Behind the Song: The Last of the Hobo Kings

(By Mary Gauthier) Steam Train Maury died last night His wife Wanda by his side He caught the Westbound out of here Hopped the high irons to the by and by They say he jumped ten thousand trains Rode a million miles for free Helped out at VA hospitals and penitentiary’s Dandy Dave, Rusty Nails and Sweet Lady Sugar Cane Dead Eye Kate and the Baloney Kid raise their cups tonight in Steam Train’s name Senators, congressmen, puppets on a string Among the windswept vagabonds Steam Train was the king The last of the hobo kings, the last of the hobo kings

Now bums just drink and wander round Tramps dream and wander too But a hobo was a pioneer who preferred to work for food He knew how his nation’s doing By the length of a side walk cigarette butt Born with an aching wanderlust Embedded in his gut Hounded, beaten, laughed at, broke Chased out of every town With a walking stick scepter And a shredded coffee can crown The last of the hobo king, the last of the hobo kings

The last free men are hobos Steinbeck said, and he paid cash And the stories that he bought from them Helped him write the Grapes of Wrath But boxcars have been sealed for years And trespassers do time Railroad yards are razor wired And hoboing’s a crime So here’s to you Steam Train Maury Hold that Westbound tight As you ride off into history The last hobo, the last ride The last of the hobo king, the last of the hobo kings

I wrote this song in a hotel room in Amsterdam, in late November of 2006. A long string of shows in Europe had just ended, but I decided  to stay in Europe a little longer to and try get some writing done. I wanted to go home, but I had not written a new song in a long while and I figured the solitude of being in a hotel alone for a while would kick in the old writing process. I'd written two songs at the Schiller Hotel in Amsterdam’s Rembrandt Square on my previous tour, so I decided to linger a while longer and see if I could repeat the process. As homesick as I was, I changed my flight, added a week to my stay, and started reading poems in the old café, filling my head with words written before, during and after the liberation of Holland.

I'm glad I did.

The hotel and café were once owned by a painter by the name of Schiller, whose wife was a cabaret singer who performed in the square on the weekends. Mr. Schillers Cafe was a meeting place filled with lively conversation, after show parties, and a place where artists of all types gathered to share their work and their lives. The Schiller's endured the German occupation of Amsterdam during the war and were indentured to Nazi soldiers in their own hotel for period of time. Mr Schiller's paintings still hang in the hotel.

Captivated by the deco lighting and the timeworn original wooden floorboards that Nazi boots had walked before me, I sat there for hours, reading and daydreaming as tourists shuffled in and out of Smokey Joe’s, a giant marijuana coffee shop next door. It was a wonderful place to sit, ponder, and write.

I was in the café atrium sipping Dutch coffee one morning when I saw a headlined obituary in the International Herald Tribune newspaper for Steam Train Maury Graham, the Grand Patriarch of the Hobo Nation. I’d never heard of him, but I read his obituary and it grabbed me, he grabbed me, and I knew I’d found the thread of the song I should write. My attention fully engaged, I started poking around on my laptop for the more of Steamtrain’s story. The first thing I found was the website for the funeral home where he was being laid to rest. I clicked on his name, landed on a message board and read all the messages posted there from people who loved him, mostly other hobos. I kept poking around, digging up hobo treasures and gathering hobo stories from all over the web.

Maury Graham was a folk hero and legendary figure in his community, thus the headlined obituary in The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune paper. I traveled deep into the vernacular and history of hobos in America, and time flew by. I learned about the hobo jungles and the hobo gatherings, the annual King and Queen elections, and the hobo lifestyle. It was a wonderful journey into a world I’d never visited and I emerged a few days later with the song in hand. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.

P.S.: One of the many oddball things I learned sitting there in that café for a week—Did you know that Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked ate some of the ashes of Old Joe Hill? Well, yes, they did.

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