Appalachian Translation: What's a railroad man?
May 24, 2016 7:43 PM   Subscribe

I was listening today to Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”, which includes the unforgettable line, “the railroad man, he’ll kill you if he can/And drink out your blood like wine”. Who is this guy? Will he? Why?

I'm sure I've seen references to the evils of the railroad men elsewhere in North American folk, though I can't find them now. I thought there was one in "The Big Rock Candy Mountain", but the line turns out to be "The brakemen have to tip their hats/And the railroad bulls are blind". I've searched without success - it seems to have a specific meaning so obvious to North Americans that no one needs to explain it.

Bonus points if you can tell me why it's a good thing "the railroad bulls are blind". Thanks!
posted by trotzdem_kunst to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
During the Great Depression, a lot of people got around by (illegally) riding the rails.

The road was an education about the ways of the world, full of harsh lessons: cold nights, brutal railroad detectives or "bulls," the humiliation of arrest, panhandling, social ostracism, days without food, and the dangers of losing a limb hopping trains. link

More here:
Many people forced off the farm heard about work hundreds of miles away ... or even half a continent away. Often the only way they could get there was by hopping on freight trains, illegally. More than two million men and perhaps 8,000 women became hoboes. At least 6,500 hoboes were killed in one year either in accidents or by railroad "bulls," brutal guards hired by the railroads to make sure the trains carried only paying customers. Finding food was a constant problem. Hoboes often begged for food at a local farmhouse. If the farmer was generous, the hobo would mark the lane so that later hoboes would know this was a good place to beg. Millie Opitz remembers hoboes coming to her neighborhood.
posted by rtha at 7:47 PM on May 24, 2016 [14 favorites]

rtha has it. For bonus hobo vs railroad bull action, watch the 1973 film 'Emperor of the North' featuring Ernest Borgnine as a real SOB railroad man and Lee Marvin as the hobo trying to illegally ride his train.
posted by usonian at 7:54 PM on May 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

Yes to rther and usonian, but it wasn't just during the depression. Since the railroads were built people have been hopping trains. There's lots of good music about this, one example here (though not about railroad bulls). Journey of Natty Gann has a good portrayal of the culture. Emperor of the North sounds good but Ernest Borgnine as a SOB railroad man sounds pretty terrifying.

As far as their being blind, I would guess this refers to the way many enforcement & corporate men are considered to be blind to human suffering and the poor.
posted by mulcahy at 8:39 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's a theory, though it could be a stretch. My thoughts are that 'railroad man' doesn't mean the worker, but refers instead to the grandson of the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, George Vanderbilt. Wikipedia says that Lunsford learned the song from Fred Moody, a western North Carolina native, around 1902. Seeing as how George Vanderbilt was clearing his estate and building the Biltmore House in Asheville in the decade previous to Lunsford picking up the song from Moody, it could refer to his coming in and taking over much of the area. As far as I know, though, he had a pretty decent reputation as an employer, which makes me think that he wouldn't be vilified in song. So that leads me to another theory...

In the 1880's, the Western North Carolina railroad was being built from Old Fort over the mountains to be completed in Murphy in 1891. Tragedy occurred during this construction: "One of the saddest episodes in constructing the WNC RR occurred when workers were constructing the 863-foot Cowee Tunnel, just west of Dillsboro. At the time, prison chain-gangs were being exploited as a cheap source of labor. One morning, crossing the Tuckasegee River to the tunnel, a boat carrying iron-shackled convicts capsized. Bound in death as in life, 19 inmates drowned. With sad irony, they were buried in unmarked graves on a hill overlooking the tunnel." I also read that the 'bend' in the song could refer to a Big Bend penitentiary from that time so that gives this little theory of mine some extra weight I think, with 'railroad man' being the company chain-gang boss. So prison+exploitation+tragedy+appalachia=makes for the perfect formula for a song like yours.

Point being, I think that this particular song is likely referring to something less general-north-american, and more late-nineteenth-century-western-north-carolina specific. But further research suggests that it was common practice to lease out and exploit prison labor to build railroads during the late nineteenth century, which is when a bulk of our folk songs originated. So that could be the source of the oft-villified 'railroad man' in other similar American folk tunes. Anyway, just a thought!
posted by greta simone at 8:41 PM on May 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

A blind railroad bull doesn't see anyone hopping trains.
posted by hwyengr at 8:41 PM on May 24, 2016 [17 favorites]

Yeah, it's good for the bull to be blind, because then he can't see and kill train-hoppers.
posted by rtha at 8:43 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Post civil-war, there was an influx of railroads searching out resources (coal, limestone, lumber), and they would have upset the long standing isolated rural communities. Much property for right of way was stolen or coerced.
posted by nickggully at 8:53 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, railroad man isn't a bygone Appalachian term. I met a self-described railroad man a few months ago in California.
posted by lamp at 9:21 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've always loved Dylan's line:

Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine

So good to know where it came from!
posted by maupuia at 11:54 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's Arlo doing Woody's tune "East Texas Red", the meanest bull around. Spoiler: the bull gets his.
posted by Right On Red at 3:35 AM on May 25, 2016

This doesn't take place in Appalachia, but Rolling Nowhere was an interesting "first-person journalism" look into riding the rails in the Western US.
posted by mmascolino at 5:38 AM on May 25, 2016

