I am a Lonesome Hobo: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

I Am A Lonesome Hobo” fits neatly alongside “Drifter’s Escape”, representing the other side of the coin of the outcast in American society.

The drifter is a drifter by choice or perhaps because he has no choice, he is honest where he can be, stealing only in desperation, not educated enough to be a trickster or charlatan, and indeed in Dylan’s song, completely unsure of what is going on around him.

But with the Hobo it is his past success and well-being financially that has corrupted him.

The hobo is a man who has had it all, been involved in bribery and corruption and totally fallen.   He can’t look forwards to the magical salvation of the Drifter, because he’s a nasty piece of work.

So while the Drifter can’t actually get away from what he is, and most certainly can’t offer any advice, the Hobo can create his own homespun philosophy which incorporates nothing being amiss, admits to all he has done wrong, and yet still tells people what to do.

And he is not exactly saying, “don’t do what I have done”.   He is thinking back to what brought him low, and tells the listener to “stay free from petty jealousies, live by no man’s code, and hold your judgement for yourself lest you wind up on this road”.

So, do your own thing, and don’t tell others what to do, which isn’t particularly profound except that it says, don’t follow leaders, don’t follow a religion, just do it your way.

This is a very non-Christian view of the world.  While at an extreme push the Drifter’s Escape might have been down to devise intervention, the hobo is standing alone, aside from any code laid down by Christianity, Judaism or any other faith.

So we have a hobo with his own philosophy that he can express well.  He’s not the wanderer who has one last drink with his friends (for he has none) before moving on.  He is not the Drifter, lacking knowledge of the forces that affect the world around him.  This guy knows what’s what and has his own view of how to make things work.   He’s lost one fortune, and he might be off to make another (although equally he might be saying he’s found something more philosophical.

The music too is very different from that of the Drifter.  We have the rotating pair of chords in Drifter, like the old man rocking backwards and forwards, unable to comprehend the world.

Here the Hobo stands firm on one call – a chord that runs all the way thorough six lines before suddenly giving us relief and resolution in the last two lines with G, D, C, G, C, D, G.

Then we are back to that single chord again.

The two songs were recorded just under three weeks apart, so there is a unity here – a clearly expressed contrast.  The drifter can do nothing but rock back and forth between those two chords.  The hobo can look you straight in the eye, and hold you there (the one chord) before suddenly moving with a whole string of chord changes.

I am a lonesome hobo
Without family or friends
Where another man’s life might begin
That’s exactly where mine ends
I have tried my hand at bribery
Blackmail and deceit
And I’ve served time for everything
‘Cept begging on the street.

The whole of that first verse is saying “I’ve seen everything” and “You don’t want to mess with me”.

Verse two gives us the context.

Well, once I was rather prosperous
There was nothing I did lack
I had fourteen-carat gold in my mouth
And silk upon my back
But I did not trust my brother
I carried him to blame
Which led me to my fatal doom
To wander off in shame.

Inevitably the mention of brother and blame leads some to express a religious context and the story of Cain and Abel.  It seems too tenuous a link to fit in with the rest of the context, but of course everyone can make up his/her own mind.

Kind ladies and kind gentlemen
Soon I will be gone
But let me just warn you all
Before I do pass on:
Stay free from petty jealousies
Live by no man’s code
And hold your judgement for yourself
Lest you wind up on his road.

We can of course see this as a warning against his whole life style, or just against his methodology.  Just as the Drifter’s escape isn’t clear in its causation nor is this warning of the hobo.  Most of us don’t want to be without family or friends, so I guess it is a warning.  But that enigma of the recommendations as to how to behave and not behave is an enigma that makes the song even more attractive.

Index to all the songs reviewed on this site


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