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.”