The term is most definitely used currently. My dad has worked for one railway or another for the last 50 years or so and while he doesn't personally use the term, his friends most certainly do. His friends tend to use it in the sense of "anybody who works on the railway" often using it to describe themselves in an affectionate way while my dad tends to think of it more like a section man (someone who works & maintains sections of track) or one of the guys who works the station or in the rail yard. My father, always one to eschew nostalgia and sentimentality, tends to not like how it is used by his buddies. But me I'm more of a romantic and when I hear those old guys talking I always think about this line from Kerouac's October and the Railroad Earth:
"I swim out of it in afternoons of sun hot meditation in my jeans with head on handkerchief on brakeman’s lantern or (if not working) on book, I look up at blue sky of perfect lost purity and feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me..."
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:40 AM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I really don't think "railroad man" refers to hobos. I've perused some 19th-century sources on Google Books and elsewhere, and at least that far back, it exclusively refers to someone who works for a railroad, either building, engineering, managing, or as conductor, brakeman, fireman, or porter. One example: Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineer's Monthly Journal, 1891.
posted by Miko at 11:07 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have friends who paint graffiti and hop trains. The guards or railroad men are definitely still called "Bulls" and a railroad man is definitely employed by the railroad. Lots of yards are patrolled by drone now, the "robobull".
posted by bradbane at 3:38 PM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

1) the part about blind bulls is a bit of a pun. "Riding the blind" is a frequent lyric in train blues. It refers to either riding somewhere that cannot be seen from inside the train, or hopping a train without knowing the destination.

2). I won't out him here, but Lunsford's great-grandson is a Mefite.
posted by OmieWise at 5:54 PM on May 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the shout out, OmieWise!
posted by grateful at 6:47 PM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Thanks so much everyone! So glad I asked. Really enjoyed reading all the answers, and now I know!
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 5:41 AM on May 26, 2016

And just a further follow up, the point of Big Rock Candy Mountain is that it's a hobo fantasy land where everything is easy. The railroad bulls are blind, making it easy to hop a train. There are cigarette trees. Bulldogs have rubber teeth so their bites don't hurt. Hens lay eggs that are already soft boiled. They hung the jerk that invented work. Paradise!
posted by MsMolly at 10:48 PM on May 29, 2016

More usage data points for "railroad man":

You Railroad Men: Eugene Debs speech to railway employees.

Free Dictionary: railroad employee

Railroad Man, a song by Bill Withers about people that "worked on trains"

Danville Girl: Woody Guthrie's version here but also done by Ramblin' Jack Elliott and many an old-time singer, the POV is that of a hobo who is looking for a train to hop, and who asks "Mr. Railroad Man" "What time does your train roll by?" and gets a timetable allowing him to plan his ride

Southern Crossing: A History of the American South, 1877-1906 (by the great Ed Ayres) "A lyric from a version of John Henry, a product of black railroad construction crews in West Virginia, dramatized the pull of the wages and the prestige associated with such steady and high-paying work: "Where did you get that pretty little dress? / That hat that you wear so fine?/ Got my dress from a railroad man/ Hat from a man in the mine."

Discussing the same lyric, in Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, sees in it "a black working class enjoying the pleasures of access to the new consumer abundance" their wages could buy. "Although a 'railroad man' would have trouble voting, he would find it easy to spend his money."

"Texas Eagle," Steve Earle for the Del McCoury band: "
My Grandaddy was a railroad man
When I was young he took me by the hand
Dragged me to the station at the break of dawn
Said "boy I got to show you somethin' 'fore it's gone"
She was blue and silver, she was right on time
We rode that Texas Eagle on the Mopac line "

The preponderance of evidence really is that "railroad men" worked for the railroad - and that could mean construction, conducting, engineering, etc. - and that meant they were wage-earners, not itinerants. In old-time lyrics, like Lunsford's, it really seems to carry the connotation that Ayers and Hale describe - that of a black worker whose railroad wages made them able to spend in a way that was relatively rare and new. This really fits the context of the songs: railroad construction workers were likely young and single, making them likely to give gifts to court or persuade women, and they were also unlikely to be able to save their money in banks or invest it in property, due to various racial codes, so there were fewer alternatives to free spending. Also, those who worked on the trains that traveled found themselves in different depot towns day by day, making it possible for them to be countryside Lotharios and have special women in every town, while meanwhile acquiring an aura of romance, skill, and adventure. It was romantic and appealing to get the attention (and gifts of cash and goods) of a 'railroad man', but getting involved with one inherently carried the risk of being one of many consorts and being abandoned. All of this seems to fit much better in the song contexts than anything about hoboes, who (a) didn't have money to get gifts and (b) did not generally figure in songs as characters who could win the favor of women. As for the less black-influenced traditions, like what you hear in Earle's song, it's just a way of describing a railroad employee.

I have a fair amount of experience in this music genre, and, as fascinating as hoboes are, I don't think anyone between the rise of rail and, say, 1930, would confuse hoboes and railroad men. They are distinctly different - one works and earns money and gets into romantic tangles, which is what the songs are about - for the other, none of that is generally true.
posted by Miko at 7:56 AM on May 31, 2016

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