|"I got the high part! I got the high part!"|
People (no one) often (never) ask me about hoboes and music. Did they play instruments, beyond their simple and awful-sounding whiskey jugs, washboards, and rusty harmonicas? Did they sing, and if so, can any of their lyrics be reprinted here, without fear of being banned from the internet for life? Could they read music? Could they stand to be in close proximity to one another long enough to harmonize? Other questions?
Well. Let me tell you. Legend has it, there were indeed numerous hobo bands, throughout the 1930s and '40s. Surely you've heard of The Pullman Brothers, or Coney Island Skee-Ball Bonanza, or The Wayward Yard Dogs. But while those acts might have attained some notoriety within hobo circles, none of them managed to break through. They never played the dirty back room at the Kit-Kat Klub, or score a hit record - or any kind of record. No, those distinctions belong to one hobo musical act, and one alone.
Rumpshaker Phil, after finding himself jettisoned from gainful employment at the international freight terminal of the port of Philadelphia a few months after the start of the Great Depression, had become a Pennsylvania Railroad hobo. On the docks, he had been called "the maestro," because he could conduct the work of men and machines, such that during his shifts, merchant ships were loaded and offloaded twice as fast as they were under any other foreman's watch. When he was laid off, he tried to bring legal action against the ports authority, for unlawful termination due to his handicap (did I mention that his arms didn't work, 'cause they totally didn't) - but as it was 1930, there was no such thing, and the judge laughed at him.
He learned to survive on the road and master the way of the hobo, but the unheard music wouldn't leave his head, and he knew that he needed to hear it - and conduct it. He set out to make a band. It took years, because he knew only hoboes, and hoboes are, on the whole, profoundly un-musical. But he was nothing if not determined, and one by one, he filled out his Lonely Hoboes Club Orchestra. In order of "signing," we have...
- Spasmodic Hilary - Percussion, usually in 5/7 time, but often in no discernible time signature at all, because she hated to see her audience "get bored and start tapping their toes or nodding along like donkeys."
- Crispus T. Muzzlewitt - Long horn (this was actually a trombone).
- Grant Sharpnails, The Scratcher - Chalkboard. He was not well-liked by people who could hear.
- Mmmmm Dandy Dundee - Humming.
- Randal Mouth-Harp - NOT harmonica. He played a teeny, tiny harp. With his mouth. Look it up. It sounded like a toy piano, or maybe a toy harp. He could also tie gift wrap ribbons into beautiful bows with his tongue and uvula. Fun at parties.
- Maury The Monsoon - Bassoon. He cut his own reeds. Sadly, he could not read music, and had no capacity to learn - and the only thing he could play was a badly-memorized version of "Peter And The Wolf," which can be heard meandering beneath the otherwise majestic hit record by Rumpshaker Phil's band.
- The Ornamentalist - Exclusively played those delicate blown-glass Christmas ornaments. Often became overzealous in the first few measures, broke them all, and spent the rest of the performance tap-dancing on the shattered remains.
- NPR Willard Hotz, The Soothing-Voiced - Your host and emcee for the evening.
- Frypan Nonstick McGee - Black kettle. Also skilled in the popping of corn.
- Nicholas Crackknuckle - Musculoskeletal Percussion.
- Amazin' Jack Caroo - Played the kazoo, the most favorite instrument of his niece, who was two, and couldn't pronounce her Z's.
- Tom False-Lips Real-Teeth - Trumpet, obviously.
- Whitman Sampler - Fairlight CMI Series III. Yep.
- Sir Mix-a-Lot - Chief Engineer.
- Fry Pan Jim Fry - You probably think this hobo banged on a frying pan like some sort of early Disney cartoon character. Oh, yes you do. So did I. Until I listened to the record. Jim Fry's soulful, yet meticulously thoughtful and diligently-practiced flute-and-guitar arpeggios will make you weep. He learned them by studying the sounds his musician father made, over months and years of falling asleep with his ear against the bedroom wall. He was okay on flute, but his work on the six-string was inspiring. Speaking of guitar...
- Self-Taught-Guitarist Edmund - His scratch-built electric guitars sounded like nothing else ever made by man or god, and did you know that he could play piano? He could. He was a genius and a gentle, happy soul, most at peace when blazing through a 100-decibel improvised solo in front of 15,000 screaming fans. We'll not see the likes of him again.
- Lamant The Junkman - Percussion (junk).
- Roadrunner "Meep Meep" Fabong - Didn't play an instrument; just occasionally went "MEEP MEEP," as needed.
- Sssssssssssssssss, The Hisser - Used only on "Snake Jazz," the orchestra's failed followup to their lone hit record.
- The Railbender - When steel rails were stressed or bent, they emitted high-frequency shrieks/squeals. It was most unpleasant, but art does not care it it hurts your ears.
- Fleabottle Boone - Because the band was sorely lacking a jug player, and this was the best they could find.
- Slam Dance Dooze - Jumped around a lot and crashed into his band mates.
- Amanda CeeCee Strobelight - Dooze's girlfriend. She was always trying to turn the band on to the music of the B-52's - especially their early stuff.
- Salad-Fork Ron - Utensils. Also pots, pans, rocks, cats, and sitar. And Hammond organ. Probably triangle, but only if right.
- Warbling Timmy Tin Voice And His Voicebox - Soloist. With a larynx made of tin, well - you do the math.
- Souvenir-Selling Mlodinow - See him in the lobby for tacky caps and pins.
- Owlie - Hoot-hoot sounds, as needed. It is said the band's one hit would never have made the airwaves at all, were it not for his haunting backing vocals.
- Astonishing Shaun Eyelash - Played several instruments - perfectly - with his eyelashes. Piano, harpsichord, glockenspiel, timpani, stand-up bass, and French horn, to name a few.
- Mr. Pendleton - First chair (and also lead) violin. He was not actually a hobo, and his time in the band sent him into a desperate, violent depression, which doesn't make a lick of sense, but it doesn't matter, because when their record made the Hit Parade, it was all that he had ever dared to dream, and more.
There. Go look up that record, now. It's like "Gates Of Delirium" meets "Bolero" meets "Eruption," with a backing track of "Star Wars Imperial March." You're welcome.