Sunday, December 06, 2015
Okay, Rosalie Sorrels Have You Seen Starlight On The Rails?
Okay, Rosalie Sorrels Have You Seen Starlight On The Rails?
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
Every hobo, tramp, and bum and there are social distinctions with the hobo, “the kings and queens of the transient peoples,” merely a migrant or walking through the land rucksack on the back day laborer-type worker, what Oswald Spengler and Jack Kerouac called the fellahin, the outcasts, who has not forgotten the dignity of labor, just not for him (or occasionally her) the nine to five grind and such brethren can be found out back in many a restaurant through the land especially diners and truck shop eateries “diving for pearls” as dishwashers. Every hobo has some problem, usually some Phoebe Snow problem, a woman problem, that forced him or her on the road (I don’t know what it would be for the distaff side so call him Jack Snow, any other sexual combination more acceptable today although definitely not unknown in the male-heavy “jungle camps” along the transcontinental railroad lines). But fear of work is not what drove the person out on to the roads.
See that royalty, the hobo, and his or her ability to work is why the Industrial Worker of the World (IWW, Wobblies, moniker origin unknown so Wobblies) went into the jungle camps (and gin mills too) in order to recruit labor fighters against the bosses when the deal went down, particularly in the West (although more famously in the great Lawrence, Massachusetts “Bread and Roses” textile strike of 1912. Of course that transient work habit was also the down side when it came to defending the unions over the long hauler. As for the other two, the tramp who only worked when forced to like on some thirty day county jailhouse for vagrancy gig or some Salvation Army work program to keep the body and soul together for a few days and the bum, Jesus, the bum wouldn’t work if he was Rockefeller himself, the dregs, winos, the crippled up, and the dumb to put the matter plainly in the old- fashioned parlance.
Now that you are all caught up on the differences, the “class differences,” between each cohort recognized among themselves, oh how recognized, and subject to fierce dispute including some faux fists, if not quite so definitely by rump sociologists who lump them all together but that is a story for another day. What they do have in common since they are out in the great outdoors more than the rest of us gentile folk is that they to a person have seen starlight on the rails. Yeah, had their fill of train smoke and dreams. Now all these sullen subtle distinctions among the brethren I probably would have not been able to draw in my youth when I would have lumped the lot together as collective losers and riff-raff, before I hit the hitchhike road heading west at one time in search of the blue-pink great American West out there somewhere. I had on one more than one occasion along with the late Peter Paul Markin who led the way among the North Adamsville corner boys on that trail been forced to stop along a railroad trestle “jungle camp,” under a cardboard city bridge, or out in the arroyos if you got far enough west to live for a few days and rest up for the road further west.
The hobos of the “jungle” were princes among men (there was no room for women then in such a male-dominated society, not along the jungle although at the missions and Sallys, Salvation Army Harbor-lights, that might be a different story) as long as you did not ask too many damn questions. Shared olio stews, cigarettes, cheap rotgut wine, Thunderbird or Ripple whichever was cheapest after cadging the day’s collective pennies together. Later, after the big dream American West busted me up when my “wanting habits” (getting many worldly goods off easy street paid for by working the drug trade down south of the border along with Markin before he became the late Markin face down in some dusty Mexican bracero fellahin town when a drug deal he was trying to finagle caught him short, two slugs to the head short) built up from the edges of that sullen youth got the better of me and my addictions placed me out in that same “jungle” for keeps for a while that distinction got re-enforced.
But hobo, bum or tramp each had found him or herself (mainly hims though like I said out on the “jungle” roads) flat up against some railroad siding at midnight having exhausted every civilized way to spent the night. Having let their, our, collective wanting habits get the best of them, us. Maybe penniless, maybe thrown out of some flophouse in arrears and found that nobody bothers, or did bother you out along the steel rails when the train lost its luster to the automobile and plane and rusted and abandoned railroads gone belly up for lack of use provided safe haven from the vagaries of civilization. So sure I too have seen with the brethren the stars out where the spots are darkest and the brilliance of the sparkle makes one think of heaven for those so inclined, think of the void for the heathen among them. Has dreamed penitent dreams of shelter against life’s storms, had dreamed while living for the moment trying to get washed clean after the failure of the new dispensation to do the job (hell, what did they/Markin/me think just because the drugs or alcohol flowed freely once, just because the fixer man fixed, fixed fine, that that was the Garden of Eden, that was Nirvana, hell, those ancient forebears all after they had been expelled from the earthly paradise saw that same starlight as they/he did).
Maybe this will explain it better. An old man, or at least he has the marks of old age, although among the iterant travelling peoples, the hoboes, tramps, and bum, who have weathered many of life’s storms bottle or needle in hand, panhandled a million quarters now lost, old age, or their marks wear a soul down early so a guy who has been on the road enough years if he is say thirty looks about fifty by the time the train smoke and the busted dreams have broken his will, white beard, unkempt, longish hair, also unkempt, a river of lines in his face, deep crow’s feet setting off his vacant eyes, a second-hand soiled hat atop his head, a third-hand miner’s jacket “clipped” off some other lonesome traveler (“clipped- stolen for clueless or those who lead sheltered childhood and did not in order to satisfy some youthful wanting habit stakeout a jewelry store say and grab a few trinkets while the salesperson was looking the other way), shredded at the cuffs chino pants of indeterminate hand, and busted up shoes, soles worn, heels at forty-five degree angles from crooked walks on crooked miles and game legs is getting ready to unroll his bedroll, ground cloth a tablecloth stolen from Jimmy Jack’s Diner’s somewhere, a blanket stolen from a Sally [Salvation Army] Harbor Light house in salad days, rolled newspapers now for a mattress for the hundredth, hundredth time against the edge of the railroad trestle just outside Gallup, New Mexico. Do not ask him, if you have the nerve to approach him, and that is an iffy proposition just ask a guy going under the moniker of Denver Shorty how he got that deep scar across his face, where he is going or where he has come from because just that moment, having scratched a few coins in the town together for a jug of Thunderbird he is ready to sleep his sleep against the cold-hearted steel of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks just ten yards from where he stands.
