Obie hobo plays the banjo for Obie bohos
Last Friday night, frequenters of the Cat in the Cream were treated to a concert by hobo minstrel Fred Starner, OC ’59, known more commonly by his road name, Banjo Fred. Starner, who sings and accompanies himself on the banjo and the twelve-string guitar, performed for over two hours, often stopping between songs to tell stories.
The stories ranged from lengthy toilet jokes to memories of confrontations between the hobos and policemen of northern California. His songs were just as varied. Toward the beginning of the evening, he sang a traditional song about a man who tries to deflower and kill a girl but ends up getting pushed into the sea. Later on, he sang original protest songs about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.
“Let me tell you a story of George W. Bush, and all the fine things he’s done,” Starner sang in one of them. That was the whole song.
Other highlights included a song he’d written that morning about the cookies at the Cat in the Cream, a theme song for Hobo Soup and a touching rendition of “Buffalo Gal.”
He also sang a ballad about fellow hobo, Sidedoor Pullman Kid (a sidedoor pullman is a boxcar). The song contrasted his hobo friend with Kenneth Lay. In an interview on Monday, he elaborated on the comparison.
“I always tell my audiences, I think the moral tone of the hobo community is much higher than the level you’d find on the board of directors of Enron.”
Many of his songs contained such political touches. He ended his new song by talking about Wal-Mart and making the claim that nothing they sell can compare with the cookies at the Cat in the Cream.
It was an enjoyable evening. Starner’s deep, pained voice and his worn, Clint Eastwood-like features fit his music well. His tunes and his lyrics were simple, but they were also moving, funny, ironic and insightful.
Starner majored in economics while at Oberlin and went on to get a Ph.D. in the field. He then worked as a professor at various institutions until retiring a few years ago. He doesn’t like to talk about that part of his life, though.
“I’d rather be judged as a musician than as an economist who happens to play music. Otherwise the best I can get is, ‘Oh, he’s pretty good for an economist.’”
While teaching, Starner often found himself caught between the stuffiness of economics departments that didn’t want musicians in their midst and the exclusivity of musicians who shunned untrained performers like himself.
“I never even had a music appreciation course,” Starner said of his time at Oberlin. “I don’t read music.”
According to Starner, the hobo tradition emerged after the Civil War, when southern soldiers rode the rails northward looking for work. Creative and diplomatic, many were poets and singers, and they had to know how to get along with the rail workers.
The origins of the term “hobo” itself, which was in use by the late 1870s, are a bit of a mystery. Some think it stemmed from the greeting, “Ho, boy!” Others suggest that many early hobos carried hoes with them along with other tools they would have used if they found work.
Contemporary hobo culture is very different than it used to be. Hobos are getting younger and younger. They are often well educated, like Starner. Many ride the rails when they are fresh out of college, though Starner himself waited until he retired. Modern hobos seek adventure, not work. They have jobs, homes and wives. Starner has hobo friends who also work as helicopter pilots, nurses and corporate private detectives.
Traditional hobo meetings and camp-outs, known as jungles, are now being augmented by e-jungles. On such websites, hobos can post advice about which train yards people should stay in, which conductors are friendly with the hobos and so on.
Starner agreed that the term “hobo” now refers to more of an aesthetic than a lifestyle.
Starner plays most often at retirement homes, where he frequently finds residents who themselves rode the rails when they were younger.
“It’s a universal experience,” he said. He prefers not to think of himself as a folk song singer, but rather as a singer of “grit” songs.
He has found that the term “folk” has lost its meaning. Many people use it to describe any music that is played on acoustic, not electric instruments. That is not what grit music is about.
“It’s about good songs and good stories,” he said. “Sometimes they’re funny. A lot of times they’re funny.”
He also sees grit songs as inseparable from folklore and as a part of a deep tradition that has lasted throughout history and is still alive and well today.
“You can’t kill folklore, because it’s an expression of the
human spirit under pressure. And as long as you have artistically endowed poets
and songwriters, you’re going to have this kind of music.”