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Folk Music/"short handled shovel"


Nobo wrote at 2008-07-01 20:13:17
Short handle shovels were used to dig wells (or ditches, etc.) where a full sized shovel wouldn't fit.  I surmise that that verse is about not having to work the lowliest and hardest of common general labor jobs that hobos would find while drifting around.

ron wrote at 2008-08-06 16:40:24
 Re what the song is about, I have a recording of this song by the writer, Goebel Reeves.  He introduces the song as "the hobo's theme song".  

 I too wonder about a short handled shovel and googled it to no real success.


Kevin wrote at 2008-12-15 17:57:36
I seem to remember my dad telling me about 1930's chain gangs using short handled shovels to perform road work. I took a few minutes trying to research this on-line but didn't get any results other than to find that "banjo" was hobo slang for a short-handled shovel. You might want to take more time than I had to research a possible chain gang reference.

Doctor Hamfat (The Wealthy Street Sheiks) wrote at 2009-10-16 02:32:24
Short-handled shovels were cheaper, easier to account for, easily portable, and made (relatively), poor weapons; these combined to make them the tool of choice for chain gangs and other impressed labor.  They also were (and still are), in common use as home shovels, where digging requirements are not generally large operations.  The negative side of using a short-handled shovel is its impact on one's lower back; it almost guarantees a backache because the user must stoop unless he is very short statured.  Hobos often had much experience at doing odd jobs in return for a meal, and the "kind hearted woman" of the house likely didn't have a professional's tool with which he was expected to turn the garden patch.  Said hobo may very well have done time in a local lockup where he did day labor, or even in a state "graybar hotel" on a chain gang.

Musically the short-handled shovel shows up in Delta Blues as well as hobo Folk and Bluegrass lyrics.  It signifies a bad deal made and later regretted, a dominating power structure, or most often, a plain old pain in the back.  Hope this helps.  Doc

BT wrote at 2010-01-24 19:11:13
Migrant farmworkers were given short handled shovels so that the overseer could easily tell when they were taking a break:  when working, the consequence of using the short handled shovel is that they were bent over. (Of course this was very painful & hard on the back.) If they stood up, they weren't working.  Same probably applies to chain gang.

jt wrote at 2013-10-07 16:54:27
its also written in the very nice song 'big rock candy mountains'.  

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Mike Turner


Folk Music, particularly the Child Ballads and that great body of industrial and work-related songs which arose during the Industrial Revolution. I am well-versed in the history of the Folk Revival, and I have a particular interest in political and agit-prop songs, as well as in traditional Irish dance music. For ten years I was a committee member and resident singer/song-writer/musician with the Grey Cock Folk Club in Birmingham (the pre-eminent traditional club in the English midlands, which was founded by Charles Parker of `Radio Ballad` fame).

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