by Sven Triloqvist
Sun May 3rd, 2009 at 05:49:55 AM EST
A revival of interest in trains in the US got me thinking about hoboes - homeless migrants who ride freight trains. The Great Depression saw a huge rise in the numbers of hoboes, and there are some famous names among them: Burl Ives, Robert Mitchum, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Guthrie, Eugene O'Neil, George Orwell etc. All of them piggy-backing on the system.
Hoboes were probably the first nationwide desegregated community.
Bruce Springsteen's version puts new life into the old song that pits man against machine.
The hobo life inspired many great songs. One of the best known is Wabash Cannonball which I first learned during the Skiffle era, along with `Grand Coulee Dam' for which Woody Guthrie used the same tune. My early youth was filled with singing about trains: Rock Island Line, Wreck of the Old 97, Casey Jones, John Henry, Railroad Bill, Freight train, Midnight Special etc. Becoming a London Road trainspotter did not have as much glamour as the mythical world of the railroad, but it smelt real and was excitingly noisy.
There are endless variations on the Wabash Cannonball lyrics:
From the great Atlantic Ocean to the wide Pacific shore
From sunny California to icy Labrador,
She's mighty tall and handsome and she's quite well known by all
She's the hobo `ccommodation called the Wabash Cannonball
Listen to the jingle, to the rumble and the roar
As she glides along the woodland, through the hills and by the shore
Hear the mighty rush of engines, hear the lonesome hobo's call
Travelling through the jungle on the Wabash Cannonball.
BTW The `jungle' is a hobo encampment.
Boxcar Willie's version, with some trains for DoDo.
The Wabash is a north-running river in Indiana. But the Wabash Cannonball is not a particular train, but a symbol of all `freight-hopping' - a description of a system. A `cannonball' is a fast train in hobo slang - some of which has passed into popular language: `glad rags', `main drag', `flop', `moniker', `punk' etc. Hoboes also used
signs, written in chalk for instance, near a house to tell other hoboes about the occupants.
Trains are good. They need to be re-romanticized, sexed up - to capture the imagination once more. Along with neutering cars.
The Wabash Cannonball stands for high speed trains that also carry the poorest.