Things I learned in hobo jungle / Were things they never taught me in a class room
But he definitely wasn't the first to sing about them. Songs about the rail-riders spread across this great land throughout the early part of the 20th Century. Hoboes popped up in blues songs and hillbilly records.
Some of these tunes were full of pity for the wayward and impoverished lives of these men. Some were cautionary tales, warning others to stay away from that life.
But many romanticized the hobo, expressing envy for their freedom. And today, the classic train-hopping hobo is seen as a mythological character
Perhaps the first hobo hit was "Hallelujah. I'm a Bum," in which a tramp with attitude has witty comebacks for proper people who question the way he lives.
There were several recordings of it around 1928 including versions by Hobo Jack Turner, Vernon Dalhart, John Bennett, Arthur Fields and Harry McClintock, who is best known for his song "Big Rock Candy Mountain," another important contribution to the Hobo Hit Parade. Later, Al Jolson starred in a movie called Hallelujah. I'm a Bum.
Carl Sandburg in The American Songbag, wrote "This old song heard at the water tanks of railroads in Kansas in 1897 and from harvest hands who worked in the wheat fields of Pawnee County, was picked up later by the [International Workers of the World] who made verses of their own for it, and gave it a wide fame."
McClintock, a member of the I.W.W., claimed he wrote "Hallelujah. I'm a Bum" years before he recorded it. I can't say if that's true, but he's the only one I know who's claimed authorship.
Here's a McClintock version:
Louis Armstrong had his own hobo song:
A classic hillbilly hobo song, "Rambling Reckless Hobo" by Dick Burnett & Leonard Rutherford
Here's a rockin' tune from the year I was born: "Hobo" by J.D. Edwards
And in case you haven't heard enough, here's a whole Mulligan stew pot of Hobo songs