- On the Fly! Hobo Literature and Songs, 1879–1941 by Iaian McIntyre
Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018
515 pp., $27.95 (paper)
Perhaps our reading of American industrial and labor history has largely missed the stories of “Hobo John,” “Railroad Bill,” Peetie Wheatstraw, “Toledo Slim,” and many of the other working-class and lumpen Americans featured in this book. In On the Fly! Hobo Literature and Songs, we find the voices of scores of left-out, thrown-down, marginalized, and oppressed harvest hands, railroaders, and other freed-up workers who were crucial to the westward expansion of capitalism but nonetheless periodically fell out of the capitalist system. Hundreds of thousands of mostly homeless “bindlestiffs,” “fruit tramps,” and railroad and migratory workers, all of them “illegal travelers,” went “on the bum” during intermittent capitalist expansions and depressions from the 1870s through the 1930s.
A few studies have told the story of those who sought jobs, left jobs, organized unions, and sometimes stole from people in small towns all along the railroad lines running from America’s industrial centers to the farming and extractive industries of the American West. McIntyre tells us that “very little of the original memoirs, literature, and verse that made the hobo such an American icon remain in print” (9). He remedies that. This Australian musician, author, radio broadcaster, and independent scholar has gathered some five hundred pages of tales from all kinds of sources, including popular songs and books written by and about the “hoboes,” a few of whom started out on the road only to end up in universities and publishing houses. I did not think I would be interested, but found myself amazed, and increasingly drawn into reading this collection of provocative tales, insane adventures, and evocative writings.
White men made up the vast majority of “bums” who survived by illegally hitching rides on the vast railroad networks going to the West. Very few women, who faced rape and worse if they went on the road, could participate in this “ramshackle community” (7). African American, Native American, Latinx, Chinese, and other marginalized workers of color who had no legal rights and who were vulnerable to attacks by white authorities and white workers also remained scarce. As a collector of the blues and popular music, McIntyre presents numerous black voices and experiences, including those of the murderous Railroad Bill, the musical genius Blind Willie McTell, and the lovelorn Sleepy John Estes. We also get some stunning accounts of labor-based movements such as Coxey’s Army by Jack London, and firsthand stories and songs by the radicals William Z. Foster and Joe Hill, and T-Bone Slim (whose real name was Matti Valentinpoika Huhta). The editor includes dozens of photos that strikingly portray the deep poverty and desperate circumstances of those who went on the road, lived in “jungle camps,” and slept in roadside ditches and under railroad cars. The Industrial Workers of the World, the Western Federation of Miners, and other organizing projects emerged out of this stew of human misery and hopeful search for freedom. [End Page 156]
Most people went on the road to find work and escape starvation, while some did it to get away from the oppressive, often boring, settled life of a worker under industrial capitalism. Jack Black spent time on the road as part of a “subculture of traveling career criminals” and spent years “engaged in burglary and safecracking, becoming addicted to opium and spending spells in prison” before becoming a librarian, writer, and lecturer in his later years (91). He remembers stealing this way: “I had stolen from them. Somehow, I felt satisfied, as if I had got even with somebody” (93).
The vast majority of wanderers were not criminals; rather, they were hungry people criminalized by a capitalism that sought their labor at cheap wages only to throw them away during industrial depressions or when the harvest season ended. It does not make a pretty picture, but it is one we should know, and reading it is well worth our time. [End Page 157]