Tuesday, May 15, 2012
He's also known as Guitar Whitey. Let me explain.
When he was twelve, he bought his first guitar from the Sears catalog for $3.89 and taught himself how to play. Then at age thirteen, he hopped his first freight train.
You can still find him on a sunny porch playing old timey songs, but his train hopping days ended when he was 76. He's got other things to do now, that keep him closer to home. No longer does he feel the urge for going.
My father was a teen hobo during the Great Depression. In 1938, his family fell into hard times. Bobby became a summer tramp, riding the rails picking apples, strawberries and shaking walnuts, from Oregon to California. Every penny he made went to support his mother and father and three sisters. After harvest season, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Montana, until he joined the Navy. After that, he was a merchant seaman, sailor, tugboat operator, deckhand, guitar store owner and a busker. Yes, busking is a job!
Throughout his life, my dad never stopped traveling, mostly by hopping freight trains. It's a freedom thing. Like Merle Haggard sang:
I caught this ramblin' fever long ago
When I first heard that lonesome whistle blow...
Even while rambling around the country, he always had his guitar with him. Guitar Whitey, riding trains and singing old time hobo songs, wherever he went.
PBS airs a history series, American Experience: Riding the Rails. It's the story of teenagers in the 1930's who were going through hardships, like my father. Some of these men and women are still around, and in this documentary, they tell stories of freedom and lonliness. My dad is one of the ten they interview. The music that accompanies the film is some good old american folk tunes. The book, Riding the Rails, is also available, (through Amazon of course) or your local library, that include some interesting black and white photographs. I hope the next time PBS airs this film, you'll be able to watch it. Take a trip back into time. You'll be glad you did. And, while we're on the subject of books, if you're curious about Guitar Whitey's train adventures, he wrote about them in his book, Ridin' Free. I've read it five times. It's a wild ride, and all true. Check it out!
Incidently, how 'bout a Happy Birthday shout out to the Guitar Man!
He's probably on his porch in California, playing you a song right now, with my beautiful mother by his side, shakin' the tambourine.