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The Traveling Hobo Blues: 10 Songs About Hard Times

Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.

After years of hard traveling, Woody Guthrie became a household name with his lively collection of folk songs and ballads.

After years of hard traveling, Woody Guthrie became a household name with his lively collection of folk songs and ballads.

Just a Dust Bowl Refugee

Woody Guthrie was born and raised in Oklahoma in the early part of the twentieth century. Life was relatively routine until environmental events created a huge exodus from the Southern Plains. Better known as the Dust Bowl, a huge drought that lasted years, made much of the Okie land and neighboring states unbearable and unlivable.

Like so many who fled, Woody ended up in California, working menial jobs and writing folk songs on the side. Eventually, Woody's musical efforts paid off, but it took many years and much hard times before his words and music found an audience.

Getting the Last Laugh With a Classic Hobo Anthem

Though made popular by Burl Ives in the post war years, the folk song, Big Rock Candy Mountain, has been around much longer. 1928 to be exact, which is the date, when Harry McClintlock first released this popular tune. You can view the original Soundie here, which was put out during WWII. The 1942 version differs significantly from the Ives version, both in intent and content.

Considering that McClintlock wrote the song during the Roaring Twenties indicates that this imaginative tale has a much earlier time of inspiration. The most likely candidate is the monetary Panics of the 1890s, which created a class of homeless, out-of-work men that rivaled the Great Depression.

The Railroad Life

Jimmie Rodgers is another folksinger, whose on-the-road experiences predates the Great Depression. Born into a railroading family, Jimmie went to work at an early age as a waterboy for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. In his early years, he was exposed to all kinds of folk music via other rail workers, as well as the bums who rode in the boxcars.

After being sidelined from railroad work due to tuberculosis in the mid-twenties, Jimmie returned to his musical roots and started recording. Right away, he became a popular hit, but the Great Depression and TB hit the Western singer hard. Jimmie died in 1933, aged only 36. Nonetheless, the songs of this Country music pioneer live on, such as with this timeless classic, Waiting For a Train.

Dust Bowl Days

In all likelihood, homelessness has been around since man first stepped out of the cave. In modern society, homelessness seems to flourish quite well in some of our more advanced civilizations. In America during the 30s, environmental disaster in the high plains created a whole class of people without a home. Woody Guthrie sings about this phenomena in this Dust bowl classic.

The Venerable Utah Phillips

Born Bruce Duncan Philips in Cleveland in 1935, Philips was too young to experience much of the Great Depression. Nonetheless, as a young man, Philips took to the road, releasing his first album in 1961. After settling down for a while in Salt Lake City, he took on the traveling name, U. Utah Philips. Up until his death in 2008, Utah Philips has been a mainstay of the folk circuit and the labor movement. Following is Rik Palieri singing one of Utah's classics.

Looking In

John Prine just died recently, victim of the Corona Virus that is so viciously sweeping our land. The health crisis created by this disease is overwhelming, but the economic consequences could be quite severe as well, possibly rivaling those of the Great Depression.

As far as I know, John Prine never lived the hobo's life. But that did not stop him from recording this wonderful view of someone looking in at the migrant workers, dwelling along the tracks.

From an Apartment in St. Louis

This masterpiece of a vagabonding song was written by John Hartford, while living in an apartment in St. Louis. Reportedly, John was returning from the movies, Doctor Zhivago in particular, when he locked himself in an empty room and penned this lyrical ballad in just a half an hour.

Soon thereafter, the song went on to become a huge hit, which sent big stacks of money John's way. Chances are very good that none of the performers were even alive, when Gentle on My Mind was first released. Take good notice of this band's fine rendition of this 1967 hit and relish in the thought that some songs just don't die, even though John Hartford passed away almost ten years ago.

