Delta County's Omo the Hobo spent his life as a
traveling troubadour and wrote about his adventures
in an autobiography.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
Delta County's Omo the Hobo spent his life as a traveling troubadour and wrote a book to tell about it.
After spending more than three decades on the road, the eccentric "outsider" musician penned his own story in "The Life and Times of Omo the Hobo." I met Omo after he retired to Escanaba in the late 1980s, but I was unaware of his autobiography.
Not long ago retired Escanaba Public Safety Officer Walter Deneau told me about Omo's tome and let me borrow his copy. Omo autographed the book and gave it to Deneau in 1994, along with a long-playing record album.
Featuring a black & white photo of the author on the cover, the 166-page book was self-published in 1980.
The volume may have been a birthday gift to himself as it covers the period from Omo's birth on Oct. 3, 1917 as Wellman Wiley Omohundro, to his 62nd birthday. In his book, Omo included reminiscences of his childhood, family pictures, sheet music for many of his songs and stories about his nomadic life singing and playing guitar to make a living.
Omo was born on the family homestead farm in Fayette to Brigham Iley Omohundro and his wife Geneieve Martha Jones.
The pair moved to Fayette from Missouri shortly after they were married in 1913. Omo was their third child; two others died shortly after birth.
Farm life didn't agree with the young man so he left home at 18. Omo spent the next 13 years as a hobo, doing odd jobs to get along, and even a hitch in the Army during World War II didn't last.
After the war Omo learned how to play the guitar from Bob Alexander in Grants Pass, Ore. Omo said he practiced because he wanted to sound like Gene Autry, known as The Singing Cowboy. His boss at the time laughed at him.
Later in Miami, Fla. Omo got the idea to play in bars for tips and performed for the first time on his 31st birthday.
Hunger gave an anxious Omo the courage to play to a bar crowd, not knowing what to expect. But, patrons clapped for him, he remembered. They passed a hat and Omo left with about ten bucks.
Omo started learning songs from old 78 rpm records. Early on he only knew two songs: "Little Brown Jug" and "Pretty Red Wing."
In Miami, Omo teamed up with another traveling troubadour Happy Bill Pishquer. Pishquer taught Omo more songs and they toured the country together, finally arriving in New York City. There they auditioned for Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour television program and were accepted.
Omo writes in his book that they played "Just Because" and won third prize in July, 1950. They called themselves the The Sunshine Troubadours. They got a summer job offer "and a couple of girlfriends out of it," Omo recalled.
Omo and Pishquer played in Escanaba and at Pavolot's Tavern in Manistique and stayed a few nights at the Omohundro place in Fayette.
Pishquer married soon after and Omo continued on his own. However, he became ill and decided to visit a health ranch in California. There Dr. Bernard Jensen put him on a fast to heal a medical ailment and encouraged Omo to be creative and write his own songs.
In 1958, Omo met Bob Cavanaugh in Tucson, Ariz. and they teamed up for about a year playing high schools in the area. Omo began writing his own songs in Tucson in 1960. The first original songs he composed were "I'm Broke Today" and "You Had Your Way, Now I'll Have Mine."
Sheet music for "I'm Broke Today" is included in the book, copyrighted by Smiley Joe Omohundro, the name he used at that time.
Omo returned to Miami, where he placed a classified ad looking for a female country &western singer. That's how Omo met his future wife Joan Thompson.
They left Miami to travel the country as a duo. In Nashville they played a birthday party for Little Jimmy Dickins, a C&W star known for his humorous novelty songs, earning $25. They also got to meet Ernest Tubb, nicknamed the Texas Troubadour, at the Grand Ole Opry.
Omo and Joan were married in Houston, Texas on Dec. 18, 1961 before they moved on to Los Angeles.
Eager to get some of his compositions on vinyl, Omo used $50 his father sent him to record four of his songs with a band. Omo sang "Shut That Gate," while his wife, billed as Baby Doll Omohundro, sang the others.
Country star Jerry Wallace, famous for "Primrose Lane," was in the studio advising Omo when the songs were recorded.
Omo had two other songs in the can, so they were able to press three 45s on the Accent label. His father had actually sent the money to Omo and his wife to help them return to the Upper Peninsula where the elder Omohundro wanted the two to help run his laundromat in Gladstone.
Not cut out for the laundry business, they returned to the road, with their infant son Tyrone in tow, but marital problems developed. Omo and Joan separated and later divorced.
Back in Los Angeles, Omo met a wealthy widow named Antoinette "Ann" Dewitt. He moved into her late husband's room and wrote another batch of songs. "She gave me lots of ideas for tunes and words," Omo said. "I have her to thank for helping me with writing and paying for some of my records and albums."
In early 1970, Omo met Juanita Ruby Wood at a bar in Compton, Cal. She also worked with Omo on a number of recordings and performed with him. They were married on Nov. 9, 1979.
Before he died in 1996, Omo released at least 150 singles and played in 48 states, Canada and Mexico. He also released a number of long-playing record albums, 8-tracks, cassettes, joke books and calendars.
Omo counted folk singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger among his musical idols.
"I set up many a night writing songs that I thought would make a million but haven't made me a dime so far off of them. God knows I tried. The way it is I survive from day to day playing in clubs and bars trying to make people happy," Omo wrote.
While he rambled from place to place, the narrative in Omo's book also tends to ramble. He can change the subject several times in a single paragraph, making the book difficult to read.
"I'm no writer and don't pretend to be," he wrote. Still, he tells some fascinating stories.
Omo spent over a year cobbling his book together. He paid for a small press run and sold the book for a $5 "donation." Few copies survive.
Today, Omo the Hobo's book stands as rare testimony to the adventurous life of a traveling troubadour.