[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
A hobo playing a pipe organ sounds like the start of a ghost story, but there was Professor Luther the Jet pulling out the stops in the Greenstone Church in what’d been the company town of Pullman. In 1882, George Mortimer Pullman had shelled out $3,500 for the Bears & Turnerorgan, a modest investment given that he rented out the Church by the hour to the various congregations in his model community. On this night, the last Saturday in September, the palace car manufacturer no doubt rolled over in his concrete-covered grave at the name of Eugene Victor Debs being sung as reverently as that of the first Vag’, the one from the shores of Galilee.
Seattle Red and me had beaten our way down from Chi on the 5:30 Metra Electric in order to attend the Grand Hobo Concert, part of the thirteenth-annual Pullman Hobo Fest. We didn’t know if we’d encounter true blowed-in-the-glass stiffs or a bunch of punkers and gay-cats and horstile farmers, but the fine spaghetti and polenta set-down offered by the Grand Hobo Duke of Pullman, Tom Shepherd, put us at ease. As we scoffed our lump, we chewed the rag with the ’Bos and famers about Pullman, with its excellent knowledge boxes, friendly bulls, and manicured lawns. Good feeling and fellowship followed us into the Church where we sang along as Luther played “Oh, Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” and “Farmer John.”
A hobo playing an organ isn’t strange if you consider that the ’Bo way has always been to appropriate and manipulate, to take existing structures and materials and bend them to new and unexpected purposes—like the familiar melody from a Salvation Army song that, with new lyrics, becomes a protest against wage slavery or the works of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Utah Phillips, who wrote their own “people’s history” long before Zinn. Pullman rented the Church because he wanted a divided and temporary community in order to lessen resistance and maximize profit, but for the hobo such an arrangement was and remains an act of casual defiance. ◊
The Pullman Hobo Fest is an annual event that takes place in late September. Information appears at hobofest.pullmanevents.info or contact Tom Shepherd (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information. According to Shepherd, “Next year’s will be bigger and better than ever!”