Joey Stink-Eye Smiles

He was little more than a bagman,
Just a tramp and a swagman,
Riding the rails from somewhere near
To the distant back of beyond.
NY to LA, through TX, KS and PA,
Boxcars filled with this and that
Were the only homes he knew.

Stopping off along the way
He looked for friendly signs.
Who to trust, where to eat,
There was lots he didn’t know.
But others like him
Who’d stopped before him
Left cryptic maps and notes behind
To show him where to go.

“There’s a lady here in this farmhouse
With a heart that’s made of gold.
Help her out with a chore or two,
She’ll invite you into her red-and-white kitchen
And give you a meal, maybe beans and chicken.
If you’ve worked hard and you’re weary, really needing sleep
She’ll send you out to that barn back there
To share some space with sheep.”

After some food and maybe some rest,
He was ready to be on his way,
He gathered his gear and shouldered his bag
And followed the signs to the train.
He was little more than a bagman,
Just a tramp and a swagman,
Riding the rails from somewhere near
To the distant back of beyond.


Hobos are a part of American history we learn very little about in school. It is thought that they first appeared on the railroading scene after the Civil War. Historians estimate that the hobo population swelled to hundreds of thousands during the Great Depression, and that there are still thousands riding the rails today.

Interestingly, hobos had their own lingo, as well as a vocabulary of symbols used to alert other hobos to conditions in a town.

Several years ago, author and satirist John Hodgman wrote about hobos in his own inimitable style in his book, The Area of my Expertise. The creator of this video (which never appeared on PBS, I'm sure) used the hobo segment from the audiobook of the same name as the narrative for the video.  As you will quickly discover, Hodgman describes the history of hobos during the depression with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.


  1. This brought back memories of stories my grandmother and grandfather told of hobos during the depression. My grandmother provided food to any who did a little work for her and they painted that cat symbol on her fence. I have a pin engraved with it to remind me of the importance of compassion.

  2. This was an intriguing post! I love that era. I really wouldn't mind being a hobo for awhile. Riding the rails might be a little less comfy than a 737, but nowadays, I can rarely afford a trip anywhere by plane! Yep, guys, I'm going to come visit ya'all...will you pick me up in the field by the pecan tree 100 paces from the south side of the track?

  3. I loved your post, it was very informative. All I knew about hobos before this was that my mom called me one on days when I refused to bathe and the lovely bags that go by that name.

  4. Mary: How wonderful that your grandmother was one of those "kind ladies"!

    Kathy: I dunno. Based on the last few times I've flown, I'm not sure the plane would be more comfortable than the boxcar. But yeah, well pick you up at the by the tree. We don't have a barn, but the shed might do...

    Jana: Glad you liked it. I found the whole history fascinating, and the "history" in the video so funny, in a droll sort of way.

  5. great post! thanks!

  6. Too funny, didn't realize there were hobo hunters at one time. :)

    That's fascinating that they had their own language.

  7. An interesting account and I loved the pictographs. I was surprised at your use of the word 'swagman' though, as I thought that was purely Australian!

  8. Cowboy: If one were to believe John Hodgman, that's not the only peril they faced! Too funny!

    RR: The whole thing came as inspiration from reading a word-of-the-day thing for "Bagman." The fourth definition they give for bagman is: "Australia - tramp, swagman." It reminded me that I was fascinated with the US history of hobos, and off I went. Funny how inspiration comes, isn't it?


Thoughts? I would love to hear from you.