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A hobo is a man of the world, who travels to see and observe and then shares those views with others.
November 21, 2006 5:24 PM   Subscribe

Steam Train Maury caught the Westbound home. The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind and you won't find no policemen there.
posted by orthogonality (38 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

posted by orthogonality at 5:27 PM on November 21, 2006

(Coincidently, someone posted a mp3 of Big Rock Candy Mountain on metachat, and I've been playing that and Arlo Guthrie's cover of "Hobo's Lullaby". My eyes are a bit wet, and I can't help thinking that a real American who spent so many nights sleeping in boxcars has died and Richard Perle and Ken Adelman and Don Rumsfeld and Bob McNamara will all go to bed with full stomachs and sleep untroubled in their featherbeds tonight. And that that says something about our world, no?)
posted by orthogonality at 5:34 PM on November 21, 2006

Nice post. The link to the lyrics to Big Rock Candy Mountain takes you to a National Institutes of Health, Department of Health & Human Services site, which prefaces the lyrics with the following helpful warning:

Words and music written and performed by Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock; copyrighted. Mr. McClintock's song dates back to the 1920's. It was written from the perspective of a "hobo" of that time period who did not hold a steady job, and instead traveled the roads looking for handouts and possibly getting into trouble with the law. Remember, although this is a fun song to learn and sing, having such easy access to cigarettes and alcohol would not actually be a "good" thing. Smoking and alcohol addictions are harmful to your health. (emphasis mine)
posted by mosk at 6:15 PM on November 21, 2006

posted by champthom at 6:15 PM on November 21, 2006

Heh, I totally missed that, mosk. It's an absurd world, indeed.
posted by Citizen Premier at 6:30 PM on November 21, 2006

Blind bulls and plenty irish turkey Steam Train, you're highballin' for heaven now.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:33 PM on November 21, 2006

I'll repeat the same thing I said at MeCha: The myth of The Happy Hobo needs to die. Picturesque poverty is still poverty.
posted by jonmc at 6:38 PM on November 21, 2006

John Hodgman was on tour for the paperback version of his fake-factbook (which a large portion was dedicated to hobos). His musical accompaniment, Jonathan Coulton, sings an interpretation of the Big Rock Candy Mountain song.

Interesting that it's a real song, when I heard it, I thought it was completely made up. It's even funnier now, thanks!
posted by amuseDetachment at 6:45 PM on November 21, 2006

Careful in calling hobo way of life poverty. Though they had no money, they preferred the open road, the travel rather than a settled way of life. "The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders and the bum drinks and wanders." (Anderson 1923, 87) Most hoboes are unanimous in that they are committed to the work ethic, as Road Hog (1997) a hobo for over forty years insists, "Real hoboes are workers...". To be sure there are some differences in emphasis, some "worked to be on the road" and others were "on the road to work".
posted by Postroad at 6:50 PM on November 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The NIH might want to issue an additional advisory about the other lyrics to the circulating pre-McClintock version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain":

The punk rolled up his big blue eyes
And said to the jocker, "Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered too,
But I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
And I'll be damned if I hike any more
To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

full wikipedia entry
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:00 PM on November 21, 2006

For a very exciting, educational, highly entertaining, and non-fictional hobo adventure, read Jack London's "The Road"
posted by redteam at 7:08 PM on November 21, 2006

herby ... a person i know online rode the rails with him a couple of times, although i haven't been able to get her to blog more about him ... he's drawn thousands of these on boxcars ... and yes, he really exists (or did)
posted by pyramid termite at 7:23 PM on November 21, 2006

Careful in calling hobo way of life poverty. Though they had no money, they preferred the open road, the travel rather than a settled way of life.

