Erwin A. Thompson Sings of Bums & Tramps

My father wrote me that recently one of his friends had educated him on the difference between bums and tramps. These were terms in use during the Great Depression…before Street People and Homeless. Listen and learn.–JGR

I had always thought that the words “bum” and “tramp” were interchangeable. Not so.

A tramp is a person traveling to find work, If he asks for food, he really expects to do something for it.

A bum is just traveling, with no particular destination or purpose in mind. He does not work unless severely pressed.

A verse from an old song:

I met a man the other day
I never had met before
He asked me if I wanted a job
Shoveling iron ore
I asked him what the wages were,
He said: “Ten cents a ton,”
I said: “Oh, fellow, go chase yourself,
I’d rather be on the bum!”

Shoveling iron ore for ten cents a ton would put most folks in today’s world on the side of the bum.

But! This was nineteen hundred thirty-two. Our neighbor Jack Foree came over and really raised a fuss with Aunt Mim for paying such high wages. We were paying a dollar-and-half a day for a ten-hour day in the summer, and from as near to that as was practical in the winter. Six days a week.

One bitterly cold winter we didn’t do much but chores. Johnnie picked his check up, and looked at it. “Miss Mim, you made a mistake. We didn’t work full time.” She told him that she had not made a mistake. She said she figured he and his family had to eat, even if the weather was totally miserable.

Jack was paying a dollar a day for the days worked. Otherwise the “man” would do the chores for the house rent. He alowed the man to drag dead wood to the man’s house for fuel, but the tenant had to chop or saw it to length by hand.

On February he gave Ira Holmes two half days work in one month. He did take him up to the township supervisor to get a relief order for food. One cold month I hauled Ira a small load of coal, and let him work out the price of the coal and hauling on days when Jack didn’t want him.

The woman that George Burch was living with (without the benefit of marriage. Very unusual at that time) died because he didn’t have ten dollars to pay a doctor to come out.

I, myself, shoveled limestone (crusher duat) from the odd places where it acumulated because they sold it to me for ten cents a ton less money.

Those were the times and the ways of the times.

–Erwin A. Thompson

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