SARANAC LAKE - Thanks to Baby Gramps, this year's fourth annual Hobofest may come closest to its railroad vagabond theme.
None of the music festival's past performers quite suit the role as well as this eccentric Seattle singer-guitarist - this year's headliner and farthest-traveling performer. He looks the part of a veteran boxcar flyer, with his thrift store finery and bushy, braided beard. He's researched the role, too; he's something of a student of hobo-ism and other aspects of the Great Depression. Although he's quite skilled at playing his National steel-body guitar, he covers it with spasmodic jerks and oddball moves like fretting the strings with his elbow - hinting at the mental damage found among some train tramps. Rhythmically, he can flirt with going off the rails, but doesn't quite. It's all part of the entertainment.
And he sure sounds like the voice of Hobofest. His vocals are often compared to Popeye, Tom Waits and a didgeridoo, with some Eskimo throat singing thrown in for kicks.
(Photo — Michell Bates)
After performing for more than four decades, Baby Gramps is best known for two salty songs he did on the 2006 double-CD, "Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys," inspired by the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. He landed the first track on disc one, "Cape Cod Girls," which he reprised on the "Late Show with David Letterman."
He wasn't quite up for a phone interview with the Enterprise, but he answered 10 questions by email.
1. I hear that you generally don't wake up until mid-afternoon, and sometimes not until 5 p.m. That's taking the night owl thing to a whole new level. What do you do all night?
To answer your question about staying up all night, I'm burning the midnight oil and continuing through the midnight of the soul, which is 3 a.m. and beyond, as mentioned in my song "Ghost Train of Freak Mountain." The song is about hopping freights and running moonshine. I will be performing this song at the festival. It is on my most recent album, "Outertainment" (2010), available at the festival and on my website, www.babygramps.com. I write and do my artwork all night. My whole life is creativity. Maybe I am a folk artiste?
2. What's your strategy when you play a festival like this - an outdoor, summer, family affair?
I look for the child in the adult. It's as invigorating as playing on the David Letterman show or the Sydney Opera House. I like the intimacy with the audience.
3. Any anecdotes worth sharing about playing small-town outdoor festivals?
I was played on Utah Phillips' Loafer's Glory "Hobo Jungle of the Mind" radio show, so I'm glad to be invited all the way from the upper left coast (Seattle) to be playing a festival with that theme. One time I was singing a gopher song, and a gopher popped up out of the ground and looked at the audience. The audience went nuts! The Popeye in me will be keeping my eye peeled for a repeat performance.
4. Hobofest is supposed to be themed around railroads and Depression-era music, but Saranac Lake doesn't really have any hobos (although it does have more than its fair share of colorful characters). Do you have any experience with hobos?
I would like to meet some of your colorful characters. I played on the street for years and met many hobos. Here's one experience. Pete the hobo wrote down a song for me and then showed me his pencil. It was sharpened down to the eraser, and the eraser was not used. He asked me if I knew why. He said it was because he never made a mistake. I have collected hundreds of hobo and train songs that I would like to publish some day.
5. Sometimes your style of playing that National steel guitar seems to echo African music; for instance, sometimes it strikes me as sounding like a mbira (thumb piano) or the kind of stringed instruments our modern banjo comes from. Do you listen to African music? Or am I just off base on this one?
That's very perspicacious of you. I employ various picking patterns and African rhythms, and I have developed my own picking pattern and rhythms. I have five koras and an African wedding ceremonial harp from 1900, and many banjos.
6. What kinds of music do you like to listen to?
Decades and decades ago, I collected all the Depression-era music and hobo songs that I could find on 78s and cylinders. I listen to ragtime, country blues and jazz, Americana music and non-commercial acoustic music from all over the world.
7. If you don't mind my asking, how old are you?
(He opted out of this one, instead answering the question, "How long have you been playing the guitar?")
I'm celebrating half a century this year of picking the guitar.
8. And how old is your guitar?
It's an octogenarian - 82 years old, to be exact.
9. Have you ever been to the Adirondacks before?
No, looking forward to it because I collect mountain music and love to exercise my itchy boot heels. I've been to many a mountain that I sing and write about. I've been to Freak Mountain and Omygosh Mountains, which I built in my miniature railroad.
10. Anything else you want to add?
As a lagniappe (bonus), I've built a miniature Depression-era world that I exhibit at model railroad shows at science centers and fairgrounds. There are two hobo towns, Gobblers Nob and Drool Bib. I built it as a visual prop for the musical that I am working on. It encompasses old-time backwoods mountain railroading, illustrating the differences between tramps, bums and hobos.