Sunday, October 30, 2011


Hobohemia: Riding The Rails

One of the first 'tramps' to write hobo life into history was Josiah Flynt. In the early 1890s, Flynt published articles describing tramp life abroad, at home, and on the rails. As an expert on tramp customs and habits, he later worked for the railroad companies as an informant.

To-day it is the boast of the hoboes that they can travel in every State of the Union for a mill per mile, while in a number of States they pay nothing at all. On lines where brakemen demand money of them, ten cents is usually sufficient to settle for a journey of a hundred miles, and twenty cents often secures a night's ride. They have different methods of riding, among which the favorite is to steal into an empty box-car on a freight-train. At night this is comparatively easy to do; on many roads it is possible to travel this way, undisturbed, till morning. If the train has no "empties," they must ride on top of the car, between the "bumpers," on one of the car ladders, or on the rods. On passenger-trains they ride on top, on the "blind baggage," and on the trucks.

Taking this country by and large, it is no exaggeration to say that every night in the year ten thousand free passengers of the tramp genus travel on the different railroads in the ways mentioned, and that ten thousand more are waiting at watering-tanks and in railroad yards for opportunities to get on the trains. I estimate the professional tramp population at about sixty thousand, a third of whom are generally on the move.1
Full Text

To "beat a train" was a challenge and a thrill. Where the hobo ended up riding depended on the type of train and the obstacles on it, like railroad bulls or other riders already in position.

Where To Ride

'Riding the blinds' meant to ride the front platform of the baggage car on a passenger train. Because baggage was piled up inside, thus blocking the door between cars, it was a relatively secure place to sit. However, if detected, the rider was an easy target "for water hoses or showers of coal or hot ash from the more sadistic firemen."2

An empty - or even a loaded - boxcar was also popular. Hobos were often blamed for damage they did to merchandise or to the boxcar itself. In a freezing cold car, they might light a fire, even ripping up wood from the floor. Riding a loaded car was also dangerous because the merchandise might shift and crush a man to death. Likewise, one never sat with his legs out the side of the car: if the door suddenly slammed shut, legs could be severed from the body.

how to deck a passenger trainIn the photo to the left, Jack London demonstrates how to "deck" a passenger train. Riding on top of the cars was dangerous. Not only were you at the mercy of foul weather, but a sharp curve could fling you off if you weren't properly positioned. One shouldn't ride with his back to the approaching tracks: you might be suprised by a shift in direction.

Reefers were refrigerator cars. The danger there was getting locked in. Hostile bulls were heard to lock the reefer doors from the outside, trapping trespassers inside to freeze to death. Experienced riders might carry a piece of wood to keep the door from locking shut. Some also rode the pilot or front grid.

Riding the rods was by far the most dangerous occupation and as such, was a rite of passage for a true hobo.

But to "ride the rods" requires nerve, and skill, and daring. And, by the way, there is but one rod, and it occurs on passenger coaches. Idiomatically, it becomes "rods," just as idiomatically we speak of "riding trains." .... A four-wheel truck is oblong in shape and is divided into halves by a cross-partition. What is true of one-half is true of the other half. Between this cross-partition and the axle is a small lateral rod, three to four feet in length, running parallel with both the partition and the axle. This is the rod. There is more often than not another rod, running longitudinally, the air-brake rod. These rods cross each other; but woe to the tyro who takes his seat on the brake-rod! It is not the rod, and the chance is large that the tyro's remains will worry and puzzle the county coroner.3  Jack London

riding the rods
  • link to Jack London Rods
  • to catch a train
  • davies

Clearly, beating the trains was a very dangerous occupation. Thousands were injured and killed riding the rails.

Thousands of wandering wage-earners in search of work are killed on American railroads, because society as a whole, and the railroad as a public carrier in particular, are ignorantly uninterested in the welfare of the less fortunate members of society. The number of so-called "trespassers" killed annually on American railroads exceeds the combined total of passengers and trainmen killed annually. From 1901 to 1903, inclusive, 25,000 "trespassers" were killed, and an equal number were maimed, crippled, and injured. From one-half to three-quarters of the "trespassers" according to the compilers of the figures were "vagrants," wandering, homeless wage-earners in search of work to make their existence possible.4

"A No. 1, The Famous Tramp" was the moniker of a tramp whose claim to fame was to have traveled 500,000 miles for $7.61. While Nels Anderson notes that his books were more or less sensational and that many tramps thought the incidents he related were overdrawn, "A-No. 1" nevertheless laid out some slang terms for those who had been injured while beating trains.5
  • Sticks: Train rider who lost a leg.
  • Peg: Train rider who lost a foot.
  • Fingy or Fingers: Train rider who lost one or more fingers.
  • Blinky: Train rider who lost one or both eyes.
  • Wingy: Train rider who lost one or both arms.
  • Mitts: Train rider who lost one or both hands.
  • Righty: Train rider who lost right arm and leg.
  • Lefty: Train rider who lost left arm and leg.
  • Halfy: Train rider who lost both legs below knee.
  • Straight Crip: Actually crippled or otherwise afflicted.
  • Phoney Crip: Self-mutilated or simulating a deformity.

