Other parts of the world may have nomadic groups, such as gypsies, but the lone homeless tramp belongs to the large open spaces. The rise of the railroads in the 19th century brought new efficiency to migrancy. Anyone with the agility and courage to catch a slow-moving freight car could go anywhere in America without a ticket. If you had charm, you could also cadge a meal from a sympathetic homeowner without even having to chop any wood.
There are lone wanderers, people who can't abide others and who can't sit still, but most of the transients would have preferred to have a home. All kinds of misfortunes could happen to even normal men (women seldom rode the rails) in an era without social safety nets. Unemployment was an important cause, as were financial ruin, injury or sickness, and family difficulties (e.g., young runaways). But the trains also carried alcoholics and criminals on the run, so ordinary people, already afraid of strangers, feared tramps. In response, some who understood the varied causes for migrancy published songs portraying tramps in a positive light. One such broadside, published in the 1880s (reprinted in Norm Cohen's Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong), is a high-minded but ponderous 3rd-person plea that includes a chorus:
So if you meet a tramp that bears misfortune's stamp,
If he is worthy of your aid, why freely give.
Give him a hearty grip, wish him luck upon his trip,
And remember that the poor tramp has to live.
At some time during the next 45 years, someone re-wrote (and greatly improved) this song, using mostly new words except for the last line of the chorus. The new version, changed to first person, added details about a railroad injury and the need to sing for spare change. It was first recorded by Walter Morris in 1926, although I learned it from Ernest Stoneman's 1927 cover. Later, when the Great Depression hit, almost everyone was on the move searching for work, and the trains were overwhelmed with migrants. By that time, no one could afford to buy records pleading for help to the tramps.
We still have bums, but you don't hear much about tramps any more, and, as far as the media is concerned, to be a hobo is a hobby. Rail yards are guarded, so freight trains are harder to catch. Drivers are afraid to pick up hitchhikers and there's no place to stow away on an airplane. No wonder our homeless are now sedentary, standing with cardboard signs asking for money but not transportation. It's a bad sign for our future if there's no hope for a ride to a better place.
1. I'm a poor old railroad man,
Once a healthy section hand;
And old age is slowly creeping on the way.
Now hard times is coming on
And my last gold dollar is gone,
And this song is what I made to sing and play.
Now you ofttimes see the stamp
Of a poor unfortunate tramp;
He has no home and has no place to fill.
As you see him pass along
And he sings his little song,
Please remember that the poor tramp has to live.
2. My health broke down out on the track,
With the heavy loads upon my back;
Now I have to make my way the best I can.
We never know when we are young
What may be our future doom.
These words is from a broke-down section hand. CHO.
3. Yes, my health is broken down
And I tramp from town to town;
Sing and play, take whatever you may give.
While I try to play and sing,
Just divide your little change,
And remember that the poor tramp has to live. CHO.