Home Was Often a Friend's Couch

By all accounts, Townes Van Zandt was the ultimate bum and hobo. For it seems that Townes was never ever able to settle down. Everyone else eventually, came in from the road, but not Van Zandt.Townes was a great songwriter and amazing performer, who found his way into many of Nashville's most hallowed halls, but he was also a friend of the bottle, a sad reality that helped end his life, just as he passed the 50 year mark..

Many of Van Zandt's best known classic come from being "on the road", but perhaps none expresses the strange attraction for the homeless life better than this profound tune, "I'll Be There in the Morning". Hope you enjoy Don William's expert interpretation.

Sexuality On the Road

Back in the good old days, the bums were kinda like monks. That is to say they were mostly male and appeared to be almost celibate. Back in the 70s, Lou Reed blew that idea all to bits with his gritty tale, Walk On the Wild Side. Listen to Phoebe Lou tackle this trans-gender tale with her heavily, resonating, intoxicating voice about cross-country travel.

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum

Though Utah Phillips made this song (somewhat) famous, the original author is none other but the ever-persuasive Harry McClintlock of Big Rock Candy fame. I've included Utah's version, solely because of the two brief and humorous monologues. They are priceless. McClintlock's words aren't bad either.

Pictured here are Bob Dylan and Allan Ginsberg . In 2018, Bob Dylan received a Nobel Prize, not for his literary works, but rather for his songwriting.. In rewarding the prize, the Nobel committee compared Bob Dylan to the ancient Greek poet, Homer.

Pictured here are Bob Dylan and Allan Ginsberg . In 2018, Bob Dylan received a Nobel Prize, not for his literary works, but rather for his songwriting.. In rewarding the prize, the Nobel committee compared Bob Dylan to the ancient Greek poet, Homer.

Hobo Lit 101

Folksingers aren't the only artisans to be inspired by life on the road, for their spiritual brethren, literary writers have also succumbed to the romance (and hardship) to life on the outside.Following are a few book titles that might shed some light on this phenomena.

  • Mark Twain - Roughing It - After a disastrous short stint as a Civil War soldier, Mark Twain pulled up from his Missouri roots and headed to the Nevada territory. This book is a lively account of Sam Clemens (Twain's real name), as he traveled west.
  • Jack London - The Road - Best known for his Gold Rush adventure stories, readers might be surprised that Jack spent a year a two riding the rails during the Great (financial) Panic of 1896. The Road details what life as a railroad hobo was like before the advent of the automobile.
  • Jack Black - You Can't Win - This is another riding-the-rails hobo story from the turn-of-the-century (1900), which will keep you glued to your reading chair. Jack Black was a professional cat burglar, who rode the rails to get around. Eventually, he got caught and then wrote this book after being released from prison.
  • Will James - The Drifting Cowboy - Will James was the pen name for Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, a French-Canadian ranch hand, who made quite a name for himself in the USA, as a writer, artist, Hollywood screenwriter and stunt rider. His life, working as a Montana and Nevada ranch hand in the early 20th century, is real and a genuine inspiration for a whole series of books of which The Drifting Cowboy is just one of many..
  • Woody Guthrie - Bound for Glory - Published in 1943 with some editing help from Woody's wife, Marjorie, Bound for Glory remains an authentic account of a Dust Bowl Refugee, who became a national singing sensation.
  • Bob Dylan - Chronicles: Volume One - Bob did not spend a whole lot of time on the bum, but he did drop out of the University of Minnesota and hitchhike to New York City, so he could visit his hero and future mentor, Woody Guthrie. Chronicles accounts those primal years, when Bob went from traveler to Greenwich Village recording artist.
  • Sister of the Road, The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha - As retold by Dr. Reitman. This is a story of two colorful characters, the hero and the author, Dr. Ben Reitman. The story dates back to the years of Jack Black and in fact, it is often sold as a companion story to You Can't Win.
  • Tom Robbins - Even Cowgirls Get the Blues In this 70s novel, the main character, a Texas cowgirl, uses her genetic oddity, enlarged thumbs to aid her hitchhiking skills, so she can hitchhike to NYC and become a model.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Harry Nielsen