This is another I picked up from Sam Hinton’s Song of Men LP — I don’t recall listening to that record much, but when I look back at it, I remember a surprising number of the songs — which I guess means I didn’t love his performances, but appreciated his taste.
This is one of many funny hobo songs that circulated in the early 20th century, of which the most famous were “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” I haven’t found any earlier source for this song than Hinton, who wrote that he’d learned it from his uncle Bubba in Oklahoma, around 1928. [Later: see below*]
Hinton was a popular left-wing folksinger on the West Coast, more or less in the Pete Seeger mold, and I honestly don’t know much about him, except that he was a Marine biologist and a good harmonica player, and happened to lend his guitar to Bob Dylan for the morning ballad workshop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963.
I grew up on stories of bright lads leaving home to seek their fortunes, as did Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Woody Guthrie before them. A lot of people enjoyed those stories without following through on the urge to live that life, and when I took it up for about a dozen years I discovered that respectable people with good jobs often picked me up hitchhiking and went into long soliloquies about how they wished they could pack it all in, hit the road, and be free like me. This lyric exemplifies that attitude, while simultaneously poking fun at it, and is a nice antidote to all the songs about the loneliness of the open road — which is not to say it is more accurate.
As for the line about eating from a tin can — during my wandering years I often carried a can of baked beans in my pack for nights when I got stuck out on the road and wanted something in my stomach. So, during my brief period of riding the rails, I ended up on the yards in Pasco, Washington, with some old hobos, and got out my can of beans, and offered to share, and they were all horrified that I wasn’t taking the trouble to make a fire and heat the can, because they didn’t see why anyone would want to eat cold beans. I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, and hadn’t thought about it in years, but this song reminded me.
* More than a year after I first posted this, Paul Stamler alerted me to an online discussion I’d missed, which sent me to the original recording by Carson Robison, titled “Naw! I Don’t Wanta Be Rich.” Apparently this was also released as “You Wonder Why I’m a Hobo,” though I can’t find any solid evidence of that version… and listening to Robison’s 1930 version on Youtube I find that most of the lyrics are different, so maybe he also recorded a different version, or maybe Sam Hinton’s uncle got it from a different source, or maybe Hinton or his uncle did some lyric doctoring.