Tramps and Hobos: A Path to a New Freedom

Most people hear the term “tramp” or “hobo” and immediately think back to the olden days. The names, for most, are not positive; however, “tramps” and “hobos” have a different meaning for Czechs. 

For Czechs and Slovaks, there has been a long history of “tramping,” as a phenomenon, inspired by the American “Wild West.” Tramping began in the early twentieth century, around 1918 when individuals would leave their homes and the city to venture into the forests and mountains in hopes of finding freedom and happiness. 

A Century of Tramping at Prague’s Ethnographic Museum of the National Museum takes a more in-depth look into the lifestyle of Czech tramps and hobos. 

Tramping is a combination of scouting, hiking, backpacking, and touring through nature, and the movement has attracted many thousands over the years. It became a subculture for Czechs, from the 1930s through the 1980s when the pastime grew to an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 tramps. The movement was so significant, that settlements were established for tramps to camp out in sites with American names, such as the Hudson, Little Bighorn, and Swanee camps. Over the years, they created a new form of folk art with woodwork including totem poles, and flag posts.  

The exhibition is relatively small, beginning with a 15-minute documentary from the 1960s showing teen-age tramps in nature, and it has English subtitles. The film has interviews, clips of bonfires, and friends singing which provides a better understanding of what the tramping lifestyle looked like decades ago.  

Throughout the rest of the exhibit there are displays of tramping memorabilia including photographs, hand-made wooden signs and clothing, and patches and flags representing the tramping groups. There is a life-size model of a camp site set up with wooden benches, a small wooden lodge with shelving and a bed, a handmade canoe and a totem pole. There are also original USA army circa WWI backpacks, tramping posters, personal journals, song lyrics, personal stories, and instruments (especially acoustic guitars). 

Music is key to the tramps as songs are sung beside the campfire nightly or while setting up camp or hiking and these songs steadily expanded into its own category of music. Tramping songs transformed in the 1960s when Czech folk singers combined traditional tramping songs with a twist of American country music, such as in the tramping anthem by Wabi Ryvola, “Zvlastni Znameni Touha” (“Desire as a Special Sign”).

When tramping was at its peak, under Communism, many tramps and hobos were persecuted by the government. Under the Nazi occupation and Communist rule tramping was considered wrong and reckless. Unsurprisingly, tramping did not cease, instead many rebelled and continued to pursue their beloved pastime in the wilderness. Contrary to public belief, tramps were organized and respectful to nature. Each group had leaders (called “sheriffs”) who would guide the group and keep them from making too much noise or being disrespectful to nature. 

Although the popularity for tramping has faded out, the pastime remains popular for some young Czechs today. As long as tramps conduct themselves in a respectful manner camping in the Czech Republic’s forests is legal. Tramping is a way for many to feel free, close to nature, find peace, make friends, and enjoy a simpler life. 

A Century of Tramping captures the bliss of the Czech outdoors and the pure fun and unity one can discover while singing campfire songs with friends under the stars; it’s no wonder the pastime has been a favorite for a hundred years.

A Century of Tramping at Prague’s Ethnographic Museum of the National Museum is open from 10 am to 6 pm every day except Monday until March 31, 2020.

For more information see the website: https://www.nm.cz/historicke-muzeum/stoleti-trampingu



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