When a big city record producer came to Bristol and Johnson City in the 1920s to discover new Appalachian region talent, local performers sang about love, death, religion and the railroad lifestyle.
On July 22, 1927, Victor Talking Machine Company record producer Ralph Peer and his two engineers, who came into town by train, set up a studio on the Tennessee side of State Street in Bristol, according to East Tennessee State University professor Ted Olson, a music historian.
Major recording companies had been interested in finding new music acts from the south.
Peer and his team began recording area musicians on July 25 and concluded on Aug. 5, yielding 76 performances by 19 acts, according to Olson. Peer later returned for additional sessions in Bristol and Johnson City.
“There weren’t hobos among the performers at the 1927 and 1928 Bristol sessions and the 1928 and 1929 Johnson City sessions, but the railroad was an important theme at all those sessions,” Olson said.
Recordings from the 1927 Bristol sessions on the theme include Blind Alfred Reed’s “The Wreck of the Virginian,” Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Baker’s “The Newmarket Wreck,” and the Tenneva Ramblers song “The Longest Train I Ever Saw.”
Rene Rodgers, head curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, noted that there are some songs from the Bristol sessions that reference trains in their title or lyrics, such as the instrumental “Narrow Gauge Blues” by El Watson and “Train on the Island” by J. P. Nester.
“As far as I can know, none of these are focused in on the hobo life on the rails,” Rodgers said.
At the Johnson City sessions, Olson mentioned two train songs: the Roane County Ramblers’ “Southern No. 111” (in 1928), and the Bowman Sisters’ “Railroad, Take Me Back” (in 1929).
Jimmie Rodgers, a musician from Mississippi, performed during the Bristol sessions and went on to become a household name. Before becoming a musician, Rodgers worked on the railroad and befriended a number of hobos.
Olson said the hobo theme can be found in three of Rodgers’ tunes, including “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” “Waiting For A Train” and “Hobo’s Meditation.”
Since the 1920s, country music, of which Bristol claims to be the birthplace, has had a few songs about railroads and hobos, such as “Hobo Heaven” by Boxcar Willie and “Hobo’s Lullaby,” which has been recorded by numerous musicians.
One song, Mel McDaniel’s “Shoestring,” is even the inspiration for a present-day hobo’s nickname.
Mark Nichols, a 48-year-old hobo originally from Texas, said his moniker, “Hobo Shoestring,” is from McDaniel’s tune. Nichols, who lives in Johnson City, said the song, which he enjoys, is basically about his life.