Back in the day (2002, I think) I had the privilege of writing about him in Alaska magazine, and this is how I’m going to remember him.
by Dana Stabenow
There are lots of reasons to go to the Alaska State Fair in Palmer every year. Turkey legs and crab cakes and cream puffs. The Elks’ Rat Race. The giant cabbages. The Scheer Lumberjack Show, where my friend Rhonda Sleighter can sigh over Fred “The Silver Fox” Scheer’s biceps. Yodeling along with Hobo Jim at the Sluice Box.
Wait a minute. Yodeling?
You bet. Also howling like a wolf, yipping like a coyote, and stamping like an elephant. Also dancing until your feet hurt and singing until you’re hoarse.
Hobo Jim has that effect on people from up there on stage, bright blue eyes and evil grin flashing out from beneath the crushed brim of a white straw cowboy hat, fingers a blur on the guitar strings, foot stomping hard enough to go through the stage.
And in fact, he went through a stage once during a performance, in 1982 in Evergreen, Colorado, stomping hard enough to go through all the way up to his waist. What did he do? “Climbed out and kept playing. The crowd went nuts.” He was the opening act for the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and they had to put down a piece of plywood over the hole so Russell Smith could come out and do his thing. It cramped Smith’s style some and he gave vent, calling Hobo Jim a “thunderfoot.” Since this is a family magazine, I’ll omit the qualifier.
The nickname stuck. Everyone in Alaska knows who Thunderfoot is and everyone in Alaska lines up to attend his performances. He always closes down the Sluice Box on the last day of the Alaska State Fair and it’s always SRO long before he sings the first note. Sue Anne Weaver, a teacher from the Valley, has been holding down a piece of one of the Sluice Box’s picnic tables since four o’clock. “I’ve been a fan for twenty years, and I can sing every word to all the songs.” So can everyone else in the room.
Hobo Jim, as you may have guessed by now, is Alaska’s very own personal folk singer, except he also does Jambalaya about as well as anyone I’ve ever heard, and some Dylan, and oh yeah, plays a little blues slide guitar while he’s at it, and oh hell, I don’t think there’s anything he can’t play and play well. He’s ubiquitous up here, an Alaskan icon, to the point that about ten years ago the Alaska State Legislature named him the Alaska State Balladeer. “That’s the second highest honor I’ve had in my life,” he says. “The first is that for thirty years people have been coming to my show. The other day a young woman wanted my autograph and told me that when she was six years old she got to come on stage with me at the Sluice Box and sing The Iditarod Trail.” He shakes his head and grins. “Not bad for a guy that’s only 20.”
Well, he might be a few years older than that, as he brags about his twenty-second wedding anniversary to Cindy coming up next month (“My wife and I have been together for 22 years, give or take a few nights on the couch”) and then he sings the song he wrote for her, The Beauty of You, a perennial crowd favorite.
Hobo Jim came to Alaska thirty years ago, after leaving home young and spending a lot of time singing in bars and riding freight trains, where he got his moniker. “When I first came to Alaska, everybody had a nickname, like Whiskey Bob, you didn’t ever ask anybody’s last name.” Hobo Jim it was, and he spent some years logging and commercial fishing. Then he got married. After a honeymoon at Barabara Creek, with the carcass of a dead bear parked outside the tent, he brought Cindy home to his snowed-in cabin in Homer. “It looked like something out of Doctor Zhivago,” he says. Then they ran out of money. “I’d given up singing by then, so when I got the guitar out from under the bed and told her I could always go make a few bucks singing in the bar, she laughed.”
He’s been singing ever since.
Off stage, Hobo Jim is quiet of manner, modest, I’d say maybe even a little shy. On stage, it’s like he’s mainlining lightning, pounding that right foot, banging on that guitar, inciting the audience to riot during The Earthquake Song (‘Is it love or just an earthquake?’). “I’m the gig from hell, aren’t I?” he says to the sound man, who is holding up a decibel meter and shaking his head.
Hobo can’t stand it, he’s got to get everybody up on stage, 8-year old Chelsea to sing The Iditarod Trail, fellow singer Ken Peltier, found most nights at the Four Corners Bar and who loaned Hobo his guitar when Hobo broke his own the night before, even all four lumberjacks from the Scheer Lumberjack Show, who sang something about fifty cents. I couldn’t hear a word else (my ears were starting to ring) but they sure were cute. When he’s not getting people up on stage, Hobo’s getting down on the dance floor, dancing and picking for all he’s worth, and if he’s not on the dance floor he’s on the tables, getting dollar bills stuffed in the back pockets of his jeans. His appeal crosses every generation–there’s a old man with a cane dancing with a Gen-Xer, a howling bunch of Y Bothers on my left, from babies to boomers we’re all in love.
Hobo Jim has a special relationship with the Iditarod. Some years ago the Iditarod Race committee asked him to write them a song. “I told them for months it was done,” he says, and then it came time to sing it at the Iditarod Banquet in Anchorage, with an ABC film crew in attendance. “That night I dreamed I had wrote the song, and the next morning I wrote it down on a place mat at the Soldotna Inn. It was my first number one hit.” Pause. “On KNOM, the radio station in Nome,” where the Iditarod Race ends. When Joe Redington died, Hobo wrote Redington’s Run in honor of the father of the Iditarod, which song never fails to bring his audience to tears.
His absolute favorite song is Where Legends Are Born, written during a skydive into the Alaska State Fair. Don’t look at me, that’s what he says. “About 15 years ago I skydived from 13,500 feet, right over Pioneer Peak, into the fair. I saw this patchwork quilt of farms, with the subdivisions moving in on them.” He didn’t like it at first, and then he thought maybe it was just the natural evolution of life, the farmers giving way to the homes of their children. “I had a remote mike in my pocket which started working at a thousand feet, and I sang that Legends at the show.” Not a lot time to rehearse, please note.
Wild and Free is his second favorite song, an autobiographical account of leaving home young and living it up. “It’s my mother’s and the ex-police chief of Homer’s favorite song,” he says. “I was pretty wild and free.”
There are the crowd favorites, like Redneck Support Group (‘They always come around, they won’t ever let you down, Jack Daniels, George Dickel and Jim Beam’), Heave Away (“songs like this one kept my album off the Sierra Club catalogue”), and The Rock, which will debut as the title song on a George Jones album this September.
As you might expect, he writes mostly about Alaska. “I love the people,” he says, “the beauty. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the last thirty years, most of them not for the better. We used to have a lot of freedom.”
It doesn’t slow him down any. “I’ll sing till I drop,” he says. “When all you do is fish and sing, you’re gonna die either fishing or singing. Either way’s gotta be okay.”
I don’t know. He sings Bob Dylan’s Forever Young like he wrote it himself, ‘May you stay forever young,’ his voice filling the Sluice Box up to the rafters, spilling out onto the midway, drowning out whoever’s on stage at the Borealis Theater.
May Hobo Jim stay forever young.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.