This is a song about the hard traveling of the working people, not the moonstruck mystic traveling of the professional vacationist. Song about a man that has rode the flat wheelers, kicked up cinders, dumped the red hot slag, hit the hard rock tunneling, hard harvesting, the hard rock jail, looking for a woman that’s hard to find.
To be fair, Woody never dumped any red hot slag nor did any mining, and everyone I’ve ever heard sing this song does it in the same spirit I do it, caught up in the romance of the open road rather than bemoaning its hardships.
I’ve known this so long that I have no idea where I learned it or from whom. I can’t find it on any of the Woody Guthrie albums I had, and I didn’t get the Cisco Houston 10-inch with this song till later, nor did I have it by Ramblin’ Jack, or Pete Seeger. Maybe I just heard someone sing it someplace, then pulled the words out of a songbook…
…which would explain why, when I recorded it on my CD and played it for Dave Van Ronk, he pointed out that I wasn’t really singing the melody, just kind of approximating it…
…or maybe not, since by now I’ve heard a couple of Woody’s versions, and Cisco’s, and a bunch of other people’s, and I still sing it this way. Just one of those pig-headed ramblin’ men, I guess.
Incidentally, for those who want a glossary to go with the freight train verse:
flat wheeler: a car that rides hard, bouncing and shaking like the wheels were flat.
blind passenger: a boxcar, for the logical reason that they’re relatively comfortable to ride, but have no windows. There’s a big door, and the view is a lot better than out of a window if it’s open — and I always kept them open, because it’s safer that way. But if you want to hide from the railroad guards, you ride with them almost closed, just propped with a chunk of wood or something so you won’t get locked inside. (At least, that’s my understanding of the term — I can’t find any confirmation on the internet, and don’t have my hobo dictionaries handy.)
dead ender: damned if I know.