Outsmarting the bulls and crew was another matter altogether. While some crewmen accepted money or goods as exchange for a ride, there was a strong tradition of violence against the trespassers. They might be beaten senseless by the shacks or forced to jump from the moving train. The especially brutal bull might then shoot at the hobo as he was running away, that is, if he landed running. One might also be left out in the middle of a literal nowhere, in the dark, in the cold, with nothing. At best, the tramp may just face arrest - and the work farm.

When Spring reached Chicago, it lost me.
I planned a trip to Omaha with a lad of my own age. We left the Northwestern station one night just after dark. Bill had beaten his way on mail trains before.
We waited a few hundred feet from the station, until the train was well on its way. The engine came thundering down the track at a fast rate of speed, and rolled by our hiding place with a great blowing of steam and shrieking of whistle. The engine and first coach were enveloped in white and dark clouds of smoke and steam. We felt our way through the clouds and were soon aboard the train.
My heart beat fast with the thrill of adventure. We reached De Kalb without mishap, and ran for a dark place to hide while the train stopped at the depot. When the engine steamed away, we were aboard the first blind. Another man was there ahead of us.
Great clouds of steam and smoke fell all around us. A faded yellow moon would now and then shine through the vapour. The train ran a few miles until it came to a siding. It stopped for a signal, and was slowly starting up again when the third person spoke. "You guys hold up your hands," he said, as he pointed a long, dark revolver at us.
We did as we were told, and the man hastily handcuffed our wrists together. "We'll ride nice and easy on into Clinton, 'Boes, and I'll see that you get the rock pile for a couple o' months."6


The World of Tomorrow: Introduction

The New York World's Fair of 1939 provides the last great backdrop against which one might look at the history of the hobo. Built upon the marshy grasslands of Flushing Meadows, the fair was a spectacle of futuristic design promoting a vision of yet another promised land, this one to be achieved via technology and the purchase of industry's products. If the Centennial Exposition of 1876 introduced America to the Machine, by 1939 its incorporation into American life was so complete that the design of the Fair itself and the products it promoted spoke the "language" of the machine. Huge corporations like GE and Ford exhibited visions of an ideal future - streamlined cars and clean, clear highways - for those who 'bought' in, who believed. Product consumption makes good citizens, the spectacle seemed to say, consumption will equalize and uplift citizens into this utopian tomorrow. 

All World Fairs present the best picture of the present - and in this case especially - the future. But while the hope of the Machine Age was underscored by unemployment and labor unrest, and while the dream of high culture and purity embodied in The White City was mirrored across town in the development of a subculture of impoverished, homeless men, what did The World of Tomorrow hold for the hobo? By 1939, it definitely did not hold hope. 

Already in the early 1920s, the market demand for hobo labor was diminishing. The increased mechanization of industries such farming, ice harvesting, and logging made men increasingly less necessary. Farmers had combines and other machines and needed fewer and fewer workers to help harvest their crops. The wheat belt, and much of the rest of the West, also now had a large enough permanent population or "home guard" from which to draw their labor supply. As the Great Depression would make all too clear, migrant workers known as "rubber tramps" now traveled in motor vehicles. The vision of the future built on highways and corporate farming promulgated at the Fair in New York finally spoke some truth to the hobo, not that he didn't exist, but that he was no longer necessary. 

No comments:

Post a Comment




As his 80th birthday approaches, a look at the life and legacy of the late Ray Charles.

"I just do what I do." That's what Ray Charles told Billboard in June 2002 when asked to assess his role in music history. Of course, Charles' self-effacing response belies a groundbreaking career and a legacy that endures today, as fans look toward celebrating what would have been the legendary artist's 80th birthday Sept. 23. Looking back at Charles' storied career, what comes to mind is the phrase "musical genius." In Charles' case, that's no hype.

Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity

In 1954, the artist's melding of gospel and blues yielded the pioneering hit "I've Got a Woman"-and forged an indelible imprint on R&B, rock and pop. His earthy, soulful voice graced a steady stream of classics after "Woman," including "Drown in My Own Tears," "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," "Unchain My Heart," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Georgia on My Mind."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Hit The Road Jack" in São Paulo, Brazil on September 22, 1963.

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Then I'll Be Home" in Montreux, Switzerland on July 19, 1997.

Just as at home on the Hammond B-3 organ as he was on the piano, he also landed at the top of Billboard's R&B, pop, country and jazz charts-and even the dance chart, collaborating with childhood friend Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on "I'll Be Good to You."

His final recording, 2004's "Genius Loves Company," made history when it won eight Grammy Awards, including album and record of the year for his pairing with Norah Jones on "Here We Go Again."

But what many may not know is that the inimitable Charles was also a genius when it came to the business side of music. In the early '60s he negotiated a rare feat after leaving Atlantic Records to sign with ABC-Paramount: ownership of his own master recordings. He also established his own labels. Tangerine (his favorite fruit) came first, which later evolved into CrossOver Records.