This is what we call 'a comforting romantic myth.' Read ted Conover's Rolling Nowhere. Conover went undercover as a hobo for 6 months, and explicitly states that nothing would've pleased him more than finding Kerouackian/London-esque hobos, but what he found instead were desperate fucked up guys with no place else to go. If you offered them your house in exchange for their 'carefree life of the road' most of them would take the deal, I bet.
posted by jonmc at 7:27 PM on November 21, 2006


(And great post, orthogonality.)
posted by rough at 7:30 PM on November 21, 2006

Someone gave me a mixtape with a guy on it explaining to some sort of ethnomusicologist (Lomax?) that he was the one who originally created the Rock Candy Mountain song. He said it was all about trying to find ways to entice children to come along with you so that they could go out and beg while you stayed "home" and drank or did whatever. So the song was sort of a ruse, a big lie, to convince kids to come along with them. This is more or less what the Wikipedia article says.
posted by jessamyn at 7:39 PM on November 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Christ jon...go to bed. Take a look at the fella this post is about. He sounds like a hell of a guy, and was part of an interesting side of American history.

Maybe, just maybe, other people had different experiences that Conover. Just saying...maybe.

Great post ortho.
posted by Richat at 7:44 PM on November 21, 2006

Anyone else remember the surprisingly high number of train-hopping related websites in 1995?
posted by redteam at 8:00 PM on November 21, 2006

posted by kalimac at 8:23 PM on November 21, 2006


I had the great pleasure of drinking with this guy.... I had no idea that he was famous.......

I decided to ride the rails in the summer of 1989, just to get away from everything.... met Maury for the first time just outside of Minneapolis....

(Kerouac was a hack and a drunk and a name-dropper.... Maury just wanted to be happy...... he was one of the people that taught me "to keep it real," so-to-speak....)

I was depressed and apathetic at the time..... he had so much life in him, it infected me.... to this day, whenever I am having a rough time, I think back to when I was drinking port on that Flatline Guess-Away, and I smile....

This post made my week, I never knew that the man had authored a book.......
posted by peewinkle at 9:24 PM on November 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Last year, I discovered that my grandfather "rode the rails" for two years during the great depression. This was before he married my grandmother and Grandpa's hobo years were never talked about. For 70 years, being a transient had been considered a shameful, criminal lifestyle in my family.

He had been losing his memory in recent years and I really hadn't been able to have a real conversation with him in 5 years, though his distant memory was sharp as ever. After I found out about this period in his life, I asked him about it every time I saw him. We would sit by the firepit in the back yard and for hours he'd tell me stories that just absolutely amazed me, about how he ran away from home during the depression when his father could no longer feed him. How they'd scam food from local churches and farms, how they'd pick fruit for weeks and sleep outside only to get stiffed on their pay, how his best friend was decapitated while jumping from a moving train, the way he felt the first time he saw the ocean.

Yeah, it's a little over romanticized these days, but it's not a myth. For Grandpa, it was a pretty incredible taste of freedom during a desparate time. I am so thankful to have heard his story before he died last year.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:50 PM on November 21, 2006 [4 favorites]

What, jonmc, were you worried we'd mistake these for nonfiction? I think the cigarette trees were my first clue they were made up, but I wasn't positive until the dogs with rubber teeth.

(Seriously, though — desperate times can lead to strangely uplifting music. You can love the songs even if you don't envy the singers their suffering.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:59 PM on November 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

(Same goes for the stories, for that matter. If an unlucky guy wants to tell some tall tales — or just some selected happy bits from a largely unhappy life — that's fine with me.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:03 PM on November 21, 2006

Ever since I first heard it many years ago, I've always loved the line: "Where they hung the jerk that invented work".

Thanks for the post, orthogonality.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:05 PM on November 21, 2006

Steinbeck's Cannery Row is an interesting text about whether or not hobos/bums are pityable, or whether they pity us straight working stiffs.
The few times I've interacted with them, it seems they were running from their own memories, for instance a bad divorce.
posted by markhu at 12:34 AM on November 22, 2006

I'll repeat the same thing I said at MeCha: The myth of The Happy Hobo needs to die. Picturesque poverty is still. poverty.

Agreed. As a working musician in the midwest, I've be latched upon, apres gig, by many a "king of the hobos."

Without any exception, they were all drunks who would have loved a place to stay and hoping they could get such capitalizing off of the romantic notion of preferring "the open road, the travel rather than a settled way of life."

