieces cut out of it, and the front cover is detached, but I love it all the more for its shabbiness.  It feels redolent of the era.  Speaking of which, more books, by someone who lived the hobo life because he had to and wrote about it so well that it still lives and breathes in his pages:    

Some books by the incomparable Woody Guthrie: a hardcover second printing of his classic Bound for Glory (Dutton 1943), a softcover of his anthology Born to Win (Macmillan 1965), and hardcover first editions of Seeds of Man (Dutton 1976) and Pastures of Plenty: A Self-Portrait (HarperCollins 1990).  I've read the first three and browsed in the fourth, and can say he was a wonderful writer.  Guthrie opens Bound for Glory with hoboes (himself included) in a crowded boxcar, then returns to his childhood in Oklahoma, then comes back to the present day - the great depression, the dust bowl, riding freight trains to find work - and almost incidentally, toward the end of the book, singing.  His writing style in these books is just as inventive and descriptive as his songs.  I guess I don't need to talk about how influential Woody Guthrie's music was and is.  I mean, holy crackers.  But I will mention that I do love the Mermaid Avenue collections of his songs that Wilco and Billy Bragg recorded fifteen years ago, and I see from the wikipedia entry on them that an anthology of the complete sessions and outtakes was just released two years ago.  My favorite songs are from the first Mermaid Avenue collection - Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key and California Stars.  Love the lyrics and the music, and these particular renditions.

I've got many more books about hoboes but they are narratives that don't involve music, so I will leave them for another day.  I like having them around.  Trains, too.  There are train tracks, now, a mile down the street from our house, between us and the ocean.  Sometimes I walk down the street and cut across a small section of the tracks to a certain view I love of the harbor. I like to sit on the edge of the embankment and watch the sea birds for a while, and sometimes I take my sketchbook and do some drawing. And from our house, every few days, I hear the train whistle late in the evening.  It feels like home.       

At My Window Sad and Lonely is a favourite
of mine, although this is what came to
mind when I read your post:
When a train goes by, it's such a sad sound.

You've probably read it, but if not, you might
be interested in Jack Black's
You Can't Win.

Always enjoy reading your blog.

Best wishes,

Oh, The Smiths... melancholia at its bleak and pretty best. I have them on vinyl, still.

I haven't read Jack Black's book, how did I miss this underground classic? Well, that's the great thing about both books and music - always more to look forward to. Although I wonder if I would actually want to read it if I had a copy - I did get fed up with George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" a few years ago. I mean, it was just too depressing! Even The Smiths were almost cheerful once in a while.

I had a very interesting old book about life on Skid Row, the skid rows all over this country, and ended up selling it for the same reason. Too squalid and sad.

My other favorite track on "Mermaid Avenue" is "Ingrid Bergman."

Thanks for reading, Andrew.
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