So, to start off with, I have hitchhiked out of Winnemucca, Nevada. I don’t remember if I was picked up by a semi, but I’ve had rides from a lot of truckers over the years, in a lot of places, both in and out of the United States. Which said, I’ve never been to Ombabika, nor have I been to Jellicoe* — both pretty far north in Ontario, though not as far north as Schefferville, Quebec. Nor have I been to Barranquilla, Colombia, or Tocopilla, Chile, and I have no idea what either is doing in this song, nor yet Diamantina, which seems to be in Brazil (or, my old traveling partner Jasper Winn suggests, Australia).
The Canadian place names make sense, because Hank Snow, who put this together, was from Brooklyn, Nova Scotia–which sounds like a joke to me (and more so because it’s in Queens County), but apparently is real, though not included in the song. Actually, I should say Hank Snow put this version together, because I just learned that the original was Australian, by a fellow named Lucky Starr, who sings it significantly faster than Snow or I do.
I’ve always taken pride in my ability to memorize and remember song lyrics — that’s partly what this whole project is about — but this was undoubtedly the toughest lyric I ever memorized. I still have a perfectly clear picture of the evening I spent on it, walking back and forth across my bedroom floor, reciting till I made a mistake, checking the lyric, starting again, walking some more… I always recommend memorizing last thing in the evening, because then your brain keeps churning in your sleep — and it clearly worked, since that was almost 35 years ago and it’s still stuck in those cerebral crenelations… which admittedly might have been better used for other purposes.
I was spurred to learn this by my friend Monte in Vancouver, a Canadian ex-rodeo rider and wonderful harmonica player discussed in earlier posts. I used to hitchhike back and forth across the US every few years, and once across Canada, and Monte figured if I were going to make that part of my stage persona I’d better know this one.
Incidentally, I last hitched across country in 2006, on the book tour for Riding with Strangers, which was about the previous cross-country trip in 2005… so I guess I’m about due for another…
…and finally I’m forced to recall Dave Van Ronk telling me apologetically that despite my fine example he couldn’t bring himself to pick up hitchhikers, because they always insisted on chatting and were almost always boring… and I guess this song is a good example of what he was complaining about.
*I find there is also a Jellico, California, and a Jellico, Tennessee, but I’m betting Snow meant the one in Ontario, which was his turf — but what do I know?