The Jocker is about hobos, men riding the rails in search of work during the early days of the Great Depression. The characters are entirely fictional, but their milieu was not. Hobos were not a new phenomenon. Indeed, from the mid-1800's, much of America's economy depended on this large itinerant workforce. These were the men who logged the forests, brought in the harvest, built the great railroads, the dams and bridges, and mined ore in inaccessible and inhospitable parts of the country -- mostly for starvation wages and rancid food. With no other way to get from job to job, they traveled on the rods under boxcars, in refrigerator cars or "reefers," or on cowcatchers or in battery boxes, always at the mercy of the railroad security men -- the hated "bulls" -- who were free to do anything from demanding a dollar for safe passage to murder. In a single year during the '20's, one dead hobo was found near the tracks for every mile of railroad in the state of Connecticut. It was not an easy life -- nor one suited to longevity.
Between jobs they existed in shantytowns, "jungles" near the railyards, in shacks tacked together from rotten boards, cardboard, rusty tin, anything that might keep out a little weather.
These men were far from the romanticized figures of films and folklore. Theirs was a brutal life, devoid of creature comforts, with hardships at every turn: from brutal cops, to gangs of thugs, to simply being dismembered in a single slip while trying to catch a moving freight. The ever-present lice, dysentery and syphilis were comparative trifles. It was also a life devoid of women.
Like men at sea, or in prison, the hobo's sexual outlets were almost exclusively homosexual. In fact, the old hobo term "Jocker" (an older man who keeps an adolescent boy or "Punk" around for his servant and sexual plaything)is now used as a term for the dominant man in prison duos.
Hobo histories are amazingly up-front about these relationships. In KNIGHTS OF THE ROAD: a Hobo History, Roger Bruns notes that in the jungles it was not unusual for some hobos to dress in drag or be known by women's names. In HARD TRAVELIN': The Hobo and His History, Kenneth Allsop calls the union of Jocker and Punk a "routine road relationship." So routine, in fact, that in some locales simply traveling with a lad was enough to get a hobo arrested for child molestation. While the Jocker/Punk relationship was often one of "squalor, buggery and semi-slavery," Mr. Allsop quotes a researcher of the period: "I have seen wolves and their little 'fairies,' and their relationship seemed to be one of mutual satisfaction... Far from being miserable, the boy did not want to be separated from his friend. He resented and refused all efforts at his 'rescue'... In missions, older men give boys some candy, bananas or tobacco, and take them into the toilet or a dark corner and love them up."
Mr. Allsop goes on toadd: "In 1914 California, 'widespread practice of homosexuality among the migratory laborers' was noted, and it was stated that in the up-state lumber camps 'sex perversion within the entire group is as developed and recognized as the well known similar practice in prisons and reformatories." Not all that surprising when one considers the only women the tramp was likely to see over the course of a year was the occasional prostitute in a brief swing through a major city. And imagine the allure of the hooker who is at a state in her career that her clients are homeless men, tramps and bums. Not a pretty picture.
By all accounts, the well known children's song "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" actually began as a parody of the stories an older tramp might spin to a young farm lad to entice him onto the road -- and into his bedroll. An early version of the song from Alan Lomax's FOLK SONGS OF NORTH AMERICA pretty much speaks for itself. It begins:
One sunny day in the month of May, a jocker he came hiking,
He come to a tree and "Ah!" says he, "This is just to my liking."
On the very same month on the very same day, a Hoosier's son came hiking.
Said the bum to the son, "O, will you come to the Big Rock Candy Mountains?"
After a chorus about cigarette trees, soda water fountains, lemonade springs and the like, the song continues:
The punk rolled up his big blue eyes and said to the jocker, "Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered, too, but I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore. I'll be God-damned if I hike any more..."
Or, he adds, be carnally used in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In another version from 1927, the punk ends his lament with the following stanzas:
There are no bees in the cigarette trees, no big rock candy mountains.
No chocolate heights where they give away kites, or sody-water fountains.
He made me beg and sit on his peg, and he called me his jocker.
When I didn't get pies he blacked my eyes, and called me his apple-knocker.
No more I'll roam from my very fine home. I'll save my junkerino.
You can bet your lid that this old kid won't be no one else's punkerino.
The society portrayed in The Jocker largely ended with the deepening of the Great Depression. With the worsening social crisis, whole families were suddenly on the road, and single women as well. The all-male life of the earlier hobo was gone. The tin lizzie sent more itinerant workers around the country by car. By the late '30's, automated rail switches and faster trains made hopping a freight an even riskier business. Labor unions helped to insure improved working conditions and salaries. By W.W.II, the hobo and the tramp who had ruled the rails since the 1850's were distant history.
jocker N. Amer. slang.
[f. jock3 (Origin unknown; perh. f. an old slang word jockum, -am penis) + -er1.]
a. A tramp who is accompanied by a youth who begs for him or acts as his catamite.
gunsel U.S. slang. Also gonsil, gunshel, gun(t)zel.
[ad. Yiddish genzel, f. G. gänslein gosling, little goose.]
1. A (naïve) youth; a tramp's young companion, male lover; a homosexual youth.
punk n.3 Chiefly U.S. Also punck.
[Of obscure origin.]
4. slang. a. A passive male homosexual, a catamite; a tramp's young companion or 'gunsel.'
--Allsop, Kenneth. Hard Travelin': The hobo and his history. NY: New American Library. 1967
--Bruns, Roger. Knights of the Road: a Hobo History. NY: Methuen. 1980
--Gordon, Robert W. The Big Rock Candy Mountain (oral traditions, source: Wheaton H. Brewer). Music division, Library of Congress, 1927
--Lomax, Allan. Folk Songs of North America. NY: Doubleday. 1969
--Oxford English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press. 1996
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