There Is More Past Than You Thought!

I’m halfway through reading John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise, aptly described by Tom Perrotta in a blurb as resembling what would result if “Benjamin Franklin and Borges got drunk and decided to write a book together.” Hodgman’s become suddenly quite visible, appearing on This American Life (wait – that’s radio: strike “visible”), writing for The Daily Show, and appearing in a Mac ad (which, amusingly, garnered him accusations of “selling out” five minutes after anyone outside of Brooklyn had even heard of him). He’s the PC – ill-fitting suit, horn-rim glasses, nerdy haircut. Of course, that’s also exactly what he always looks like, judging from available publicity photos.

One of the book’s more peculiar and charming features is its obsession with hoboes – a meme which has taken on a life of its own, judging from the several hundred efforts to illustrate Hodgman’s “Seven Hundred Hobo Names,” which began as a Flickr group and has since migrated to its own website. (Side note: You will note that few of these images appear to be photographs, which apparently caused some trouble for some contributors with Flickr. Of course, a scanner is a kind of camera, and since the illustrations in some cases are scanned, I think they should technically count as photographs. Alas, the images created entirely in Illustrator and the like are not photos. Unless you printed them out and photographed them…which some people apparently did, to get around the “photo” requirement…)

Anyway, as if obsessive fans illustrating bizarre names like “Undertaker Robert, the Lint-Coffin Weaver” (#691), “49-State Apthorp, the Alaska-Phobe” (#411), and “William Carlos Williams” (#505) weren’t enough, Hodgman himself has read the entire list in the form of a spoken word piece, accompanied by Jonathan Coulton on guitar and bleeding fingers. (Warning: it’s nearly an hour long. And no, I haven’t listened to it.)

Here is an actual hit, one which doubtless would have been covered by contestants on Hobo Idol if there had been such a show in the 1930s, if there had been television, if hoboes cared about such things: Harry McClintock’s version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (from the big ol’ Smithsonian folk-music box). And here is the song “Hobo Chang Ba” by Captain Beefheart, who himself has rather a hoboesque mien (and name to match). I have no idea what “chang ba” is meant to designate.

Harry McClintock “Big Rock Candy Mountain”
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band “Hobo Chang Ba”



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2 responses to “There Is More Past Than You Thought!

  1. Tim Walters

    I just finished Bitter Music, Harry Partch’s journal of his hobo days. Fascinating and beautifully written. He sets a lot of transcribed (in pitch and rhythm) hobo speech to music. I wonder if anyone’s ever recorded it.

  2. loudfan

    The trouble with those Apple commercials is that I think Hodgman is so much cooler than the Gen Y indie rock Mac guy. Of course, I already have a Mac so I guess I’m not among the unconverted the ads are trying to reach…

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