originally published January 10, 2012
Question: which came first, the concept of a ‘supertramp’ species, which is an ecological term referring to an animal with high dispersion among many different habitats, or Supertramp, the British rock band? If you answered the British rock band, then clearly you knew I was going for the less “logical” answer (yay! I found the most obvious musical reference for this subject!).
It’s true, noted multi-discipline scientist Jared Diamond coined the term in 1974 to refer to certain birds’ migration habits after both the nomadic nature of the ‘tramp’ as well as one of his favorite bands at the time. The band had borrowed the name also, from the title of the autobiography of Welsh poet W.H. Davies.
Davies was, in fact, a tramp. Not in the sexy way, but in the homeless, travelling, probably not smelling very pleasant way. He spent the years between 1893 and 1899 in America as a drifter, riding the rails and nurturing a respectable addiction to alcohol. He heard about the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon, and set off to make his fortune. He tried to hop a freight train in Ontario with a fellow hobo awesomely named Three-Finger Jack, but fell and had his leg crushed by the train. He returned to Britain as a failed hobo, equipped with a wooden leg and broken dreams. Goodbye, stranger. No more breakfast in America for you. (these Supertramp gags just keep rolling into my head. Sorry.)
Davies remained committed to his poetry. He was crashing at British flophouses, begging and borrowing to survive, when he decided to try to sell his work door to door. I can imagine it would be quite a thrill, hearing a knock on your door and finding a one-legged hobo offering to sell you some poetry. That just doesn’t happen enough anymore.
In 1905 he finally scored a book deal, inasmuch as he himself paid to put out a book. He sold sixty copies, one of which to journalist Arthur Adcock, who helped launch the poet’s career. Things get pretty tame after that; Davies became a star, mingled with the London elite, got married and died. It’s a happy ending, but the real guts of the story lies in his rail-hopping days.
The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp was published in 1908, just a smidgen after he’d come to experience the slightest morsel of success. Davies had a fan in George Bernard Shaw, and Shaw not only wrote the book’s preface, he also handled the contract arrangements so that Davies would actually make money off the thing.
It wouldn’t be appropriate not to Give A Little Bit of attention to the band that snagged its name from W.H. Davies’ book. I may be overstating this – it wouldn’t be the Crime Of The Century or anything, but I’d be a Dreamer to believe that the Supertramp, the band, shouldn’t be included in this article.
The band started in 1969 when Dutch millionaire Stanley August Miesegaes told his buddy Rick Davies (coincidence? Probably) he’d be willing to put up the money if Rick wanted to start a band. In essence, the band named Supertramp began in the exact opposite circumstances as W.H. Davies’ career as a poet. There’s no story of struggle and paying their dues here; Rick Davies put out an ad in Melody Maker magazine for musicians, and the band just came together. The group called themselves ‘Daddy’ and spent months rehearsing, only to come away with four songs. That was their repertoire. Two of those songs were covers – I’m not sure what they were, but I’d like to think they were both MacArthur Park.
It’s worth noting that the concept of the ‘tramp’ differs between England and America. The British tramp is a homeless person, while the American tramp refers to a travelling vagrant. To further cloud matters, W.H. Davies was a British guy (okay, Welsh, but that’s close enough) living the life of an American tramp. Supertramp was a British band whose biggest album was Breakfast in America. Charlie Chaplin, whose famous character was called the Little Tramp, was a British actor who found fame and success in America. I don’t know what this all means, but some numerologist is going to put it all together and use this information to predict the end of the world or something.
I realize now that I used ‘tramp’ and ‘hobo’ interchangeably earlier on. This is profoundly incorrect, and if any tramps or hobos used the Internet and read this page, they would no doubt take offense at my insensitivity. A tramp does not seek out regular work, and instead prefers to scavenge a living as he goes. A hobo does look for work, and hops from town to town in search of it. A bum is defined as a homeless person who does not travel, does not work, and subsists by begging. A vagabond is essentially another word for ‘tramp’, though it sounds like they are somehow more theatrical about it.
A Schnorer is a Yiddish word with essentially the same meaning as tramp also, though it’s the act of being a beggar or a sponge that tends to prompt someone to use the term. The word appears in German also, meaning either someone who mooches little things (like cigarettes or money) or a specific Nazi-era pilot who killed a lot of people.
I think it’s time to reinvent the Supertramp. I’m thinking a homeless superhero would make sense, righting wrongs on the street and besting villainous fiends for nothing more than a thank-you and the occasional tin of baked beans. There are any number of logical foes: RailRider, the Hobonator, Schnorer van Leipzig, etc.
It could be that the romanticizing aspect of smelly homelessness has fallen out of favour with the public. It’s quaint to see Chaplin bottle-feeding an infant in a run-down shack, and exciting to read about any adventure in which a character named Three-Finger Jack would play a part. But that spirit of adventure, to subsist on meagre scraps and ‘see the world’ from a freight car just isn’t as appealing as it might have been in the past.
You’re Bloody Well Right.