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Wayfaring Strangers

February 16, 2012 by Reader's Connection

This in from Central Library´s Tom Probasco:

You Can’t WinA guy I know who works at the library is forced by the nature of his job to be on the lookout for patrons not conforming to the library´s code of conduct.  But a while back, it was a book on a display shelf on the 6th floor of the Central Library that caught his eye as he made his rounds, and he felt compelled to read it.  Later he told me about it.  You Can’t Win is an autobiography by Jack Black, not his real name.

It’s a remarkable story, about a man who lived a life of crime in the first quarter of the twentieth century.  And he eventually revealed a gift for putting it on paper in a style eventually admired by Beat writer William S. Burroughs.  But Black‘s portrayal is an honest one, and there is no effort whatever to glamorize his years of stealing and drifting as a way of life.  But again, it was a remarkable life.  A valuable story.  The last sentence in a New York Times Book Review piece dated November 7, 1926:  “Such is the irony of human affairs—Jack Black’s book is worth more than the bequests of twenty dull and respectable citizens who never even violated a traffic ordinance.”

Wayfaring StrangerWhen the aforementioned guy I know asked me if I knew of other books like Black’s, I came up with Wayfaring Stranger, by Burl Ives.  Though Black and Ives shared few similarities, really (Ives became an actor, a writer, and a folk singer), they both spent time riding the rails in North America without a ticket in the company of other such travelers a couple generations ago.  During a lecture on Beowulf in his junior year of college, a map of the U.S. on the classroom wall began to invoke an irresistible call of a world beyond what he’d known, and Ives just stood up and left.  “I went to my room and packed a change of clothes, got my banjo, and started walking down the road.”  November 7th again, but in 1948, a New York Times Book Review writer wrote of Wayfaring Stranger, “This is the story of the making of a ballad singer, an account of the struggle of the folk spirit to speak its piece.”


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