Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Can't you hear the steel rails hummin'
That's the hobo's lullaby
Let’s start out by defining what a hobo is and what it is not. First of all a hobo is (was?) a person who travelled in order to find work. I’d liken them to today’s migrant workers who mostly do farm work but rather than ride in cars or busses, hobos used the rails to move around the country. Hobos also differ from “tramps” that moved around the country with the sole purpose of not seeking employment. They also differ from “bums” who neither travelled or worked but remained in the same place looking for handouts in order to get by.
I know your clothes are torn and ragged
And your hair is turning gray
Lift your head and smile at trouble
You'll find peace and rest someday
Now for a little hobo history lesson. Nobody is quite sure when they arrived on the scene but it certainly coincided with the growth of the railroads after the end of the American Civil War. Perhaps it was the large number of veterans who were recently discharged and returned home to find their way of life had vanished. They arrived only to see their houses razed and their fields ruined and rather than rebuild took to the open road and began hopping freight trains and moved from town to town in order to find work. By the time 1911 rolled around, estimates are that nearly 700,000 people had decided to take up the hobo way of life.
Now don't you worry 'bout tomorrow
Let tomorrow come and go
Tonight you're in a nice warm boxcar
Safe from all that wind and snow
By the time the 1930’s rolled around a little event known as the Great Depression swept through the country. The unemployment rate swelled from 3.2% in 1929 to approximately 25% in 1933. More and more people lost their jobs and homes and decided to hit the road in order to find precious work to feed themselves and their families. What few possession they had such as clothes and bedding they toted around in a simple bindle tucked over their shoulders.
I know the police cause you trouble
They cause trouble everywhere
But when you die and go to Heaven
You'll find no policemen there
Life on the road wasn’t easy for hobos. Besides dealing with little or no money, food or housing they often became targets of scorn from the railroads security guards whose methods of dealing with them often turned to violence. They didn’t fare much better with the local authorities either. Many of them found themselves tossed behind bars for vagrancy and when they were released given a one way ticket out of whatever town they were in.
In order to pass on messages about a given town or house and what their policies were to hobos they developed what is known as the “hobo code”. These were visual indicators that were drawn in chalk or coal that gave notice to their fellow road warriors could expect to find in any given location. Here’s a few of the more popular ones that were making the rounds back in the day.
- If one was to see a cross drawn on a church that meant that food would be served to hobos after a mass or sermon was over.
- If they saw a triangle with hands drawn in the middle of it that meant watch out, the homeowner has a gun.
- A horizontal zigzag pattern meant that a dog was on the premises.
- If they saw a top hat drawn in the middle of a triangle, that meant that the homeowner was wealthy.
- A spearhead indicated that you better get ready to defend yourself.
- Two interlocked circles meant that you’d be thrown in handcuffs and hauled off to jail.
- If a cat was drawn on a house, it meant a kind lady lives there.
- A wavy line meant fresh water and a place to camp.
- A circle with two arrows in it meant get the hell out of Dodge, hobos are not welcome there.
- A caduceus symbol meant that there was a doctor in the house.
- Two shovels meant that there was work available.
For a more complete listing of hobo signs, may I suggest clicking on over to here. It’s much more comprehensive and also depicts the crude drawings along with definitions of what they mean. If you ask me, it’s pretty fascinating stuff.
In addition to signs, hobos also had their own varying code of ethics. The following one was agreed upon at the 1889 National Hobo Convention held in St. Louis, Missouri.
- Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you.
- When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
- Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
- Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
- When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
- Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals' treatment of other hobos.
- When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.
- Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
- If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
- Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
- When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
- Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
- Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
- Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
- Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
- If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!
So go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Listen to the steel rails hummin'
That's a hobo's lullaby
I don’t know how prevalent hobos are in today’s world. I’m sure with the various safety nets and social programs put in place to help those down on their luck their numbers have been reduced over time. I do know that since 1934, the National Hobo Convention has been held in the town of Britt, Iowa during the second week in August. According to the 2010 census, the population of the town itself is a little over 2,000 people.
I couldn’t find any numbers to indicate how many actual hobos attend.
Somehow, that seems fitting.
Words and music to “Hobos Lullaby” by Goebel Reeves and recorded by the one and only Woody Guthrie.
That too seems very fitting.