Well known hobo Travelin’ Jack Steinway died last night in Arizona. He was 76.
Although not traditionally the glitziest profession, Jack was truly one of the leading lights of vagrancy throughout his long career. Perhaps he is best known for his unusual choice of instrument. Whilst many favour the harmonica or occasionally the guitar, Jack was known to travel most of his life with an elegant Grand Piano on his back, which at times led to much playful ribbing on the part of his contemporaries.
Born in Tennessee to his own parents, Steinway and his family were often forced to, in his own words, “bend over backwards to make ends meet.” Whether this referred to literally making their feet touch their heads like a human donut, or to a more metaphorical monetary goal was never made clear, but one thing was certain: Bending over backwards was a poor way to earn a living. Jack and his family would often stand on street corners for hours, flexing and contorting for all they were worth, only to walk away with a few meagre pennies from disinterested passers by.
At the age of fourteen, increasingly disillusioned by the family trade (few people, if any, wanted to trade families with the failed junior contortionist), Jack struck out on his own and took a job as a bar tender in a strip club. Due to his wandering eyes and resultant shaky hands, Jack was soon fired due to spilling more alcohol than he poured, but not before he learned rudimentary piano from the jazz pianist who often accompanied the acts, “Keys” Lockwell.
Unfortunately, bad luck seemed to follow Steinway around, and as a result of a largely semi-literate public, Lockwell himself was soon fired from his post as people were uncomfortable with the sound of a strip club that offered “girls with a pianist.”
Down on their luck, Lockwell and Steinway made a daring midnight raid on the club and came away with a piano and some rather fetching feathered boas, a species of snake now long extinct.
Having sold the boas to the local zoo, Jack and Keys decided to ride the rails to California in the hopes of better luck. As the junior member of the duo, Jack was given the job of carrying the concert grand piano that they had stolen the previous night. He would later recall, with his astute sense of description, that it was “god-damned heavy.”
However, carrying the piano had an unexpected bonus; having spent years walking at an un-naturally reclined angle due to his mis-spent childhood, stooping under three tons of excess weight soon resulted in a miraculous posture correction.
By the time they reached California, Steinway was well on his way to becoming an accomplished pianist, but Lockwell had loftier ambitions and tempers began to fray. After an altercation over a woman, the two parted ways, vowing never to speak again. Lockwell apparently committed suicide that night by dropping a piano on himself, although police were always suspicious of this explanation and many questions were left unanswered.
Without the guiding influence of Lockwell, Jack soon went off the rails. Also, “Keys” Lockwell had possessed far greater financial acumen than Steinway, who was at once foolish with money and also phenomenally unlucky. On August 5th, 1945, he invested the few savings he had mustered in a fledgling Japanese electronics company based in Hiroshima. A shrewd move, but one which backfired spectacularly with the bombing of the city into atomic dust the day afterwards.
Finally deciding that he had been happiest when riding the rails, Steinway set off on a permanent career in hoboism. Despite the urgings of his contemporaries, he point-blank refused to learn a more portable instrument and obstinately carried his piano around the American South West well into his advanced years.
Indeed, the legend of Travelin’ Jack Steinway was always just big enough that he could show up in a town and trade off of it in order to bum a drink, or a smoke, or, on several occasions, a complete spine transplant to replace his ludicrously compacted vertebrae.
Still, age and injury could not crush his spirit. When Hobo Monthly caught up with him last year, his trademarked wit was on show for all to see as he curtly remarked “What the f*ck do you want?!” before beating our reporter soundly about the head and neck with a bottle of Jack Daniels.
With his passing, the great American road loses one of it’s most colourful figures. Long may he be remembered.
Edit: Antique grand piano for sale. Well worn. Offers welcome.