A songwriter who penned nearly 200 songs, Charles also operated his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music and Racer Music. For these entities, Charles and longtime manager Joe Adams designed and built the RPM International office and studios on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Ray Charles Memorial Library will open in the building this fall.

Charles also found time to manage the careers of other acts, including Billy Preston and '70s R&B group the Friends of Distinction. And way before it was de rigueur for artists to do, Charles set up what became a foundation to help needy children with hearing disabilities and later on support education.

He was an amazing human being," says Jones, 77, who became friends with Charles when both were scrappy teenagers in Seattle. "A true innovator who revolutionized music and the business of music," he adds. "Growing up, we only had the radio; no Michael Jackson, Diddy or Oprah. So it was hard to imagine today's entrepreneurial world. But that didn't stop us. We spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about things that brothers had never done before."

"He really was a genius," says singer Solomon Burke, a former Atlantic labelmate. "He did things the way he wanted."

Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. As many learned through actor Jamie Foxx's Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 2004 film "Ray," Charles became blind by age 7 and orphaned at 15 while growing up in northwest Florida.

In eight years at a state school for the blind, the young Charles learned how to read and write music. Leaving Florida in 1947, he headed for Seattle ("Choosing the farthest place he could find from Florida," Jones says), where he notched his first hit two years later as a member of the Maxin Trio, "Confession Blues."

Even then, Charles was an enterprising individual. "He had his own apartment, record player, two pairs of pimp shoes, and here I am still living at home," Jones recalls with a laugh. "His mother trained him not to be blind: no cane, no dogs, no cup. His scuffed-up shoes... that was his guide and driving force. He was the most independent dude I ever saw in my life. Ray would get blind only when pretty girls came around."

Signing with Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles as a West Coast jazz and blues man recorded such songs as "It Should've Been Me" and label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun's composition, "Mess Around."

Then he connected in 1954 with "I've Got a Woman," which set off a chain reaction of more hits capitalizing on his bold gospel/blues fusion. But Charles was just getting started. In 1958, he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by a band that featured such jazz cats as saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. Further bucking convention, he recorded "The Genius of Ray Charles," a 1959 release offering standards on one side (including "Come Rain or Come Shine") and big band numbers on the other, featuring members of Count Basie's orchestra and several arrangements by Jones.

Video below: Charles' 1966 Coke commercial, "So Tired."

Leaving Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a fearless Charles recorded the seminal "Genius + Soul = Jazz" album in 1961. A year later, his earlier dabbling in country music grew serious with the release of the million-selling "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."

Complemented by lush strings and a harmony-rich choir, he scored with covers of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose"-and spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

For a black man to do this in 1962 was unheard of," says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist's licensing affairs. "He was trying to sell records to people who didn't want to drink from the same water fountain as him. But this was one of his greatest creative and business moves: to not be categorized musically and cross over. Though he never worried about it, he was resigned to the fact that he might lose some core fans. But he thought he'd gain far more in the process."

Gumina was operating his own promotion company working with state lotteries when he met Charles in 1999. The two teamed up on a series of commercials for various state lotteries and also introduced a line of Ray Charles slot machines also accessible to the blind.

"Everything he did had a business acumen to it," says Gumina, who cites Charles' liaison with manager Adams as a pivotal turning point. Originally hired to be Charles' stage announcer, former radio DJ Adams segued into overseeing production of the singer's shows, lighting and wardrobe.

Together the pair designed and built Charles' L.A. business base, RPM International (Recording, Publishing and Management) studio. When he began recording there in 1965, the label rented the studio from him, so he made money on his recordings before they were even released.

To save money on travel expenses, Charles purchased an airplane to ferry his band around to gigs. A smaller plane was also acquired so that Charles could wing in to, say, New York to record a couple of songs before flying back out in time for a show.

"He understood the entertainment business enough to know that you may not be popular forever," Gumina says, "and you need to maximize your product. At the same time, he had as much fun as any rock star but without the sad money stories. There was a time to work and a time to play, and he knew the difference. He didn't have a bunch of homes or a large entourage. That's why he was able to save $50 million before he died."

Calling Charles an "incredibly smart man," Concord president John Burk says he learned a lot from the ailing singer while he was recording his final studio album, "Genius Loves Company."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "It Ain't Easy Being Green" in Trentnton, NJ on Nov. 7, 2002.

Going through "some sticky deal points, he was amazing," Burk recalls. "He had the whole agreement in his head. Without referencing any material, he knew all the terms we proposed and had the deal done for the album in two discussions."

Creatively, Burk says Charles was an artist dedicated to delivering "a true performance from the heart. Part of his creative legacy was his approach to singing. He opened the door to vocal improvisations, changing how people perceived you could sing a song. Many singers today are influenced by him and they don't even know it."

Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity


Digital art selected for the Daily Inspiration #528


About Me

My photo