10. “The Tramp” (words: Joe Hill, music: George Frederick Root / 1913)
Cisco Houston – guitar and vocals
From Cisco Houston Sings Songs of the Open Road (Folkways FW 2480), originally released 1960.
Part of the mission of the Industrial Workers of the World was to organize those unskilled workers whom larger unions considered outside their scope. Many Wobblies migrated seasonally; some stayed in “jungles” near the railways. Those workers were sometimes referred to as “tramps,” but today we would probably just call them homeless. This struggle has not ended, so the song continues to have relevance to current issues.
Cisco Houston spent a lot of time travelling himself, not tramping but singing. When Cisco was twenty-one years old, he met twenty-seven year old Woody Guthrie. They sang and travelled together across the country and later joined the Merchant Marines during World War II. Cisco performed on Broadway, television, radio, and in bit parts in Hollywood Westerns. After he died in 1961, young songwriters included him in the pantheon of folksong revival heroes. In “Song for Woody,” Bob Dylan wrote, “Here’s to Cisco, and Sonny, and Leadbelly, too,” referring also to Sonny Terry and Huddie Ledbetter. Tom Paxton and Peter LaFarge each wrote songs specifically about Cisco, just as Alfred Hayes, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Si Kahn all wrote about Joe Hill. Cisco Houston had 6 albums of his own on Folkways and appeared on several others.
If you all with shut your trap,
I will tell you ‘bout a chap,
Who was broke and up against it, too, for fair;
He was not the kind that shirk,
He was looking hard for work,
And he heard the same old story everywhere.
Tramp, tramp, tramp keep on a-tramping,
There’s nothing doing here for you;
If I catch you ‘round again,
You will wear the ball and chain.
So just keep on tramping, the best thing you can do.
He walked up and down the street,
Till the shoes fell off his feet,
In a house he spied a lady making stew,
And he said, “How do you do,
Can I chop some wood for you?”
What the lady told him made him feel quite blue.
‘Cross the street a sign he read,
“Work for Jesus,” so it said.
And he said, “Here is my change. I’ll surely try.”
And he knelt upon the floor,
Till his knees got mighty sore,
But at eating-time he heard the preacher cry:
Down the street he met a cop,
And the copper made him stop,
And he asked him, “When did you blow into town?
Come with me up to the judge.”
But the judge, he said, “Oh fudge,
Bums that have no money needn’t come around.”
Finally came that happy day
When his life did pass away,
He was sure to go to heaven when he died,
When he reached that pearly gate,
Santa Peter, mean old skate,
Slammed the gate right in his face and loudly cried:
In despair he went to Hell,
With the Devil for to dwell,
For the reason he’d no other place to go.
And he said, “I’m full of sin,
So for Christ’s sake, let me in!”
But the Devil said, “Oh, beat it, you’re a bo.”