A lot of the beggars I’ve come across stateside are either crusties punks or New Age travelers. I met quite a few of these train-hopping kids while busking on Cary Street in Richmond. A good deal of them come from white middle-class suburban families. Most of them end up on the road out of a sort of rebellion against consumerist culture. About half of the kids I’ve met in Richmond have been buskers playing old-timey music. A lot of them are big into dumpster diving and most of the ones who don’t play music are just straight-up panhandlers.
When I was younger, while still in high school, I used to get my mom riled by telling her I saw more hope in a bunch of punks than I ever did in any church youth groups, ’cause at least the punks knew something was wrong with society. If not for the excellent liberal arts education I received in college I imagine that there’s a good chance I’d have fallen into such a lifestyle myself. Growing up I was under the impression that the extent of American Culture was McDonald’s, pop music, and television. It was hardly surprising to me that young people would dress up in ripped jeans and torn T-shirts and flail about to screeching guitars and pounding drums; if McDonald’s, Coca Cola and MTV is the only culture bequeathed you by your forebearers, well then screw it. And of course the rest of the world was far more intruiging and interesting; at least they had a real culture with real art and real music. All we had in America was a bunch of fakes cashing in. It was only in my freshman year of college that I began to rediscover the vibrant American culture that consumerism and liberalism had obfuscated.
In the first semester of my freshman year I read the southern agrarians, mainly Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, as well as all of the essays from “I‘ll Take my Stand.” Their defence of traditional Southern culture as well as their pointed criticism of Modernism was something I had never encountered before. Around the same time I was also reading quite a bit about Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for a literary criticism class. Needless to say, the two views provided a stark counterpoint to each other. All of this coincided with my rediscovery of country, bluegrass, Irish-trad, and old-timey music. Over the next four years, as I meandered through the great works of Western Civilization, I discovered the thread which connected me to all the generations who had come before. It was through this discovery that I began to realize the significance of my own life within a living tradition.
A lot of the kids I’ve met out on the street aren’t too much different than myself back when I was seventeen. They realize that there is something wrong with how our society is ordered but they don’t know what. A lot of them buy into some kind of “ism” and begin proselytizing like its the end of the world. Others just say screw it and drop out of society.
Ironically, a lot of these homeless traveler kids are discovering something of an older America. A good deal of the kids I’ve met are more into traditional old timey music than punk or hard core. One reason, I suppose, is that its easier to jump a train with a mandolin than an electric guitar. Another is the fact that old timey music is one of the most uncommercial genres you’re going to find. When one is running away from a world of fakes authenticity is paramount and most of the time the commercially unviable is authentic. Unfortunately, all they see is the fruit of a healthier society without recognizing the tree from which it sprung.