NATHAN AND TERESA have no permanent residence, no mailing address. Their sleeping locations vary night to night. They are, no doubt, house-less.
But Nathan, a lanky man with long dreadlocks, a worn face and dirt-stained hands, and Teresa, a tattoo-covered woman with huge ear gauges who had not showered in days, reject the H-word that society often uses to describe people like them.
“We’re not homeless,” Nathan told me, extending his arms toward a collection of instruments that include a banjo, ukulele and fiddle—and a dusty checkered blanket on the sidewalk where their dog, Apollo, sleeps in peace. “This is my home right here.”
Nathan and Teresa are traveling musicians of the type sometimes referred to as pickers, ramblers, or buskers. They travel North America carrying everything they own, hitchhiking from place to place or hopping freight trains to cover longer distances. They’re always searching for a new spot or street corner to play their music, collecting enough cash in tips to buy food and whiskey for the night.
Their lifestyle is a throwback to folk legends such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who traveled the backroads of America playing music in the 1940s and 50’s. It’s a lifestyle that was not accepted by society then, and is not accepted now.
I met the duo on a spring Friday evening in Carytown, a busy stretch of shops and restaurants, on their third and final night in Richmond. They’d spent the winter, they said, traveling around Georgia and Florida, and were on their way west. By the time I arrived, the two had played for much of the day, and were pleased to chat with anyone passing by on the sidewalk. Most people hurried past, reluctant to stop and talk.
“What’s going on, brother?” Nathan would ask men walking down the street. Few responded. “Hey, are you from around here?” he’d ask couples, who looked like Richmonders to me but often said they were not from the area.
Still, enough people stop, listen, and toss a few dollars into Nathan’s open guitar case that they rarely go hungry or go a day without a drink. In fact, Nathan and Teresa are picky eaters.
“I never eat McDonalds, even if someone gives it to me,” said Nathan, who said he never lets such food go to waste, but passes it along to others in need.
The two musicians instead try to eat from local, organic businesses, or create meals straight from nature—a skill they’ve developed from spending many days and nights in forests, camping out between gigs.
The duo, Nathan said, had found a ride to Washington D.C., about 90 miles north of Richmond, where they planned to head west toward the Appalachian Mountains, an area where they feel most at home. Mountain people, Nathan said, were simply more friendly and welcoming than people in cities—they accepted Nathan and Teresa for who they were and what they did.
Richmond had been “a fine town with nice people,” said Teresa, who was visiting for the first time. In the mountains, however, store owners do not refuse to serve them and police officers rarely harass them, something Nathan said they frequently experienced in cities. They seemed excited about the next leg of their endless journey.
Nathan played me “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” a traditional song popularized by the folk singer Lead Belly in the 1930s. Nathan’s version included new lyrics referencing America’s long history with slavery—fitting, I thought, as he was singing in the former capital of the Confederacy.
By Jack Nicholson