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Cross-Country Training

Hobo folkies take their show on the road


Heart on a string: Banjo Fred wields his ax.
  • Heart on a string: Banjo Fred wields his ax.
One catchy little refrain. That's all "Banjo" Fred Starner wants the "commercial music industry" to hear, because folk music is here to stay. The image of the hobo -- the rail-ridin' vagabond whose off-the-beaten-path lifestyle embodies the purpose and passion of American folk music -- may be a-changin', but it's not going away.

"Hobos have somehow achieved a certain status in American folklore," says Starner. "Younger people are an extension of the tradition. Just this summer, I was in Dunsmuir, California, and there were about 50 of us gathered around a campfire at the rail yard, right next to the Sacramento River. About half were under the age of 30."

Starner himself is a 62-year-old, guitar-pickin', banjo-strummin' minstrel out of Winnetka, California, but admits his rail-riding experience is limited. "Regular life" for him means building on a base of decades-old experiences that includes countless concerts with folk legend Pete Seeger; panel appearances with Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary); four albums, including his latest, Hobos and the Wind; and a 10-part public TV series that, Starner modestly relates, won "some kind of award" a quarter-century ago. The college economics teacher by day has kept his hand on the pulse of hobohood's emerging trends by writing songs of the wanderlust.

So what's the allure in this lifestyle? Primitive accommodations? Eating out of a can? Prospects of an arrest for trespassing? "They usually have some friend, or someone in their family did it -- maybe a grandfather or an uncle," Starner explains of how the hobo torch is passed.

While today's hobos seem to be "looking for themselves," their counterparts of yesteryear were usually running from something: Getting your life back on track was key during the hobo heyday of the Great Depression. "The typical pattern was that someone would lose a job, get a divorce, or come back from the war and spend a couple years riding rails as a period of reflection and meditation," says Starner. "Then they'd go back to their regular life."

And more and more, "they" are females. "These young women are serious students. They really take rail riding seriously," Starner says. "They pare down their clothing, carry little packs, and travel together. The secret is knowing which lines to travel, for safety's sake," and which to avoid.

Violence and police run-ins are more common along the Texas-Mexico border, as well as in areas such as Oakland and Los Angeles, Starner warns. "It's a very dangerous thing. You have to know what you're doing."

Other rules of the rail: Don't jump onto or off of a moving train, even if it's moving slowly ("More than 200 people a year are killed that way"); don't drink and ride ("It causes you to make some bad decisions"); and don't draw attention to yourself (the lower the visibility, the better the chance of success).

The discriminating hobo opts to hop the grainer, according to Starner. When it's not hauling wheat, it sleeps two "comfortably" and offers protection from the elements. Boxcars are an option, but are often locked -- and rail riding is trespassing to begin with, so those who break and enter seriously risk landing on the wrong side of the tracks.

For the hobophobic among us, Starner is well-versed in debunking the myth of hobo as loafer and bum. "Hobo," he says, is a variation of "hoe boy," a common term for agricultural workers in the Civil War era. "There's an old saying from the post-Civil War days: "A bum rides the rails and drinks. A tramp rides the rails and dreams. A hobo rides the rails and works.'"

And folk music will always work for Starner. -- Jeff Woodard

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