Thursday, May 25, 2006

Omo the Hobo remembered

Making his living as a musician was more than a novelty for Omo the Hobo.

A Delta County native, Omo was born Wellman W. Mohundro on October 13, 1917, just a month before the end of World War I.

He grew up on a family farm at Fayette on the Garden Peninsula and as a young man did his duty in the service of his country. His military records showed his surname as Omohundro, the additional letter creating his non de plume, Omo.

Following World War II, Omo decided to make his living as a traveling musician. Beginning in 1948 until his retirement, Omo the Hobo worked from coast to coast, with the nightclubs and bars of California and Las Vegas being his favorite destinations.

Hobos, it turns out, are embedded in American folklore. The hobo community fostered street musicians, as well as artists and writers, who enjoyed the freedom of a transient lifestyle. Probably the greatest hobo musician was Woody Guthrie, famous for "This Land Is Your Land."

For his part, Omo not only traveled extensively, but recorded prolifically. He sold 45s, record albums and tapes during his shows. He billed himself as Omo the Lobo on his 1968 release "Do You Cheat on Your Wife" and took a songwriting credit as Smiley Joe Omohundro on a 45 called "Alky-holic Is My Name."

In the late sixties, Omo issued a series of "party albums" which he sold for $4 each. Always wanting to give good value to his customers, he sold two for $6 or all four for a mere $10.

A one man band, Omo wrote and sang his many songs, accompanying himself on guitar. He was a master of both double entendre and innuendo, with much of his material for adults only.

But, wanting to appeal to everybody, Omo also produced songs for children in a multi-volume set entitled "Family Album." A 45 record aimed at young people, including "I'm Not Complaining, Just Explaining," and "Teenagers Hall," was released on the Metor label in 1973.

In a flyer, Omo described himself as a "sexy senior citizen. A funny chap who likes to make folks laugh. Not a legend in his own time, but I'm a legend in my own mind."

Omo played five to 15 minute sets during "band breaks, clam bakes, honeymoons, clubs and saloons. You name it and I play it. I sing and tell jokes to the folks and after that I pass the hat. If I don't make a dime, it won't b d (sic) first time." Thus, he earned his living playing songs with titles such as "I'm Just a Hick From the Sticks," and "Vitamin Juice Puts Lead in My Snoot."

By the late eighties, the traveling troubadour returned to Escanaba and resided at 1411 3rd Ave South. Although he was retired at this point, performing was still in Omo's blood.

Clad in western wear and carrying his acoustic guitar, Omo made the rounds in Escanaba. He appeared at the Record Rack on various occasions performing inside and outside the store. He also entertained folks at the Delta Plaza shopping center. Omo and I had several engaging conversations during which he related stories about his childhood and life on the road.

His song "I'm a Police Officer," has been featured on several national radio programs which spotlight novelty recordings. Dr. Demento played the song in 1999, while Irwin Chusid and Michele Boule aired it on their program "Incorrect Music" two years later. They broadcast Omo's "Hey, Fireman," as well.

Omo also received a brief mention in Chusid's book about non-mainstream music, "Songs in the Key of Z."

In addition, Omo's records have changed hands on EBay, the giant Internet auction house.

Omo died in 1996 at the D. J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette and he's buried in the family plot at the Garden cemetery. While Omo's hobo travels have ended, his recordings live on as collector's items and he remains a memorable character.


CedarElkWoman said...

You sure know how to spin a tale, Steve. What a fascinating mix of history, character, music lore, and UP-er lore!!!! I am guessing by his name that Omo was Chicano - perhaps a lone farm worker escaped from the farm? Anyway, keep on writin'!!!! J from da UP (Cedar Elk, an Original Native)

Anonymous said...

Omo was not Chicano, he was an old white guy. He used to show up now and again in the bars in Orange county Calif back in the 80's. He was great!!! Most of the songs he would sing were kind of risque....who am I kidding, they were downright dirty. Always a good time when he would show up. He would play a few songs, collect some cash and be on his way.

Particle Waves said...

Omo the Hobo used to show up at Whiskey Creek, in Phoenix, Arizona, during 1984-1985. My mom owned the place, and though I was never there when he showed up, she knew I loved his records. I must have had heaps of EP's, calendars and other promotional materials. He just gave them away. My favorite song is "Smile." I'm glad he's getting some attention.