Monday, March 7, 2011

"Hobo, You Can't Ride This Train"

“Hobo, You Can’t Ride the Train” shuffles up while I walk in a stiff wind. Though I like to imagine I’ve worked my way through all the songs Armstrong recorded, I’m probably not even close. Actually, this is good, an opportunity to think and write about a song not endlessly picked apart in readings on jazz history or the Louis Armstrong story.

Hobo conjures the Depression, evoking the deprivation and the romance that remembrance of hard times brings. “The poor thing,” still on my mind, connects historically and psychically. The idea of the hobo suggests a particular type of objects, Tramp Art. At one time I collected these chip carved wooden boxes. Hearing Louis sing "Hobo, You Can't Ride This Train" made me think about them and the stories that grew up around them. Supposedly, itinerant riders of the rails made them, but this is a quarter-truth at best. The moniker Tramp Art is a misnomer; it won’t go away because it works. Romantic, direct, it summons the mythology of the hobo.

Armstrong incorporates this mythology in his lyrics, but instead of casting himself as the hobo, he makes himself the villain:
“Hobo, hobo you know you can’t ride this train
how hobo now listen to me hobo
I told you you can’t ride this train
you done forgot I’m the brakesman on this train boy, I’m awful tough”

Here are the lyrics:
“Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train” (1932)
whistle (waa waa) bell twice, sound recording of train wheels on track

Boy, listen at that rhythm train,
I been all the hobos in the world on that train
even guy No. One there
old A Number one (ha ha ha ha)

………..and I’m the brakesman too
and I’m put all the cats on that train

yeah man, yeah man,
all abroad for
Pittsburgh, Vicksburg, Hattiesburg, all the burgs get on this train hobo

Instrumental interlude (0.38-1:03)

Oh Hobo, hobo you know you can’t ride this train
how hobo now listen here hobo
I told you you can’t ride this train
you done forgot I’m the brakesman on this train boy, I’m awful tough I’m awful mad
I’m telling you (ha, ha, ha)
you gotta give me some boy oh yeah
hobo you can’t ride this train
as I said before, hobo hobo
you know you can’t ride this train

—trombone, (2:21-2:43) trumpet backed by band

ah hobo hobo you know what big boy I’ll let go
I’ll give you a break, you’re all right
(over sounding recording of train slowing down, bell)

In the sung-spoken-scat passages, Armstrong’s voice has the familiar raspy, a bit gravely sound. When he sings “Oh Hobo, hobo you know you can’t ride this train, how hobo now listen here hobo,” his voice is clear and light, then he quickly drops back into the sing, speak, scat mode.

Some words I could not make out until I listened to the second version, recorded January 28, 1957 in New York, Decca Recording Session, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Then the words A No. One became clear. This album includes an introduction to each song spoken by Louis. In the “Hobo” intro he says: “I had Chick Webb’s band backing me up for the original version [1932]. This is my own composition, “Hobo, You Can’t Ride this train,” and it was my first time to find out that A Number One was the top man in hobos.”

Leave it to Louis to give me a history lesson, one he’d just learned himself. A quick search reveals there are two A No. Ones. One, a man who sees the error of his ways, spends his life educating the young not to follow this path. Two, the more interesting Banksy character, finds fame through illusory actions that promote him to cult status. Naturally, there’s a Hollywood version, Emperor of the North (1973) with Lee Marvin as A No. One, Ernest Borgnine as Shack, the savage railway cop, and Keith Carradine playing Marvin’s unwanted accomplice. It’s remarkably violent, only the scenery and the trains hold the shimmer of romance.

The date 1933 appears in the film, one year after Louis wrote and first recorded his song. The A No. One character that Louis wrote about is the Banksy-type character. If he could have seen Ernest Borgnine in the role, I wonder if he’d have changed his role model. As he finishes the song, he ends as in the first version, softening up the brakeman, a typical Louis move, you rascal you.

Here are the lyrics for the second version:
“Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train” (1957)
brushes, train whistle-
voice over Louis-
my, my, my listen to that rhythm train
boys, boy I bet all them hobos all sit under them rods
old A Number one and all the cats
all aboard for Pittsburg, Harrisburg, for all the burgs

(00:30-1:09) instrumental
yeah, oh yeah yeah oh sing it ….

(1:10) now hobo, oh, hobo, hobo you can’t ride this train
Now boy I'm the brakesman and I'm a tough man
but I ain’t looking yeah, yeah
now hobo listen here hobo, mmmm
you can’t ride this train
(1:10) clarinet, there’s some other hobos blowing there, Brother Hall
(1:53-2:52) now hobo, hobo, you can’t ride that train
listen to that hobo, Brother Young, trombone,

(2:56) now look here boy
you ain’t so bad after all
guess I’ll let you ride laugh, laugh, laugh

after all, whistle, sssshhhhhhh, ssshhhhhhhh (Armstrong)

Here too, in the end he softens up, slows down, sighs and lets the hobos ride. That’s Louis, straddling both sides, accepting both ways of making it in the world.

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