This past August the 112th National Hobo Convention was held in Britt, Iowa. A friend of mine attended the event in true hobo style, that is, by riding freight trains there.
He observed a parade with floats, the coronation of the Hobo King and Queen, a Hobo Museum, a Hobo Auction and a Hobo Jungle, where hobos strummed their instruments on a grass stage. Drifters, bums, tramps and the like are often buried in potter’s fields without anyone taking notice, but several American hobos have earned great fame and even inspired books and movies that glamorize their lives, and deaths. Digital Dying examined a few examples..
T Bone Slim – T bone was perhaps the twentieth century’s most famous hobo writer. Born Matti Valentinpoika Huhta in 1880 to Finnish immigrant parents, he grew up in Eerie, Pennsylvania but at a young age left to travel the northern United States as a migrant worker. He was a member of the famous socialist group, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies and worked as a reporter for a radical Finnish newspaper in Duluth called the Industriallisti. He penned regular columns for newspapers like Industrial Solidarity, Industrial Worker and Industrialisti. His work later inspired the American surrealist movement as well as the Civil Rights Movement. “Never exhaust yourself,” wrote T Bone. “There is nothing more disgusting than a man staggering home from work ‘dog-tired’…grabbing a hasty feverish supper; saying good-night to his family and rolling into bed half-washed, to repeat the same thing three hundred and twelve times per-year…” In 1940, while living in New York City, T Bone slipped off the docks near where he was staying at a boardinghouse for seamen and drowned.
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Utah Phillips – Utah was a legendary hobo singer, avid train hopper and poet as well as a strong union supporter and member of the Wobblies. He ran for U.S. Senate in Utah as a candidate with the Peace and Freedom Party and ran for president of the United States in 1976 as a candidate with the Do-Nothing Party. But Utah was best known for his music. He recorded tracks with Rosalie Sorrels, a famous folk singer from Idaho and penned many songs of his own, such as, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum”, “Bread and Roses”, “Daddy, what’s a train?” and “Moose Turd Pie”, his most famous composition, which tells the tale of his work as a gandy dancer, or rail worker, laying tracks across the Southwest. The CD he recorded with Ani DiFranco was nominated for an Emmy Award, other songs have been played by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Tom Waits. Utah died on May 23, 2008 at the age of 73, in Nevada City, California, from complications of heart disease.
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Alexander Supertramp – Christopher McCandless grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC and attended Atlanta’s prestigious Emory University. After graduating he donated $25,000 a family friend gave him to pursue a law degree to charity, then changed his name to Alexander Supertramp and headed west in a beat up Datsun. He traveled through Arizona, California and South Dakota, where he worked in a grain elevator and made several friends. In the desert Southwest flashfloods washed out his car. He left it in the desert and continued his journey by canoe, paddling down the lower Colorado River with nothing much more than a bag of rice. Inspired by the rugged wilderness and spectacular isolation he planned an even grander trip, to Alaska. McCandless hitchhiked to Fairbanks and hiked into the wilderness near Mount Denali with a 10 pound bag of rice, a rifle with 400 rounds of ammunition and some books. He spent the next few months living in an abandoned bus. He foraged for wild plants and hunted small game like birds and porcupines but after a few months he had lost significant weight and was starving to death.
“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD,” read a note he left to the world just before he died. “GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!” Alaskan natives said McCandless was foolish and unprepared. Nevertheless, his story touched the hearts of many. Jon Krakauer’s book about him, “Into the Wild“, spent more than 100 weeks on the best seller’s list, and was later turned into an award-winning movie directed by Sean Penn. The abandoned bus he lived in is a now a shrine for drifters, bums, tramps and the like.