Go to Sleep, You Weary Hobo: Richard “Kinky” Friedman, 1944-2024 (2024)

A good joke bears repeating, especially one told by Kinky Friedman – novelist, humorist, country singer-songwriter, Texas gubernatorial candidate, UT Austin Plan II student and Hartman family friend.

I was just 10 years old when I was on the business end of one of these jokes, one of my first memories of the man who was an old college friend of my late father and an institution of his own, especially at Echo Hill Ranch, the summer camp his family ran for more than 60 years and where I spent the best summers of my childhood.

It was Labor Day Weekend in 1989 and my brother had just spent his first session at Echo Hill, where my father Lee Hartman had been a counselor in the 60s. I recall the three-day weekend was a way for me to get acquainted with the ranch so I wouldn’t be too scared to go the next summer. It was also a great opportunity for my dad to spend a holiday weekend goofing off with a beloved – if distant – old friend at a place he cherished from his youth.

Kinky slept up in the lodge but my dad and I stayed in the white trailer, the double wide with A/C and the dumper board that Kinky’s kid sister Marcie would live in all the summers I was at camp.

Before turning in the first night, Kinky told me “now Ben, I don’t know if you noticed when you drove in but the Bandera home for the mentally disturbed is right down the street on Highway 16. At night, the patients often get out and go roaming around so you’ll probably see some peeking in the window or knocking around outside. Just ignore it, they won’t do any harm.”

I didn’t sleep much that night but the next day was one to remember – I was tasked with feeding and helping saddle a horse named Goliath and I got to head out to the trash dump to watch my dad and Kinky do target practice with a shotgun and some .22s.

At Echo Hill, Kinky was part of the bedrock of our summers. There is no Echo Hill in my recollection without Kinky coming down from the lodge in a Hawaiian shirt on Talent Night or Hoedown to play “Ol Ben Lucas (had a lotta mucus)”, “Old Shep,” or the greatest of them all – his slowed-down version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”

There was the sight and smell of Kinky sitting on the couch in the lodge smoking a cigar when you came in to get the guns for the riflery range, or shirtless walking down the flat, a convoy of dogs and cigar smoke trailing behind. He was also there in the sensibility and sense of humor of the offbeat, off-color, strange, and wonderful little green valley that played such an outsized role in who and what so many of us came to be.

But I think the place shaped him just as much, and I’m not sure you can become Kinky Friedman without being an Echo Hill guy.

  • “When Coffee With a Friend Was Still a Dime”

Kinky and my dad were friends and brothers in the Jewish frat Tau Delta Phi at the University of Texas in the early 60s. Somehow, alongside Kinky there was a slew of musicians in the frat, guys like New Orleans Jazz musician and former Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys member Kenny “Snakebite” Jacobs, Nathan “Chinga” Chavin of “Country p*rn” album (Penthouse Records) fame, Shawn Siegel from psychedelic rock band Shiva’s Headband, and billionaire entertainment mogul David Geffen, who my dad – as he told it – tried and failed to talk out of dropping out of school to go into music.

The stories my father told me about his college friends were a big part of my childhood and how I came to see my father and my place in this world. Since my dad died in 2014, every time another one of those old friends has passed away – guys like David Horwitz, Marvin Brener, and now Kinky, I feel like another little bit of my dad is gone forever, and the generation of guys he was part of at UT in the early 60s slips further from the Earth.

When I was younger it was always a bit strange to hear that Kinky was famous elsewhere, and not just to Echo Hill kids or the Jews of Texas.

On my first night in Israel in 2002, a guy in my study program from New York started singing “They Aint Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” asked if I’d ever heard of Kinky Friedman, and told me the song was an anthem for his friends in Brooklyn in the 70s.

Several years later in Israel, I met a guy from the northeast who was a big fan of Kinky’s. Once he shipped to me in Tel Aviv a signed (“To Dave – From One Great Jew to Another!”) copy of Kinky’s book “Heroes of a Texas Childhood.”