Lord, but they invariably latched upon us musicians, (and still do [I cringe whenever I see Beatle Bob] not a hobo, per se, but he has nailed part of their M.O.).

They have nothing to offer; I have nothing to give them.
posted by sourwookie at 12:34 AM on November 22, 2006

"I've be"= "I've been"
posted by sourwookie at 12:35 AM on November 22, 2006

You know, this shit mostly happens when I've been roped into a blues gig.

Do some triplet feel "Stormy Monday" and every downtown drunk wants to sit in.

That never happens after I play "Days of Wine and Roses" or "Giant Steps."
posted by sourwookie at 12:38 AM on November 22, 2006

Well, heck, sourwookie, you can hardly expect a drunk to wanna sit in on Giant Steps, now can you?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:43 AM on November 22, 2006

Well, I play it drunk plenty of times. ;)
posted by sourwookie at 12:45 AM on November 22, 2006

Well, I play it drunk plenty of times. ;)

At which point it's probably better titled "Giant Stumbles"? ;-)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:00 AM on November 22, 2006

Talk to my lead tenor player about that.
posted by sourwookie at 1:05 AM on November 22, 2006

Q. Are there any real Hobos at the Convention?

A. There are many former and current hobos who join us at the Convention

OK, sign me up!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:31 AM on November 22, 2006

The open road can be quite catching. You can love it and still wish for something settled. You can get the chance to settle, then freak out, needing some more open road. There is plenty room for a love/hate relationship here. I know from experience.

But the poverty can get you down, make no mistake. Maybe motivate you to try, again and again, to stop the wandering. Or perhaps to find a way to wander without the poverty. Even so, you can realize that possesions posses their owners right back. With them come ties that bind, or try to, and schedules, and clocks, and obligations.

Maybe you get to thinking that it isn't worth it. The sense of freedom that comes with having nothing isn't forgotten. But neither is the sense of hunger and the cold hard ground you once called a place to sleep.

If you're lucky and think a lot, you might realize that what is lost isn't so much freedom as youth. Youth! Far off, long ago, nearly forgotten, certainly misremembered. Alas, never to be recovered. Dispair? Maybe. Or maybe time to go watch some TV and forget these troubling memories.
posted by Goofyy at 2:51 AM on November 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

i have the feeling that being a hobo at one time in history was quite a different proposition than being a hobo at another time ... my grandmother used to feed them when they came off the tracks in lansing, in the 30s and they weren't drunks ... nor were many of them looking for a free meal they didn't have to do something for ... nor was it some kind of romantic lifestyle choice ...

times were hard then ...
posted by pyramid termite at 4:27 AM on November 22, 2006

> I'll repeat the same thing I said at MeCha: The myth of The Happy Hobo needs to die. Picturesque poverty is still. poverty.

Maybe, among people who are not picturesquely impoverished but still sing the songs and cling to the myths. But among those who are, the songs and myths help convince you that you're actually happy some of the time. If you focus exclusively on the unrelievable squalor of your existence, how long do you last before you lose and despair wins? For that matter, I claim it's the Myth of the Happy X that keeps all Xs slogging on, looking for it.
posted by jfuller at 4:47 AM on November 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

jfuller writes "I claim it's the Myth of the Happy X that keeps all Xs slogging on, looking for it."

[Butters Stotch voice] "I'm-a Happy X, I am!"
posted by orthogonality at 4:52 AM on November 22, 2006

But there is reality to back the myth. The myth is that it's always happy. If that were so, why the blues? Yet there the positive side, especially when your luck is running good. I didn't ride rails, I hitched. And I didn't do it in the 30's, I did it in the early 70's.

Of course it's totally different when your a teenager. As a teen, the thrill of the interstate, and the freedom of being able to choose either direction, was a serious high, at least for me. Obviously I eventually got over it, but it took some serious machinations to accomplish that. Yet, in some ways, I still am the same. I move a lot, and I like it (and get tired of it, too).
posted by Goofyy at 9:27 AM on November 22, 2006

I always think of a hobo as some sort of cross between a homeless person and a pirate.
posted by tehloki at 3:27 PM on November 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

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