On the Road: Rik Palieri
Vermont-based folk singer Rik Palieri is a traveling man, yesiree. And this summer, Rik checked out the 98th Annual Hobo Convention out in Idaho and he lived to tell the tale. Find out how.
For years now, Utah Phillips has been telling me about the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. This weekend, August 79, I made my way through the open fields of grain to check it out. What I found was quite amazing!
Since 1900, the small town of Britt has opened its arms to hobos, honoring them with parades, a hobo museum, the Hobo Cafe, a hobo jungle-complete with showers and cooking facilities-and even a hobo graveyard for hobos who have caught the last train.
When I arrived on Saturday, this tiny town was packed with over a thousand tourists. There was a carnival atmosphere around town with a flea market, raids and games blocking up Main Street.
I parked my rig down near the Hobo Jungle and meandered down Main Street. In front of the Hobo Museum sat my pal "Danville Dan," the singing hobo, playing his old Resonator guitar. Danville asked me to play a few tunes as he introduced me all around. It was nice to see such a friendly bunch of folks exchanging stories and songs on the street. As we jammed, a crowd of tourists started filling up Danville's guitar case with dollar bills. He said, "Rik, this is great! You do the work, and they put the money in my case!"
After a few more tunes, I headed out to see the parade. There was a long line of chairs around the parade route and I got there just in time to see the
first fire truck send out its signal, welcoming everyone to the 98th Hobo Convention! The parade followed with a few marching bands and politicians in antique cars ending with the "Hobo Float", crammed with hobos of all ages.
After the parade, there was a line-up for free Mulligan Stew, a tasty soup filled with meat, rice and lots of fresh veggies made by the local Boy Scouts. The soup line circled around the town green and park gazebo where all during the day time activities were held.
After we chowed down, it was time for the crowning of the Hobo King and Queen. Since the beginning of this convention, this event has been one of the highlights. Every year a new king and queen are selected by a show of applause from the hobos and audience. It was a moving event when the reigning King, "Frog," and Queen, "Minnesota Pearl," said their farewell speeches and announced the nominees for this year's election. Four men and four women were announced and stepped up to the microphones. Each delivered a speech about their philosophy and what they would do if they were selected. The audience applauded, then a hush fell over the crowd as the votes were tabulated. Pandemonium broke out as the MC called out the winners and this year's royalty met its kingdom.
The new King, "New York Slim," a huge, eight-foot African-American, and Queen, "Cinders," a small, friendly woman from a railroad family, were given their crowns (a straw hat with a cut up coffee can on top), robes, and walking sticks. The news media gathered around the new royal couple like sharks around bloody fish bait as the hobo musicians entertained the crowd. I was honored by the hobos to help with the festivities and pitched in with some of the singing hobos: Liberty, Bojangles, Windy City Tom, Fishbones, Blue Moon, Frisco Jack, Wisconsin Dell's, and Danville Dan, to name just a few.
Later that night there was a big feed and concert down at the Hobo Jungle. The Jungle is a field on the outskirts of town with a large open air kitchen and an open boxcar to sleep in. It is available year 'round for traveling hobos. As this was the big convention, the fields were covered with tents and sleeping bags. The town paid for the free meal and the hobos provided the entertainment.
Today there seem to be two groups of traveling communities: the old hobos who carry on the old traditions of working odd jobs, story telling, playing music and traveling, and a group of young "punk-thrashers," who call themselves "the new kids." The new kids, dressed in skin heads, black shirts, combat fatigues, and big, black biker boots, are into body piercing and tribal tattoos, and use freight trains as a way of life.
These two groups are at odds with each other, as the old hobos are a very friendly group who are carrying on the old hobo ways, while some of the new kids are of a more violent nature. Almost a "Lord of the Flies" gang, riding freight trains. Since their arrival, there has been a bit of trouble which keeps the community wondering about the future of the convention.
The evening's concert started off with the old hobos singing old songs and reciting hobo poetry. It was family entertainment. Later, after most of the townspeople went home, the new kids took the stage. At first they sang a few songs to a borrowed guitar, then sang old folk songs, unaccompanied. Later, they asked everyone to sit in a circle with hands joined and then together created a "sound wave." Everyone added some sort of note, wail, yell, bellow or scream, producing a sort of new age Harry Parch kind of music. Then they picked up bits and pieces of scrap wood and started beating them into tribal rhythms. One of the group sprang up with two lit sticks and did a fire dance, walking through the camp fire barefoot, swishing the flames around his body. He then held up his head and spit a wall of fire into the air. The group found some old kitchen pots and plastic tubs and pails and continued drumming. Two men jumped up and started dancing around the campfire and peeled off their clothes. Soon a young woman joined them, stripping off her dress as they all danced to the throbbing rhythm of the drums.
The drumming continued as police cars pulled into the jungle. The young, naked woman disappeared into the darkness as the police surrounded the campfire. The officers did not want any trouble at two a.m. with 50 or more young kids still beating on their drums, so they asked them to stop the drumming, then left.
The old timers stood shocked as they watched this new generation perform their tribal rituals around the old campfire jungle. I sat there wondering how these two groups could reach some common ground. I decided that the next time I come I'll bring along my didgeridoo!
Rik Palieri is a traveling singer of folk songs. He has traveled the world, telling stories and singing songs. His latest album is called Panning for Gold.