The book – featuring art by Copper Love of blessed memory – contains individual chapters about different heroes of Kinky’s, including legends like Quanah Parker, Sam Rayburn, J. Frank Dobie, Audie Murphy, Molly Ivins, and Ann Richards. Without opening the book I was able to guess a handful of the names because my dad would have made a very similar list but also, all three of us went to Echo Hill.

When I was a teenager there were glimmers of wider fame, like in 1995 when we set up the VCR to record Kinky on the John Larroquette show playing himself (in jail, maybe?), or the time he was on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. I only recall that he sat silent on the stage most of the episode except for one joke he told: “what did Jesus say to the Mexicans? Don’t do anything till I get back” to which Bill Maher replied “now THAT’S politically incorrect.”

A few years later there was the back page Texas Monthly column, the gubernatorial bid, and the second (or third or fourth) act as a beloved American humorist and would-be politician.

Kinky is often thought of in terms of his ribald sense of humor, his one-liners, and his being the antithesis of “politically correct” decades before cancel culture became a thing. But he was also one of the greatest American songwriters that ever lived.

He has a catalog like no other: “Ride Em Jewboy” – surely the greatest and maybe only country song ever written about the Holocaust. “Rapid City, South Dakota,” a tearful pro-choice country song (when asked, Kinky said “I’m not right to life, I’m not pro-choice, I’m pro football’), the mournful “Silver Eagle Express,” the timeless “Sold American,” “The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” (“there was a rumor about a tumor”), and “The Wild Man from Borneo,” with the heartbreaking line, “we come to see what we want to see, Oh, we come to see, but we never come to know.”

He also did great covers, not just The Ballad of Ira Hayes but also his rendition of Goebel Reeve’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” (“go to sleep, you weary hobo”) which he performed at his father’s funeral more than two decades ago.

One thing I learned from Kinky is that it’s great to get a laugh, but if as a writer you can reach down and touch someone’s heart, there’s a good chance they’ll never forget what you wrote.

I often think of The Navigator, the Texas Monthly column Kinky wrote for his father, WWII hero and Echo Hill founder and rebbe Tom Friedman, and the eulogy he wrote for his beloved cat Cuddles, with the closing line “They say when you die and go to heaven all the dogs and cats you’ve ever had in your life come running to meet you. Until that day, rest in peace, Cuddles.”

My dad read that piece and told me, “you know Kinky is a real sweetheart.”

That’s something that always rang true with me about him. If you waded through all the bluster and the X-rated jokes, steeping in all that piss and vinegar you’d find a heart as big as Texas.

  • “The Rusty Lifelines to the Past”

After my dad died in August 2014, I paid a visit to Echo Hill with my dear friend Gil Shefler who flew down from NY to pay his respects to my dad. In the lodge, we talked about Robin Williams’ suicide, Kinky’s fondness for frozen White Castle burgers, and I don’t remember what else. But I do recall telling Kinky that I wanted to get a pelocypod fossil to place on my dad’s grave but Pelocypod Canyon at Echo Hill was picked clean. Later that night or the next day, I got a call at my dad’s house.

“Ben, it’s Kinky. I was out on a walk after you left and I found a pelocypod, I’ll save it for you at the lodge.”

The last time we spoke was during a visit in 2017 with my best friend Noah Abdenour, who I met at Echo Hill. I was on a journey meeting up with old friends of my dad’s from the fraternity to interview them and piece together a picture of my dad as a young man, decades before he was a father. Kinky was the third one I’d met with and he spent most of the day complaining about the biography he was writing about Bob Dylan with a childhood friend of Bobby Zimmerman. I asked him what he remembered about my dad as a young man and he seemed at a loss for words. Later, on the way to a Tex-Mex restaurant in Kerrville he told me “Ben, I think if you want to know who your father was, just look inside yourself. That’s probably where you’ll find him.”

He was right of course, but I think if I looked inside of myself I’d also find a spot somewhere in there for Kinky, and that’s something I think most of us kids from Echo Hill can say.

He’s gone but most of us are still here. And on a hot summer evening, in the crepuscular hours before nightfall, I’ll send a salute skyward to the great Kinky Friedman, a hero of my Texas childhood.

Go to Sleep, You Weary Hobo: Richard “Kinky” Friedman, 1944-2024 (2024)
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