Published Dec. 30, 2003
“Say, any a you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wandering?”
The hoboes didn’t answer, and Ulysses Everett McGill was yanked from the boxcar when one of his fellow wanderers, running alongside, stumbled and fell.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a slapstick comedy, but it carries serious undertones and perfectly captures the detail and feel of the Great Depression, that period in the 1930s when tens of thousands were out of work.
Some 40 years later, Johnny Cash hoisted himself into a boxcar in a the railroad documentary “Ridin’ the Rails.” Men with defeat in their eyes stared unseeing at the opposite walls of the boxcar as Cash sang a song written in 1974 that describes their despair: “This boxcar’s been my home since San Antone / Cause this ankle of mine I turned while hoppin’ on / Shoots pain that feeds my dreams with luxuries / I see crystal chandeliers and burgundy. / I can feel my mother’s heartbeat from the track / It’s the rhythm of a son that won’t be back / Lord knows where my mind is takin’ me / I see crystal chandeliers and burgundy.”
Merriam-Webster says the word “hobo” entered the language in 1889. The word originally meant a migratory worker and later gained the connotation of a homeless vagabond. In the early 1900s it became a verb: to hobo was to live or travel in the manner of a hobo.
Hoboes distinguished themselves from tramps, who were people who traveled but did not work, and bums, who neither traveled nor worked. They were forced by desperate times to take to the road, traveling by boxcar from town to town, looking for work, and looking for handouts when hunger overcame shyness and pride.
Hoboes developed symbols that provided information important to fellow wanderers. A circle on a fence post meant a house was good for a handout, and a black circle indicated a cranky woman or bad dog. Handouts were in bags, a knee-shaker was a meal served to the hobo on the porch, and a sit-down was dinner in the house. Symbols gave information about towns and jails. A crisscross pattern with O on the left and K on the right indicated a clean jail. The same with N and G meant the jail food was no good. And a little bug atop the criss-cross meant the jail was unclean. A tick-tack-toe pattern with an O at the top and K at the bottom meant the streets were good for begging. Other symbols told if jails were good for a night’s stay, if a town was hostile, or if plain-clothes detectives worked the town.
The hobo’s life was often cold and lonely, with sporadic meals, and it is documented in “Riding The Rails,” a film about teenage hoboes, numbering some 250,000. Some teenagers rode the rails for adventure, but many left home because work was unavailable, and their parents could not feed them. They often slept in fields, and the memory of that loneliness was still strong 40 years later, enough so that one man broke down when trying to describe it. The life, and dreams, of the hobo were also captured in songs of the time: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains / There’s a land that’s fair and bright / Where the handouts grow on bushes / And you sleep out every night / Where the boxcars all are empty / And the sun shines every day …”
The best-known singer of hobo songs was Jimmie Rodgers, a man who experienced the hobo’s world first as a railroad brakeman and then as a wandering singer after he left the railroad. He preserved that life in songs such as “Blue Yodel #7 (Anniversary Yodel)”: “I was a stranger passing through your town / When I asked you for a favor / Good gal you turned me down. … I rode the Southern, I rode the L&N / If the police don’t get me / Ill ride them again.”
Rodgers did an uncanny imitation of a mournful train whistle in his songs, capturing the despair and heartbreak of those who rode the trains. And he sang of hope in “The Hobo’s Meditation”: “Will there be any freight trains in heaven / Any boxcars in which we might hide / Will there be any tough cops or brakemen / Will they tell us that we cannot ride / Will the hobo chum with the rich man / Will he always have money to spare / Will they have respect for a hobo / In the land that lies hidden up there.”
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