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5 Questions with Hobo Clay

Chris Dorst
Sometimes there is truth in advertising. Hobo Clay Swartz has hitchhiked around the country, lived on whatever odd jobs he could find and blows a mean harmonica -- stuff you'd expect a hobo to do. Swartz and his band have become a colorful addition to the Charleston music scene in the last few years.
WANT TO GO?Hobo Clay, with Kara ClarkWHERE: The Empty Glass, 410 Elizabeth St.WHEN: 10 p.m. FridayTICKETS: $7 INFO: Call 304-345-3914 or visit www.emptyglass.com_____CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Harmonica player, vocalist and bandleader, Hobo Clay Swartz certainly looks the part. With a long white beard, tattered overalls and a straw hat, he looks like he could be on the next train to Albuquerque.Hobo Clay, who performs Friday night with his band at The Empty Glass, doesn't think that's too likely. He doesn't jump trains, and he'd prefer to stay in town. Charleston, he said, has been good to him, and he'd like to play for his supper, if you don't mind. The gazz spoke with this unusual performer, who has a growing following on the local music scene.Q: Where are you from?A: I went to grade school and middle school in Dunbar, then in high school went to Richwood, Morgantown and Doddridge schools. I moved around a lot. I stayed with my mother for a while, then my father, then my brother, and then an uncle.After high school, I was mostly in the area. I did a lot of different jobs until I went to electronics school. Then I left Charleston for Ohio, where I repaired computers for 20 years.The funny thing is I left West Virginia for Ohio to find a job, but 35 years later, I still had a reputation in Charleston as a handyman. I got a big painting job and that led to another job and then another. That was about five years ago.
So, now I don't do computer work. I get by doing odd jobs and playing music when I can.Q: When and why did you pick up the harmonica?
A: I was about 14. I used to hitchhike a lot, and a harmonica is an instrument you can carry with you. It's good company, and with the harmonica, I've sat in with different bands over the years. It's a good instrument.What's interesting to me is there are more opportunities for me to play here in Charleston than in Cincinnati. In Cincinnati, it's all cover bands, but in Charleston, if you don't have an original set, you're not competing.Q: Hitchhiking, harmonicas, the odd jobs and the beard -- is that why you're called Hobo Clay?A: It does seem to fit. I used to hitchhike. I went everywhere with it. I didn't get as far as the West Coast, but I got to New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. You can't really hitchhike any more. I tried about five years back to hitchhike and was stuck in Point Pleasant for 18 hours.I don't jump trains. That's one people ask me about. I had a couple of relatives who died trying that. I like Amtrak. That's nice, but I don't jump trains.The beard is five years old, and it won me some money. A few months ago, they had a beard contest at Mardi Gras Casino and Racetrack. I won "Best Beard in Show" and "Best Long Beard." I walked out of there with $700. 
Q: Playing music for fun and playing in clubs are two different things. How long have you been playing in public?A: About three years. I stared with the open mics. I played a lot of those. I guess I started playing on my own two years ago and then put together a band eight months ago. They're really good guys.We play kind of mix. I've got a few originals, but we do a good bit of bluegrass, rock and blues. Blues is really easy on harmonica.Q: What's on the horizon for you?A: I think we'd like to record some day. That sounds good, but I have no immediate plans and no immediate funds to make that happen. Well, I want to keep playing for money. That's pretty good. I like to entertain. Reach Bill Lynch at or 304-348-5195.
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