I probably first heard this on Pete Seeger’s American Favorite Ballads, vol. 5, which was my source for a bunch of songs. It was composed around the turn of the twentieth century by “Haywire Mac ” McClintock, who recorded it in 1928, and I later heard Bruce “Utah” Phillips sing it many times — he tended to finish shows by asking the audience to sing along and recognize that we’re all bums — in a positive, IWW kind of way — and need to respect one another and treat each other right in recognition of that fellowship.
I was surprised at first, because I hadn’t taken the song seriously, but aside from the chorus, which parodies an old revival hymn, it’s a pretty straightforward and welcoming expression of hobo life. It’s also a reminder of the days when guys in search of a hand-out didn’t just stand on streetcorners saying “Spare change?” or holding up signs describing their plight, but went from house to house in working class areas, asking for a meal, sometimes in return for chopping wood or some other brief job. Likewise, travelers would knock on a farmer’s door and ask for a place to sleep — there was a popular country song called, “Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister.”
Unpleasant as that kind of begging could be — the refusals always outnumbered the acquiescences — it at least involved some communication with another human being. When I was a busker, I rather quickly stopped playing on the sidewalk with an open guitar case, and instead worked cafes, restaurants, and bars, where I would play and then go table to table, chatting briefly with people as they went through their pockets, and fairly often being invited for a drink. It made the whole experience more interesting and sociable, and also was good business — some regular customers got to thinking of me as their busker, and giving me an extra tip. When I was traveling, I would often combine passing the hat with asking for a place to stay, which may sound weird, but it worked fine. In Germany in the 1970s, I quickly learned not to ask for a place until I was done for the night, because I always found one in the first place I tried, and once someone had agreed to host me, they expected me to stick around and join the party. In the US it was harder, but especially in the South it tended to work out, and I met a lot of interesting people that way.
I never knocked on doors for food, but if you want a taste of that experience, and indeed of the whole hobo experience at the time McClintock was writing, I highly recommend Jack London’s autobiographical The Road (the whole book is online, for free — quite a change from the early 1980s, when I spent a couple of years searching for a copy). It’s a great read, and London traces his skills as a storyteller to his panhandling experience, writing:
I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short-story. Also, I quite believe it was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub.
Incidentally, the verse about “Jim Hill” refers to James J. Hill, the fabulously wealthy builder and owner of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroad lines.