(1997) Documentary (PBS) Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, John Fawcett, Clarence Lee, Rene Champion, Richard Thomas (narrator), Peggy De Hart, C.R. “Tiny” Boland, Jim Mitchell, James San Jule, Charley Bull, Arvel “Sunshine” Pearson. Directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys
In this era of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it is a good idea to remember the lessons of the Great Depression. While things aren’t quite as bad now as they were then, it is well to remember just how devastating it was. People who were living comfortably found that they lost everything, literally overnight. Many discovered that there was no work of any kind to be found where they lived. Their solution was to get out of town, but most of them couldn’t afford transportation.
Their solution was to hop on freight trains and “ride the rails” to whatever destination the trains were headed in. Not only was this illegal but incredibly dangerous; it wasn’t uncommon for people trying to hop a freight train to lose their footing and fall underneath the wheels of the train. There were also the railway police and local law enforcement who weren’t above administering a beating to those they discovered illegally hitching a ride.
Documentary filmmaker and historian Michael Uys was fascinated by a book written during the depression by Thomas Minehan called The Boy and Girl Tramps of America which depicted the lives of teenage hobos traveling from place to place. He disguised himself as one of them and rode the rails with them for awhile, getting their stories. Uys figured it would make a good film and thus came this documentary.
Originally, it debuted at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival but most who have seen this know it from its appearance on the distinguished PBS documentary series The American Experience back on April 13, 1998. Since then it has been rebroadcast from time to time and appeared on DVD off and on. Now, it is available for streaming for the first time.
Uys and co-director Lexy Lovell interviewed in depth ten former rail riders – nine men and a woman – who were in their 70s and 80s at the time this was filmed (as this was 15 years ago, several of them have since passed on). They share their stories of hardship and exhilaration. There are similarities in their tales; all of them speak of their experiences matter-of-factly as they talk about the dangers of the road, but also they speak of it with nostalgia. They all remark upon the freedom they had riding the rails; unconstrained by possessions, jobs or relationships, they would pack up at a moments notice, searching for the next town, the next horizon.
Many teens left home for just that reason – the allure of adventure, seeing the world when nothing held them at home. Some were informed by their parents that they had to leave as mom and dad could no longer afford to take care of them. Some fled abuse. None of those interviewed seemed to regret their time on the road.
In fact one of them, Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, was still riding the rails in the summers and invited one of the filmmakers along. “I’ll keep doing it until I can’t swing myself on board a boxcar any longer,” he declares. The filmmakers use archival photographs, often lingering on the evocative faces of the depression, and filmed footage to show contemporary accounts of the lifestyle. The soundtrack is rich with the music of the era, like Jimmy Rogers and Woody Guthrie, warbling about the allure of the rails, of the call of the horizon and of the loneliness of the road.
I wouldn’t say it’s a powerful documentary, although there are moments that are stirring. Mostly, it is just evocative – reminding us of a bygone era. As a historical document, it is absolutely invaluable. Most of those who rode the rails in the depression are gone now, their stories silenced. While I would have liked to see a little bit more context (perhaps some commentary from sa sociologist or a historian to better explain the history behind the depression and rail riding), it is good that the filmmakers were able to collect them, for succeeding generations to enjoy and learn from.
REASONS TO SEE: The stories are indeed fascinating. The archival photos and footage make wonderful use of close-ups. The Americana soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a little more background information and context.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but otherwise suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uys wrote to over 40 publications, including Modern Maturity, to find potential subjects for interviews. He ended up receiving over 3,000 letters in response and, realizing he would need help with the project, enlisted Lovell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American Hobo
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Little Things