On Hoboes

February 7, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

I found this book, What’s the Use of Walking if There’s a Freight Train Going Your Way? : Black Hoboes and Their Songs by Paul Garon and Gene Tomko. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I thought this chapter was pretty interesting. I like finding books about marginalized cultures–especially when the history of such a community as this is, I suspect, largely oral and thus easily lost. I heard a similar story about tap dancing–that it was a vaudvillian tradition, one passed down and learned through informal apprenticeships. Tap lost popular appeal in the sixties and those who could teach tap were getting old. From what I understand it was Savion Glover who repopularized it and brought it into academic situations. You can read a little bit about that here. In any case: The asterixes denote stanza breaks and are not in the original text.

Sleepy John Estes: Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues)

April 22, 1938, New York City. Decca 7491.

Now, when I left ol’ Ripley, the weather was kinda cool,

Now, when I left ol’ Ripley, the weather was kinda cool,

Said, “Boy y’all be careful–probably you might catch the ‘flu.”


Now, I swung that manifest, I went down in the freight rail box,

Now, I hung that manifest, I went down in freight box,

Now, I could(n’t?) hear the special agent when he come tippin’ over the top.


Now, them special agents up the country, sure is hard on a man,

Now, them special agents up the country, they sure is hard on a man,

Now, they will put him off when he hungry and won’t even let him ride not train.


Now, I was sittin’ out in Centralia and I sure was feelin’ bad,

Now, I was sittin’ out in Centralia and I sure was feelin’ bad,

Now, they wouldn’t let me ride no fast train, they put me off on a doggone drag.


Now, special agent, put me off close to some town,

Special agent, special agent, put me off close to some town,

Now, I got to do some recordin’ and I ought to be recordin’ right now.


It is verse two that is a puzzle. With knowledge that at least one hobo referred to his battery box experience thusly, “I had a lot of trouble gettin’ in the box without somebody seein’ me,” we can now hypothesize a coherence to Estes’s line: “I swung that manifest, went down in freight rail box,” could refer to hiding in the battery box. One would not be able to hear anything of a special agent from inside a battery box with the noise of the wheels on the tracks so close to one’s ear.

Estes had experience hiding from the railroad police, and one of these incidents was rather chilling. He would hobo with his friend, guitarist/mandolinist Yank Rachell, sometime boarding a freight via a flat car and traveling to places like Paducah, Kentucky, from their Tennessee base. Once they were accidentally locked in a boxcar and stayed on a rail siding for a day before the car was picked up again. They became more cautious riders after that experience. Their diet often consisted of candy, soda crackers and large quantities of water. Life on the road–and away from doctors and hospitals–could easily turn a minor injury into a major disaster. One homeless man lost his arm because he failed to seek treatment for an injured thumb. Another hobo was permanently crippled when both of his feet froze after he was accidentally locked in a boxcar for two days.

Riding four or five miles on a freight train between one Delta town and another was an easy proposition. Heading north on the mainline Illinois Central was a different matter, and the special agents were more plentiful, rougher and kept a closer eye on the cars. The Gwin yards near Tchula could be especially dangerous with railroad police in abundance. They even had a plantation right near the train yard, and hoboes taken off the train were put to work immediately. Honeyboy had left Greenwood on an IC train to Memphis when he was around 16. On the way home, he and six other boys were taken off a freight in Glendora by two white men wearing khacki suits and big guns. A plantation judge gave them each two months.

Like most hoboes, Curtis Jones had frequent run-ins with the police. He was jailed for boot-legging in Dallas and served forty-seven days in jail. On his release, he was ordered to leave town, so he caught a freight to Wichita. He traveled through Kansas, playing at numerous clubs, finally ending up in Kansas City. Ultimately, he headed west into Wyoming and Nevada. There were tiny enclaves of blacks in these states, and his talents were warmly welcomed. At one point, he decided to return to Dallas. He caught a freight into Texas, but when he reached Dallas, he was disappointed to find the authorities remembered him, and he was sent packing. Again he rode the freight trains into Shreveport where he played the local clubs, eventually ending up in Baton Rouge. He played for sugar cane workers there, but he made the mistake of getting into a dice game with them, and he was piked up by the police. He was given 25 lashes with a whip and sent on his way, this time by freight into New Orleans. He settled in New Orleans for a few years, with his wife, eventually moving to Chicago in 1936, and by 1937 his recording career began.

Edwin Buster Pickens hoped to make records, just like Black Boy Shine and other Texas piano artists,

so we thought we’d try. So we got on this freight–ran into the freight yard at night–round about eleven, not thinkin’ the train was already made up and everything ’cause the engine hadn’t come down. So we got onto a gondola car to sleep, take a li’l nap. Well they found us sleepin’ there, and we couldn’t get out of the yard. And so we got arrested that night, got ten days in jail. And so we never did get to make no recordin’s.

Singers often remember the police in their railroad songs.


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