King of the Hobos

by Everett Goldner · October 12, 2014

“Gilly’s short for nothing but Gilly.  So don’t get to thinking there’s got to be a longer, fancified name hidden behind those letters.  No Gilbert or Gilson or Gill.  I ain’t no fish.  I’m Gilly.”

In the summer of 1930, passers-by were lured to a temperance hall in St. Louis with flyers promising free food and drink for the needy.  Instead they found themselves in attendance at the unofficial funeral of one James Eads How, a man who walked away from the money he was born to and built a life teaching the roaming, train-hopping souls of the countryside to read, to write, to organize and unionize.  Those to whom he devoted most of his years weren’t allowed at his official service, and so a hobo named Gilly engaged in some logistical sleight-of-hand, so to pay proper tribute to “the millionaire hobo,” who’d finally caught the westbound into the great beyond. 

This much is historically factual.  The remainder of King of the Hobos is the brainchild of singer/performer Jara Jones, who takes us on a vivid tour of Americana hobo culture.  He begins with the life and death of How and ends there, but in-between we glean a great deal of the ins and outs of the daily lives of those consumed and sometimes spat out by Depression-era wanderlust.

“Start by asking around. Find a jungle, talk to the other ‘bos. Share some food, gain some wisdom. If you can’t find no jungle, you’ll have to locate the rail yard on your own. Most towns, trains split through the middle before gaining speed. If it’s a locale with a hill, chances are that the yard’s just at the bottom.”

The details of hobo life are intriguing to observe – as Gilly unfolds them, it’s as if a Disneyland statue had suddenly come to life and struck up a conversation with you – but the heart and soul of the show is undeniably the songs.  Jones’ chief storytelling tool is his songwriting skills, which feel organically deep and brilliantly impressionistic, conjuring between chords the flare of a match between two men in a stockyard or the hurlyburly of a car crash that kills a family and sets our narrator to the wandering life.  I was struck by how effortlessly the songs here seemed to jump from style to style while yet remaining rooted in the subject of the show – a song like ‘Modesto,’ full with bittersweet pangs of the past, brings to mind early U2, while ‘Tonight’s Enough,’ (which you can listen to, here: with a plainspoken, rappy patter and imagery that would feel at home in vintage photography, is some sort of pass between Beck and Tom Waits.  And Jones is on surest ground in his narrative portions when letting the music inform the exposition – explaining the original, filthy final verse of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ or illustrating the death of a hobo addicted to Jamaican Ginger, or “Jake” (‘Stop Drinking Jake’).

The show bends naturally toward murky storytelling territory – its narrator and everyone who matters to him are wanderers, and as Gilly moseys from one area of hobo life to the next, you may often find yourself wondering just where this road’s leading him, and you.  But Gilly lives by rules that don’t bear much inspection, and though I was more than happy to wallow in the vernacular richness Jones gives us, I sometimes wished that we could simply stop wandering, and stand.  We do, finally, in the truly memorable finale, 'King of the Hobos,’ where Jones employs a call-and-response with the audience that’s impossible not to feel in your bones – looking around the theater during the song, I could sense the vagaries and mental detachments of an audience give way to the anthem’s staunch overflowing of pride and grief, as if by some alchemy we really were putting James Eads How to rest in that flimsy hall of the Prohibition, near on a century ago.  “Success depends on three things,” Gilly ruminates: “preparation, luck and craziness.”  And though his yarn takes a while to get going, it does eventually unfold into a deeply felt quilt of all three.

The version of this show presented at Emerging Artists Theatre this month was, by the venue, limited to a 60-minute (workshop) running time, which may account for the story’s looseness of coherence, but a fuller version is currently being prepped for an off-Broadway run in the second quarter of 2015.  Keep an eye peeled, and avoid the westbound.





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