This is another I learned for my trip south in 1985-86, though I particularly remember playing it after getting back to Cambridge, at one of my all-time favorite bar gigs. The venue was Jack’s on Mass Ave., and I know I played this because one of the local folkies asked if it was by Woody Guthrie.
Jack’s was a legendary blues and rock venue, with pictures of previous acts including Spider John Koerner, Bonnie Raitt, and George Thorogood on the walls. Somehow they booked me, and I figured I needed some help and pulled in a bunch of friends — John Lincoln Wright came over from the Plough & Stars to sing “San Antonio Rose,” Kenny Holladay jammed on a version of “Mustang Sally” along with a trombone player from the audience, Tom Ghent sang a couple, and I think Peter Keane was there, and Robbie Phillips on washtub bass. I passed Tracy Chapman playing on the street in Harvard Square that afternoon and invited her, but alas she didn’t show.
It was a terrific night, we had a good crowd, they drank like they were supposed to, and the manager was ecstatic, talking about how it was like the old days with Koerner. So they signed me up to host a regular weekly “Elijah Wald and Friends” event. Then, a couple of days later, Jack’s burned down, and that was that.
As for this song, it isn’t by Woody Guthrie; as any damn fool oughta know, it’s by Merle Haggard. It wasn’t one of his biggest hits — which is to say, he had four number one country hits in a row before it and four after it, but this only made it to number 3 — but it fitted the romantic notion of hobo life I was chasing, and I love the line about “this mental fat I’m chewing.”
That trip south was one of my longest solid stretches of bumming around the US and had a lot of memorable moments. Unlike Europe, this country doesn’t put a premium on American guitar players, so it was much harder to make ends meet on the road. I ended up sleeping outside a lot of nights and even taking gainful employment, painting a house in the Georgia Sea Islands in return for a couch, meals, and maybe eight bucks an hour.
That was all fine, because I didn’t need a lot of money. I was young and happy to sleep outside and go without food for a day if necessary, and there were plenty of bars where a guitarist didn’t have to buy his own drinks. I quickly learned that the way to find those bars was to ask advice from the locals, then go wherever they told me I shouldn’t go. That included a biker bar in Myrtle Beach where I broke three strings playing a Bo Diddley request over the general pandemonium, and a lot of country bars, and some places along the Florida panhandle that required Jimmy Buffett, and a great night with an accordion player named Ray Fontenot in a zydeco bar outside Mamou, Louisiana. (As a footnote for students of American racial weirdness, that bar was notable for the fact that I was the only white man in the place and the bartender was the only black woman. Darryl Davis later told me he’d been in places like that all over the South.)
As Merle wrote, you learn things hoboing that they’ll never teach you in a classroom, and if any bright young folks are reading this, I recommend getting out there and seeing what happens. Despite what everybody seems to be saying, it’s not more dangerous now than it used to be. It was always chancy, but most people are pretty decent if you approach them right; the real world isn’t like the movies or the internet.