The Language of the Blues: HOBO

Migratory workers who jumped on trains and hitchhiked without direction were a staple in blues songs. Now discover the interesting origin of both the word and the lonely travelers...

This is the latest installment of our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author/rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase found in the blues. Grab a signed copy of Devi’s award-winning book The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu (Foreword by Dr. John) at Also available on Amazon Kindle.  “One of the wittiest, bawdiest, most fascinating dictionaries ever.” (Reuters) 

LOTB_hobo-with-bundleThe first hobos were farm boys, or “hoe-boys,” who hopped freight trains with their hoes over their shoulders and their belongings in a sack in order to find day work in the fields. These migratory workers showed up in droves at planting time starting in the mid-1800s.

By the 1930s, the U.S. was criss-crossed with a quarter-million miles of track carrying trains toting raw goods from the South to factories and slaughterhouses in northern cities like Detroit and Chicago. In 1934, the U.S. Bureau of Transient Affairs estimated that there were 1.5 million hobos riding America’s trains.

Hobos were not all drunks and vagrants; many were filling gaps in the job market by using the rails to flow to where they were needed–to haul lumber in the Northwest in the winter, to harvest fields of wheat in the Midwest in the summer, and to pick cotton down South in the fall.

From Hobo Jungle Web site comes this perspective: “Some would say that during the early days the hobo was one into doing a lot of bad things, stealing and you name it, that they would derail trains and take over the entire train. But in the rural communities people would help them and give them jobs during the harvest time. Every hobo had a thing that he do real well, repair shoes, make wire fruit bowls and he sure could hoe a garden for a little something to eat.”

As the old saying goes, “The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, the bum drinks and wanders.”

Pick up a copy of  Language of the Blues

“Evil”- Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett)
“Hobo Blues”- John Lee Hooker
“Outdoor Blues”- Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas)

John Lee Hooker – “Hobo Blues”


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