Friday, May 30, 2008

ride that train

I was recently made aware of the fact that New Mexico is now in possession of its very own commuter train, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. I am more than a little proud of my home state for investing in such a noble form of public transportation. My love of trains and train subculture has lain dormant recently, but this news sent me off an a train tangent. Therefore, a blog on the subject:

Perhaps my first love for trains - or, more specifically, the subculture around them - came about when in 1985 I watched the film The Journey of Natty Gan. In it, a depression era girl hops trains from Chicago to the northwest in an attempt to reunite with her father who has gone in search of work. Along the way she sees the rougher edges of life, but has the good company of both a loyal wolf dog and John Cusack. I had a crush on both Cusack and trains from that day forward.

I've thus far always bought my ticket to ride, but I can't help but romanticize the hobo lifestyle. The hobo is perceived both as a down-on-his-luck bum with a fondness for liquor, and as a noble free-spirit who can't be tied down by the mundanities of life. He was an icon of Americana; he was the depression-era working man, he was Jack Kerouac On The Road. He had his own styles of art, currency, and his own system of written communication.

More recently, the hobo is the gutter punk teenager living free from adult constraints. As an adolescent, I was pretty thrilled to see my beloved subculture of punk-rock combined with that of hoboing. Had train hopping with these sorts not necessitated total lack of sobriety, sanity, and cleanliness, I may have hopped along.

A wonderful young photographer named Mike Brodie (aka The Polaroid Kidd) has documented contemporary hobos in a series of photos titled Boys and Girls of Modern Days Railways. I think his images capture both the tragedy and freedom of young train hoppers:

One of the other appealing aspects of hobo subculture is the quantity of hobo themed songs. Musicians like Jimmie Rodgers and Boxcar Willie are famous for their hobo tunes, and folks like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and John Prine have penned several hobo themed songs. In fact, if anyone would care for a CD of hobo and train themed songs I've compiled, I'll happily mail you one.

Some hobo themed films worth watching are the documentaries Catching Out: A Film About Train Hopping and Living Free and Who Is Bozo Texino? as well as classic old black & whites like, Beggars of Life, Sullivan's Travels, and Wild Seed (pictured below).

Finally, as an example of the melancholy romanticism of the hobo legacy, here are the most oft heard lyrics to the song Big Rock Candy Mountain, first recorded in 1928 by Harry McClintock:

One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning
Down the track came a hobo hiking and he said boys I'm not turning
I'm headin for a land that's far away beside the crystal fountains
So come with me we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
On the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs
The farmer's trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay
Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too
You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains the jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in
There ain't no short handled shovels, no axes saws or picks
I'm a goin to stay where you sleep all day
Where they hung the jerk that invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
I'll see you all this coming fall in the Big Rock Candy Mountains
But perhaps a more telling depiction of the hobo lifestyle is heard in McClintock's last stanza, which was left out of the recorded version:
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.

1 comment:

  1. hey aili! i've also looked at and loved the polaroid kid's photos. i wonder if you've seen tod seelie's stuff he documents a lot of punk culture, kids, shows, homes, interesting!