The early part of the Great Depression, especially before Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, was an especially rough row to hoe, economically. Pre-New Deal America was struggling and food was scarce, jobs even scarcer. Between 1929 and 1933, the American GDP had fallen a whopping 33%. There were at least two million homeless people and the stock market hit a low in 1932, closing at 41.22, down 89.2% from its all-time high in 1929. In rural Texas, armadillos were called “Hoover hogs” as their meat often replaced pork.
Few could afford automobiles, so hopping a freight train became a popular substitute form of traveling, particularly for African Americans. “Why walk when you can hop a train?” was a common refrain in those less than blissful days. Hobo numbers ballooned (estimates ranged from two to four million) in the 1930s, along with homeless shanty towns near railroad tracks called “hobo jungles.”
These eyesores were not always operating in plain sight, however. “Hidden deep in wayside brush but well known to the experienced hoboes, these jungles were primitive shack towns made from scrap metal, wood, cardboard, and packing cases. The inhabitants of these jungles, some of whom having made the disease-ridden tips their permanent homes, would scrape together a meagre life. These encampments were also known as ‘Hoovervilles,’ after President Hoover, who was blamed for not injecting money into the poorer areas,” wrote Alan White in an essay on hoboes in earlyblues.com.
It is not surprising, then, that many blues songs were written and performed in such “jungles” because train-hopping was the major form of transportation for poor black blues players moving from one town to another. Hobo songs by Sleepy Joe Estes and John Lee Hooker became some of the best hits of those days. Take “Hobo Blues” by the latter singer, for instance:
“When I first started hoboin’, hoboin’, boy
I took a freight train to be my friend, oh Lord
You know I hobo’d, hobo’d, hobo’d, hobo’d
Hobo’d a long, long way from home, oh Lord
You know my mother she followed me that morning, me that morning, that morning
She followed me down to the yard, oh Lord
She said my son he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone
Yes, he’s gone in the world somewhere, oh Lord
You know I left my dear old mother, dear old mother, dear old mother
She was on her knees a’ crying, oh Lord
Since there was little hope of finding work in their rural areas at the time, many black (and white) workers had no choice except flee, and that meant hopping a freight train headed for the big city, usually in the north. “For them, the train was a symbol of power, of freedom and escape. This image carried on, in the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s, when the southern Blacks struggled to make a living and saw the northern cities as their saviors, where work was plentiful and a better life was to be had. As the blues developed, the railroad featured prominently in the songs, with a large number reflecting the life of the hobo; the symbolic had become reality, with northbound trains carrying innumerable black males (and a few women) leaving the south,” continued White.
Sadly, many of these nomadic travelers found city life less accommodating than they had imagined, so they were doomed to a life of riding the rails and camping out in hobo jungles where crime, starvation and death ran rampant. Many hoboes imagined death itself to be a train, thus the emergence of one of America’s great folk song classics. Wikipedia states that one version of the “Wabash Cannonball” was really a “death coach” that appeared at the passing of a hobo to carry his soul to its reward. The song was then created with the lyrics and music telling the story of the train. When the hobos learned of this train, they called her the “Wabash Cannonball” and said that every train station in America had heard her whistle.
Death trains notwithstanding, my own experience with hoboes happened in 1951 when I was five years old. We lived near a railroad track in the small town of Wellborn, Texas and freight trains would pass by on a daily basis. My mother would warn me about the danger of encountering hoboes so I was naturally scared of them. One day I saw man in tattered clothes approaching our house. I ran inside and told my mother. She responded by quickly preparing a sandwich and a glass of milk, placing them outside on the front porch and then locking us both inside. I heard the man leaving after having his lunch. “Thank you very much ma’m,” I heard him say.
I quickly realized he was not dangerous, just hungry.
John Lee Hooker sings “Hobo Blues”
“When a woman gets the blues, she goes to her room and hides, (x2)
When a man gets the blues, he catches a freight train and rides.”
Freight Train Blues, Trixie Smith