"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

27 Jun 2017

Lord Open Road, by Jim Christy

Lord Open Road, © Myfanwy Phillips

James H. Langford was the real name of a man that I and so many other habitués of the knockabout life knew as Lord Open Road.
His moniker might just as well have been the Rhyming Roadster or the Vagabond Versifier. In other words he spoke in rhyme—a style now familiar with rap. I met him at the annual Britt, Iowa hobo convention in 1977, although I might have encountered him in Britt way back in 1964. He looked familiar.
He was a stocky friendly man who dressed in railroad garb and still rode the rails whenever it was possible. He had the air of authenticity about him, something he shared with Frisco Jack, Adam Ydobon (Nobody spelled backwards), and few others. 
By the 1970s it was a vanishing way of life although recently it has become something of fad with punk rock types jumping freights and tagging them. Some of these go home and maintain websites and post photos and their hobo names on social media. The notion of the old time 'bos maintaining websites and texting is pretty funny, surreal even. I can just picture A-No.1 and his pal Jack London tweeting each other. James Langford would have had nothing to do with that kind of thing. He was too unusual—in a good way—for anything so conventional.
I’ve been thinking of him lately because I received a letter out of the blue—Texas, in this case—from his niece Barbara Saunders Jones. She had a clipping from decades past of a magazine article I wrote about one of the hobo conventions. There was an accompanying photo of Open Road, by Myfanwy Phillips, who accompanied me to Britt. The first one Barbara had ever seen, not only of him, but of anyone on her mother’s side of the family. She was later surprised to hear my description of him as a friendly man who illustrated no tendencies towards violent or abusive behaviour. It seems, according to family legend, that Uncle Open Road—they knew him only as James—was a rough, tough mean character. Although none of the 'bos spoke ill of him neither did they flock to his side. He simply came across as too strange even for these decidedly unusual people. 
Barbara writes that Uncle Road ardently desired to be crowned King of the Hoboes. I’m sure he did covet the title but must have known deep down that his coronation was about as likely as there being freight trains in heaven. By the Eighties contenders were actively politicking for the honour. Unlike some, Road was not what is known as ‘media friendly’. He wasn’t really rough and tough; he just looked it. The position of King was nothing to be laughed at either. There were advantages to it. For instance, free trips to speaking gigs that paid, having your opinions solicited and getting the opportunity to see one’s picture in the papers.
Invariably the men voted in as Hobo King were either wizened, non-intimidating characters like Sparky Smith and Frypan Charlie or the extremely photogenic such as Steamtrain Maury Graham who could also double as the Santa Claus nonpareil.
Steamtrain Maury Graham, © Myfanwy Phillips

James H. Langford was born in Oak Grove, Missouri in 1920. The next information the family has is that he was sent to Reform School in 1935, age fifteen. I have heard rumours that Road wasn’t the most reliable source of information about himself. When I asked him when he had first left home, he replied, “One morning when I was eight, my mother sent me down to the railroad tracks to fill a bag with coal for the stove. A train was coming and I left on it.”
Jim Christy (right) with Frisco Jack, © Myfanwy Phillips
Each would-be King has to appear on a makeshift stage and cite his credentials. Most speeches are usually reminiscent of something the mayor says at the county fair. But Road’s might have gone something like, “Hello, dere. I know you come to stare but I don’t care. On my boots I have wings. I don’t dig any sedentary things. I’m always going down that road like old Tom Joad. In comparison my opponents are mostly ersatz, stay-at-home cats. I’m a real Bo, I just got to go”, . . .  etc.

Steamtrain and I had a falling out because I backed Frisco Jack for King and not him. I pointed out to him that he lived in a big house in suburbia, owned a business, and that his only time away from it was to visit Britt once a year.

I believe Open Road wasn’t so much unfriendly as socially awkward, and he stumbled when called upon to speak in the manner of ordinary people. But he was eloquent when rhyming. In this he reminds me of certain stutterers who sing effortlessly such as Country singer Mel Tillis. He added that a few years later he got into some trouble which curtailed his railroad adventures for a good amount of time—which can be attested to by the dates of the reform school episode. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army but served only a year. 
When I returned to the Convention after a ten or twelve year absence, I asked a couple of the men if they’d known Floyd Wallace, my old hobo mentor with whom I’d first traveled to Britt. One said he’d heard of Floyd, another shook his head. Road nodded, “Oh, yes. The Greeley Kid.” Which was indeed Floyd’s moniker. “He fought bravely in Spain. Wish I could see him again but word got around he went and caught the Westbound.” Catching the Westbound means departing this Vale of Tears.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties I exchanged a few notes with James H. Langford. The last I received was from Herington, Kansas on April 8, 1981. He opened with "Hey, Dere", his usual salutation, and said he regretted he wouldn’t be able to meet up with me in Florida as we’d previously discussed because he “needed to go west to get some rest.” The editor of the Britt newspaper had told Langford that he could, “get me the crown because I have the background but I have to stop using big words.” He signed the note “Open Road.”
Nine days later Lord Open Road caught his own Westbound, having been attacked in the train yards at Dalhart, Texas. According to the autopsy, he died of “multiple stab wounds to the chest.” His killers got $2.81 for their efforts.
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More hobo portraits by Myfanwy Phillips from her visit to the Britt Hobo Convention with Jim Christy in 1977. 

Top Hobo Bill and Frypan Jack in front of Bill's trailer, second Adam Ydobon, third unnamed hobo, and fourth Sparky Smith:












NOTE: A biography of Jim Christy's own adventures, A Vagabond Life, will be published by American History Press in the Fall

2 comments:

  1. I have to thank Mr. Christy for connecting me to a relative I never knew. Open Road's father died in 1934,scattering Open Road and his siblings (two brothers, two sisters) and their invalid mother to the four winds.

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  2. thanks so much, Myv. Wonderful piece and unforgettable portraits...and the names! love it.

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