Last year, Larry Saidman, Host of the Homegrown Traditions workshop, sang a song titled “Hobo Song”.  Its first verse runs as follows:

All around the water tank, waiting for that train,
All tired out and hungry from sleeping in the rain;
My heart was filled with sorrow; my days are filled with pain;
Five thousand miles away from home, nobody knew my name.

I stepped up to that brakeman…

Ring a bell?  Yes, it’s the forerunner to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train”, and it demonstrates the close relationship between “orally transmitted song” and the “music industry”.  To explain:  the song was sent 5 April 1926 by Terrell McKay in San Antonio, Texas to Robert Gordon, who edited a column called “Old Songs that Men Have Sung” in Adventure magazine.  Gordon had made a point of asking in his column for people to send in songs, and they had responded in spades:  hundreds of songs arrived, ranging from traditional ballads, sea shanties, railroad songs, a few coarse songs from men’s “smokers”, and the like.

Gordon replied to McKay a couple of months later:
    “… The Hobo Song. – I have fragments of this, a number from Negroes, but no version as complete as yours.  Thank you!  The last line you quote and other lines in some of the scraps lead me to think it was often used as a begging song.  It must have started with a humble author and then been made over many times.  It sounds to me like a genuine ‘hobo’ song.”

McKay had said when he sent the song in that he had learned it from “men around the oil wells”, just the type of transient unskilled labour force that drifted from trade to trade in the US southwest and which carried song throughout the region.

Ralph Peer, who ‘discovered’ Jimmie Rodgers in 1928, was at the time a talent scout for RCA.  He recalled booking Rodgers for a test recording in that year, and said that at that time, Rodgers had only one song of his own; until then he had been singing material by other writers copyrighted in New York.  Peer asked him to make more of his own, which Rodgers immediately agreed to.  “Waiting for a Train”, written by Rodgers and published (and thus copyrighted) by Peer, was recorded 22 Oct 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Rodgers, of course, had been a trainman early in his life and had sung and played since an early age in all sorts of informal and formal sessions throughout the south and southwest.  It was natural that both he and Woody Guthrie, from the same era and much the same place, should informally collect and refashion songs that had started orally.  It’s also a demonstration, if one were needed, of the way the music industry freezes that refashioning.  Gordon had said that he had collected other versions, but the only version one hears nowadays is the Rodgers version.

Here’s hoping that Larry will sing the original version (with five verses!) at this year’s Festival, to give us all a chance to hear a lost original.

- Jon Bartlett



As it turns out Larry will indeed be doing that song at the festival.  In his own words:

. . . yes, I will be doing that song at the Traditional Music Festival on the Saturday (Aug 19) at my noon concert.