After hopping a freight in Davis, California, and riding it to Portland, Oregon, I headed east. The next ride was on a flatcar to Pasco, Washington, then on the front of a grain car to Spokane. In Spokane, I met a young guy from Wisconsin and we decided to ride together through Montana. We wanted to catch the High Line through Glacier Park, and he walked over to the office to see if he could find out when it would be leaving. Meanwhile, I was sitting out in the middle of the yards, with no one visible in any direction, so I sat down on the ground and began singing all the train songs I knew.
It was a long wait, and eventually I got to “Vigilante Man,” which isn’t exactly a train song, but on the way out of Portland I’d been warned not to stop at Wishram, because gangs of vigilantes were beating up hobos to keep them from hanging around the town. I hadn’t realized that Woody’s world was still quite that alive…
Anyway, there I was playing in the middle of this freight yard, and there was no one anyone near me. So I’m singing, “What is a vigilante man? Tell me, what is a vigilante man…”
And suddenly the voice of god booms out, right next to me: “WELL, DYLAN, IF YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW, WE CAN SEND A COUPLE OUT TO YOU!”
Turns out there was a sort of amplifier system on the yards, so the guys back at the switching house (or whatever it’s called) could communicate with the guys making up the trains, and they could hear me, and I could hear them. Definitely could hear them.
When I learned this song as a kid, I didn’t even know what a vigilante was, and when I found out, I still thought I was singing about the past, the days of Tom Joad and Preacher Casey. That was back before Bernard Goetz and George Zimmerman. I wish some of Woody’s songs would go out of date, but unfortunately they still sound like he’s been reading the latest news.