And this night, this starlit brown, about eight colors of brown, desert night he hopes that he will not dream, not dream of that Phoebe Snow whom he left behind in Toledo when he had no beard, no longish unkempt hair, and no rivers of lines on his misbegotten face. (Why the brethren called every long gone sweetheart Phoebe Snow, why they would get misty over the dying campfire after some younger traveler stopped by and told his tale of leaving some young thing behind is unknown except, according to some old wizened geezer who might have just made the story up, in the old, old day when the railroads finally figured out how to keep people from being blackened by the train smoke every trip they took they started advertising this the fact with this white-dressed virginal young woman who went under the name Phoebe Snow. That’s probably as good an explanation as any since whatever the name, or the young woman almost every guy in camp would in his sorrows get weepy about that situation.) Dream as he always did about whatever madness made him run from all the things he had created, all the things that drove him west like a million other guys who needed to put space between himself and civilization.
Dream too about the days when he could ride the rails in the first-class cars (having not only left Phoebe Snow behind but a growing specialty printing business started from scratch before the alcohol, and later the dope although now back to cheapjack alcohol got the better of him), and about the lure of the rails once he got unhinged from civilization. About how the train pace had been chastised by fast cars and faster planes when a the speed of a train fitted a man’s movements, about the days when they first built the transcontinental, this line that he was about to lie his head down beside, about the million Chinks, Hunkies, Russkies, Hibernians, hell, Micks, Dagos who sweated to drive the steel in unforgiving ground, many who laid down their heads down to their final rest along these roads, and later guys he knew on the endless road like Butte Bobby, Silver Jones, Ding-dong Kelly, who did not wake up the next morning and were carried out to the carcass vulture desert having left no way to get a hold of kin. Almost all guys had left no forwarding address, no real one anyway, no back address, for fear of the repo man or some other dunning, an angry wife or about ten thousand other reasons. So the desert was good enough as a potter’s field as any other place.
As he settled in to sleep the wine’s effect settling down too he noticed the bright half- moon out that night reflecting off the trestle, and the arroyos edges, and thought about what a guy, an old wizard like himself told him about the rails one time when he was laid up Salt Lake City, in the days when he tried to sober up. The guy, a guy who had music in his soul or something said to him that it was the starlight on the rails that had driven him, rumble, stumble, tumble him to keep on the road, to keep moving away from himself, to forget who he was. And here he was on a starlit night listening down the line for the rumble of the freight that would come passing by before the night was over. But as he shut his eyes, he began to dream again of Phoebe Snow, always of Phoebe Snow.
But not everybody has the ability to sing to those starlit heavens (or to the void if that is what chances to happen as the universe expands quicker than we can think, bang- bang or get smaller into dust if that is the deal once the philosopher-king physicists figure out the new best theory) about the hard night of starlight on the rails and that is where Rosalie Sorrels, a woman of the American West out in the Idahos, out where, as is said in the introduction to the song by the same name ripping some wisdom from literary man Thomas Wolfe who knew from whence he spoke, the states are square (and at one time the people, travelling west people and so inured to hardship, played it square, or else), sings old crusty Utah Phillips’ song to those hobo, tramp, bum heavens. Did it while old Utah was alive to teach the song (and the story behind the song) to her and later after he passed on in a singular tribute album to his life’s work as singer/songwriter/story-teller/ troubadour.
Now, for a fact, I do not know if Rosalie in her time, her early struggling time when she was trying to make a living singing and telling Western childhood stories had ever along with her brood of kids been reduced by circumstances to wind up against that endless steel highway but I do know that she had her share of hard times. Know that through her friendship with Utah she wound up bus-ridden to Saratoga Springs up in the un-squared state of New York where she performed and got taken under the wing of Lena from the legendary Café Lena during some trying times. And so she flourished, flourished as well as any folk-singer could once the folk minute burst it bubble and places like Café Lena, Club Passim (formerly Club 47), a few places in the Village in New York City and Frisco town became safe havens to flower and grow some songs, grow songs from the American folk songbooks and from her own expansive political commentator songbook. And some covers too as her rendition of Starlight on the Rails attests to as she worked her way across the continent.
Worked her way to a big sold out night at Saunders Theater at Harvard too when she called the road quits a decade or so ago. Sang some nice stuff speaking about the west, about the Brazos, about the great Utah desert which formed Utah Phillips a little too, formed him like his old friend Ammon Hennessey, the old saint Catholic Worker brother who sobered some guys up, made them take some pledges, made them get off the railroad steel road. Sobered me up too, got me off that railroad track too, but damn if I didn’t see that starlight too. So listen up, okay.