The Healer

The Healer

In a  conversation I had years ago with the late, great bluesman John Lee Hooker, I asked him about his song, The Healer.  He cocked his head and  smiled that rattlesnake smile he had and said it was about a traveling  man; a hobo who rode box-cars and sold snake oil and spoke to the fire.  Hooker recalled as a young boy seeing this man speak to a burn victim of a grease fire.  Hook said that the man didn’t do any of that bullshit of laying on of hands or speaking in tongues–the standard carny-Christian handjob they usually do.   He said that the “healer” spoke right to the fire, whispered in the man’s ear and spoke to the fire itself.   John Lee Hooker said the “healer,” “blew cool air into the man’s ear and blew the heat out of the burn, but when he spoke, in a nasty whisper, he spoke to the fire.”

Hook smiled and told me he thought it  was probably bullshit–that the  burned man chose to believe in the “healer”  and therefore chose to ignore the pain.

This was a shuck common to hobos.  Selling snake oil is as old as pimping religion or any other feel-good bromide.  It’s been around for centuries  and people still buy into it.  I always found  “healers,” “clairvoyants,” “psychics,” and other spiritualists among the most loathsome of matchstick types.  They do real damage to people who ought to be, instead,  getting medical or psychological help.  They exploit the pain of sad people for profit.  Most hobo con men were harmless enough.  During the beginning of The Depression, lots of them wound up in the boot-legging business, especially those who were on the bum around the waterways of the Northeast.

The selling of moonshine and other spirits was often couched in “medicinal” curatives and such, but throughout the country there were “healers,” especially during The Depression.  They would show up in the Dust Bowl in great numbers, or in Texas after floods in Galveston, or in mining towns, after a  mine would cave in.  Anywhere there was tragedy, miraculously, the “healers” would appear.  In the Dust Bowl, they called themselves “rainmakers” and  swindled poor people out of their money or other meager assets, by promising to make it rain and playing to their most dire fears of prolonged drought; much like politicians do now.

This is the hobo symbol for, “You can get medical attention here.”

Published in: on May 2, 2009 at 12:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Quiet Dust

They scraped and planted and prayed and saved. . .then the black blizzards would come and take it all away. . .and the banks moved in like vultures.”

— Coyle Case
Child of the Dustbowl, Oklahoma

Keep QuietHey–

The “black blizzards” were, of course, dust storms; and they ravaged the Great Plains with unimaginable ferocity in the early 30’s after the stock market crashed and the farmers had no one to sell their crops to.   Acre upon acre of American farmland turned to dust.  Many children of the dust bowl rode the rails, going west to pick fruit, or South to pick cotton; many stayed hobos. . .the restless ones who took to the peripatetic life.

My friend Paul Kahan, the James Beard Award-winning chef at Chicago’s amazing Blackbird restaurant, spent some time riding the rails between here and the Pacific Northwest, only to get grabbed by some railroad dicks at the end of his ride.   He has promised to share some of these stories with me in the coming weeks.  Kahan is a fascinating chef; his food reflects a hobo-like curiosity.  Paul kind of reinvented the idea of bacon as a dish and he finds transcendent tastes in simple fresh foods.  I’ve gotten fat on his food over the years.  What Kahan can do with a pig is nothing short of a miracle–he even makes the ears taste good.  It doesn’t surprise me that Paul rode the rails.  His food reflects a curiosity about other people and places; how they eat, how they work , how they live.  People who are good at anything seem to share these curiosities.  Paul and his partners, Donnie Madia and Eduard Setein, have become dear friends of mine.  I don’t cook, so I often eat at one of their joints (the wonderful Avec or Publican) where they let me eat with my fingers.

I am lucky.  I have never been hungry in my life.  Broke. . .yeah, lots of times; but never hungry.

Something about the way I see the world has changed over the last couple of years, since New Orleans.  The sight of hungry people in our country infuriates me.  I think of food as a human right, or at least it should be.  I also think medical care should be considered a human right. . .and education.

This is the Hobo sign for “Keep Quiet.”


Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 6:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Town Without Mercy

This Town Is HostileHey–

In Timothy Egan’s, The Worst Hard Time, the dustbowl tragedy of the 30’s is chronicled in painstaking and heartbreaking detail.  The ‘Okies’ that Steinbeck later brought to life in the Grapes of Wrath are stranded in farms that have been blighted by drought and duststorms that turn noon into midnight.  This, combined with The Depression, sends hundreds upon thousands of teenagers to the road and the rails to itinerant and uncertain fates and entombing sadness.  Walker Evan’s photographs are a testament to the fates of our grandparents’ generation in America.

My parents were children of The Depression and my mother still remembers it viscerally.  In our house, it was unheard of to waste food; even the slop some of my sisters cooked.  My parents often cautioned us that there were starving people in the world.  As kids, we thought it was just an effort to get us to eat our meatloaf.

One of the books I constantly return to is Hard Times, Studs Terkel’s exquisite oral history of The Depression.  How fortunate we were to have Studs keeping these histories; forever preserving the human voices from a century in audio amber.  Many of these interviews are available through the Chicago Historical Museum’s website where Studs had these tapes transferred digitally so that they would last. “Vox Humana“– the human voice–is what he called this amazing archive, where he lets the American century speak to us in its own voice.

People have asked me since I started these, “What is contemporary about these?”  Maybe everything, maybe nothing. . .and it doesn’t matter.  I see hungry people in my neighborhood in the wealthiest country on earth.  The hobo alphabet is a language of hunger.  Before Studs left this world he often despaired of the collective amnesia of our culture–a”National Alzheimer'” he called it–Studs was an FDR man.  He witnessed and benefited from the New Deal; a bold plan that put Americans back to work.  A great many people didn’t like the New Deal (libertarians still lose their mind over it) but at the time, it lifted our nation out of a Depression.  It gave working people back their dignity.

This one is the hobo sign for ‘This town is hostile.”


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