Mysteries of a Hobo’s Life (T-Bone Slim/the IWW)

Yet another I got from Cisco Houston, written to the tune of “The Girl I Left Behind Me” by T-Bone Slim, one of the most popular I.W.W. songwriters, and published in the “Little Red Songbook” around 1920.Songs_of_the_Workers_-_'Plaintiff's_Exhibit'_cover

Like everyone on the folk scene, I grew up with romantic legends of the “wobblies,” and at some point in the 1980s I even signed up and paid my dues for a while. I think it was Utah Phillips who signed me up — he stayed with me pretty often when he was in Boston, and I stayed with him in Spokane, and he was an outspoken advocate for the O.B.U. (One Big Union). A few years later, I had developed a more cynical view and one evening I was over at Dave Van Ronk’s apartment, and we were well into the Irish whiskey, and I made a slighting remark about lost-cause romanticism in general, and Phillips and the Wobblies in particular. Dave hove himself up from his place on the couch, stomped into his bedroom, stomped back, and slapped his I.W.W. dues book on the coffee table. (I immediately checked to see if he was paid up, and of course he wasn’t, but he considered that the mark of a true wobbly, and he was probably right.)

The Wobblies were strongest in the western logging and mining states, so I’d always assumed T-Bone Slim was from that part of the country, but it turns out he was a Hudson River barge captain. Apparently his name was Matt Velentine Huhta and he was a Finnish immigrant, or at least from a Finnish immigrant family, but that’s about all anyone knows. As his 1942 obituary in The Industrial Worker put it, “Having lived almost a full life of anonymity, Fellow Worker Huhta died that way and was buried that way. We have an idea that’s the way he wanted it to be.”

Like his more famous predecessor, Joe Hill, T-Bone Slim wrote his songs to familiar tunes, the idea being that people who couldn’t read music would be able to pick up a songbook or lyric sheet and already know the melody. It wasn’t just the Wobblies who did that — songwriters of all kinds, including writers of Christian hymns, regularly set new lyrics to old tunes, and in those days no one took them to court for copyright violation.

“The Girl I Left Behind Me” is a popular song and fiddle tune that goes back at least to the 18th century and has been found through much of the English-speaking world. Randolph Ozark songsIt seems better suited to fiddling than singing, since the notes tumble after one another so quickly that there’s no space to breathe, but it was clearly a favorite of amateur singers — the evidence being eight pages of filthy parodies in Vance Randolph’s collection of bawdy Ozark folklore. (I would print some here, but better to send you all to the library — there are many happy hours to be spent in Randolph’s pages.)