“A hobo works and wanders, a tramp dreams and wanders, and a bum drinks and wanders.”
– Ben Reitman
The Great Depression (1929-39) was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialized world. In the United States, the Great Depression began soon after the stock market crash of October 1929, which sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors. Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped, causing steep declines in industrial output and rising levels of unemployment as failing companies laid off workers. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its nadir, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half of the country’s banks had failed. These tough economic times gave rise to a large class of migrant workers who traveled throughout the United States seeking temporary labor. While such a class had existed since the Depression of 1873, the Great Depression greatly increased their numbers.
A rich tradition of folklore and mythology developed about these migrants in America, and they have been romanticized in literature and film. Older mythologies became incorporated into the legends of the hobos – goblins and faeries and ghosts, even the devil and old man death himself!
Brotherhood of the Rail is a setting for Fate Accelerated that allows players to tell tales of the hobo’s mythical world during the Great Depression. The world of tramps and hobos was at once one of unprecedented freedom (with the widespread availability of automobiles, a transcontinental railroad, and the beginnings of an interstate highway system people could travel the country more easily than ever before) contrasted with some of the worst poverty that the nation had ever known. Daily life was frequently a challenge, and hobos were often distrusted, discriminated against, scapegoated, and denied legal protections. At the same time they were essential to keeping a lot of industries alive during the Depression, and provided the labor that build much of the nations Depression era infrastructure such as roads, bridges, dams, railroads, and electrical lines. They also dealt with a hidden world that most people could not or would not see.
I am greatly indebted to Aaron Houx for his 2002 publication of “Knights of the Road, Knights of the Rail” from which much of the inspiration and material for this setting is drawn. Since Mr. Houx was, in turn, greatly inspired by Mike Gentry I am indebted to him as well.
Bevon, Tim & Cameron, John & Coen, Ethan & Felner, Eric (Producers) & Coen, Joel & Coen, Ethan (Directors) (2000) O Brother, Where Art Thou?, United States, Touchstone Pictures & Universal Pictures.
Chaplin, Charles (Producer & Director) (1925) The Gold Rush, United States, Charles Chaplin Productions
DeSylva, Buddy G & Sturgeon, Preston (Producers) & Sturgeon, Preston (Director) (1941) Sullivan’s Travels, United States, Paramount Pictures
Hough, Stan & Hyman, Kenneth (Producers) & Aldrich, Robert (Director) (1973) Emperor of the North [Motion Picture], United States, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.
Songs of the Depression: Boom, Bust, and New Deal is a good overview of the music and artists of the Depression era.
Socialist and Labor Songs of the 1930’s is a good sample of background music about the growing labor movement in the United States during the ’30s.
Woodie Guthrie‘s early works are also quite appropriate as background music.