Goebel Reeves Biography

Goebel Leon Reeves, 9 October 1899, Sherman, Texas, USA, d. 26 January 1959, Long Beach, California, USA. Reeves was one of the true characters of country music, one who managed to reverse the rags-to-riches story, and from his nomadic lifestyle, he acquired the nickname of the Texas Drifter. He received his early training from his mother, a talented musician, who taught both piano and singing. His father, once a salesman, was elected to the state legislature and when the family relocated to Austin, he secured Goebel a job as a page-boy in the government buildings.

Reeves’ long association with hobos started one cold night when, as he left work wearing an expensive new overcoat given to him for Christmas, he met a hobo. He subsequently arrived home, coatless, but engrossed by tales of hobo life. He began to spend more and more time talking to any hobo that he met in the neighbourhood. His parents provided a tutor to improve his education and, although intelligent, his interests turned to the lifestyle of the hobo and to music after hearing a vaudeville artist called Al Wilson. He was impressed by Wilson’s singing and yodelling and it was probably Wilson who first taught him the yodel that he used so proficiently. He already played piano and trumpet but now turned to the guitar and began singing cowboy songs such as ‘Little Joe the Wrangler’.

In 1917, he joined the army (initially as a bugler) and saw action in Europe, where he was wounded and returned to the USA for discharge. Soon after, he left home and adopted the life of a hobo. He eked a living by singing on street corners and from that point many aspects of his life are unclear. He was known to fabricate facts - an early one being that he was born west of the Pecos and had been a hell-raising cowboy. On occasions, Reeves has been branded a liar, yet sometimes his outlandish stories were found to be true. He certainly played WFAA Dallas in the early 20s and his claim to have befriended and worked with Jimmie Rodgers was not disproved by Nolan Porterfield in his definitive book on Rodgers. He apparently even claimed to have taught Rodgers how to yodel. However, Reeves was infinitely the more accomplished exponent of the art and since their yodels are dissimilar, this may have been just one of his inventions.

Around 1921, he joined the merchant navy and spent several years in Europe, some in Italy but by the late 20s, he was back in Galvaston, Texas. Spurred by hearing a recording of Jimmie Rodgers, he sought the opportunity to record himself and made his first recordings for OKeh Records in San Antonio, on 25 June 1929. This proved to be the first of many recordings that he made into and during the 30s. He moved to New York and heeded advice not to commit himself to one label. His recordings subsequently appeared on numerous labels including Gennett, Challenge, Conqueror, Oriole, Banner and Perfect, and in the UK and Ireland on Panachord and Irish Rex. He avoided RCA - Victor Records, professing that he did not wish his recordings to clash with those of his friend Rodgers.

Reeves also used the pseudonyms George Riley, Bert Knowles (Burton Knolds), Johnny Fay, the Broadway Wrangler and his own favourite, the Texas Drifter. He wrote most of the songs that he sang; many are autobiographical, drawn from his own life as a hobo, and in 1934, he even published a book containing the words to some of them. He drifted all over America and after playing network radio in New York (billed as the Singing Bum), he gained a contract with NBC, which saw him appear on the networked Rudy Vallee show. However, his rough country songs and his singing were totally unsuited to Vallee’s more upper-class audiences and he soon quit. He played on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and did programmes on numerous Canadian and American stations. His stories (true or invented) made him a most popular entertainer, although his refusal to settle in one place for more than a few months did not endear him to promoters. He appeared at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and played the WLS National Barn Dance in that city.

He married in the mid-30s, but not surprisingly, because of his nomadic lifestyle, the marriage soon ended. Many of his later songs recounted stories of loneliness and lack of family life, again, no doubt, autobiographical. ‘The Kidnapped Baby’ recorded for Decca Records in January 1935, would seem to be his last professional recording; for some reason, it received a UK release but not a US one. The final Reeves recordings were the transcription discs that he made in 1938/9 for the Macgregor Company of California. Soon afterwards, tired of the same routines, he took a ship to Japan, where he quickly learned enough of the language to be actively employed with The Industrial Workers of the World. He returned to America before the start of World War II, but his entertaining career was basically over. He gave as his reason the fact that ‘the songs were poor and current styles were artificial and insincere’.

Becoming something of a recluse, Reeves made his home in Bell Gardens, a small Los Angeles suburb, and worked in connection with the community’s Japanese-American problems. He had lost all contact with family and friends; in fact, a sister lived within 30 miles of him for some years with neither knowing of the other’s existence. In August 1957, Fred Hoeptner (writing in the booklet accompanying a 1994 Bear Family Records album of Reeves recordings), after initial work by John Edwards (the late Australian country authority), describes finally tracking down Reeves and gaining a taped interview with him. He found the Texas Drifter, still a showman and still inclined to bend the truth when it suited his purpose. In the 50s, Reeves had suffered heart problems and he eventually died of a heart attack in the Long Beach Veterans Hospital on 26 January 1959; he was buried in the Veterans’ Cemetery five days later.

Reeves made an important contribution to country music and his style influenced many other artists. Many of his songs, especially ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ (later also popularised by Woody Guthrie) and ‘The Tramp’s Mother’, have been recorded by countless other artists while many people rate his amusing ‘Station HOBO Calling’ to be one of his best songs. Any genre of music needs characters and, in Reeves, country music had one, which is why his work is still so popular; as Hoeptner emphasizes, ‘he had the intellectual capacity to convert his experiences to recorded accounts, which were both artistically and commercially successful’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.