Born for Hard Luck

Black and white photo at an angle of Black man wearing patterned button-down shirt and cap, appears to be singing

Ron Ginsberg

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 3 No. 4, "Facing South." Find more from that issue here.

Arthur "Peg Leg Sam” Jackson was born near Jonesville, S.C. (about 25 miles southeast of Spartanburg) on December 18, 1911. When only a child he was put to plowing by his father and often hired-out for extra work to neighbors. Young Arthur, however, took a fancy to playing the harmonica and riding freight trains. One longtime Jonesville resident remembers that Arthur, upon hearing an approaching train, once left his mule harnessed in the field and ran for the railroad tracks. He was gone for months. It was on such a trip in 1930 that he lost his leg.

Peg's stories of hoboing and wandering, odd-jobbing, playing harmonica and passing the hat on street corners, reconstruct the plights of countless creative, restless southern black men who could find few satisfactory outlets for their energies in the long years of Jim Crow culture. Scarred and battered, yet exuberant, Peg has somehow survived. He recounts in fascinating episodic fashion a life lived by wits and endurance, offering insights and visions as well as prejudices and illusions.

Peg first joined the medicine show circuit in 1938, learning the business from such veteran performers as Pink Anderson. For years, Peg acted as straightman for various funnymen whose routines of eclectic patter were a hodge-podge of folk humor, minstrel remnants and slapstick buffoonery. The shows were designed to draw crowds of farm and mill families, who might buy snake oil or curative soaps. With his favorite medicine man, Chief Thundercloud (Leo Kahdot, a fullblooded Oklahoma Potawotamie, who died in 1973), Peg traveled the South for years, arriving in a textile mill town on payday or at a tobacco warehouse during harvest time.

In the last few years, Peg has returned home to live with his brother Bill. Folk festival organizers have "discovered" him and introduced him to audiences throughout the US. When not performing, he can be found fishing, gardening or playing cards within a few hundred yards of his birthplace, where his grandparents worked as slaves.

The following article was edited by Allen Tullos from field recordings taped for a documentary film about Peg. The film is being produced by Tom Davenport of Delaplane, Va., for release in the spring, and is supported by a grant to the University of North Carolina Folklore Curriculum from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council.

Peg's fine harmonica style and his unique humorous routines are available on record. Bruce Bastin and Pete Lowry are responsible for two excellent albums: The Last Medicine Show, (Flyright LP507-508), a double album with a well-researched booklet, and Peg Leg Sam: Medicine Show Man (Trix 3302). His latest release is Going Train Blues from Blue Labor Records.

Allen Tullos, a native Alabamian, is a graduate student in folklore at the University of North Carolina.


Uh oh, Got to Go Again

The first time I caught a freight train I was ten year old. Rode it from Spartanburg to Columbia, South Carolina. Just warming up, gettin used to it. Then I run away again, down to Lockhart. They hid me in a mill. I worked for them three days, til I was about dead—too young for that job.

And my mother came down there to get me. "You seen a little boy that can dance so?" They said, "Yeah, he works back there rollin cotton to be packed." She hid and they called for me. I come out there and they said, "Let's see you dance one time." I cut a few steps and Ma run out and grabbed me. Back home we came on a train. The conductor like to have preached me to death. "Why don't you stay at home, son?" I thought to myself, "God, I wish I could get off this train." I reckon I stayed at home three days —gone again. Yeah, I was gone again.

Next time I took a trip from Spartanburg to Charleston, laid around down there awhile, then I decided I'd go further. I caught the Southern to Asheville, then into Virginia. Mother couldn't find me then, I was too long gone. I went on up into Ohio, caught the C & O. Then I came back home again and stayed about a week. Plowtime, I didn't like to plow. Pickin cotton time, I said, "Uh oh, got to go again."

I left out that time and landed in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gettin further then, gettin trained-up good. I was about twelve years old then. I laid around there awhile, eating out of garbage cans and eating out of farmers' fields. I never hurt the farmer bad. I'd get a dozen roastin ears and build a big fire at night. I'd throw the ears in there shuck and all. The steam from the shuck would cook it. Boy, you talk about some mouth-smacking food. I'd sit back and eat a dozen at a time. Sometime I'd go up and get me another dozen to carry with me.

Kept a little sack on my back with a blanket in it, maybe a pair of overalls in it. If anybody washed, I'd get me a pair. Country people used to wash down by the spring and hang them out, I'd look for that all the time. I'd go by, pull off my dirty pair and carry away the clean pair.


Lost My Leg in Raleigh

I rode more freight trains than days I got to live. All around through Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas. What got away with me one time was that Southern Pacific. I caught it out of Louisiana one night—they called it the Sunset Limited. And it never did stop for nothing out through the sandy desert. I was hungry, my God! Stomach thought my throat was cut. When it got to Los Angeles, the first garbage can I seen, I rushed to it, heels went over my head.

I know every hobo jungle. From Alexandria, Virginia —with the ice cars. We'd drink rubbin alcohol there. Sometime we'd kill a pig or a cow. Four or five of us would carry him back and boy we had a ball that night. Hoboes telling lies and I was in there with em. Up there in Toledo, Ohio —the biggest hobo convention in the world. We had a sign hanging up, "When you eat, wash the pan and hang it up again. Another hobo, our friend, may come in.''

Oh, I had a good living. Didn't have no home, always followed the season. I'd go down in Florida when it got cold, sleep outdoors. I slept outdoors half my life.

When I had two good feet I could catch the trains making forty miles an hour. When I lost my foot, I'd catch them making twenty-five miles an hour. I hoboed more after I got it cut off. Never caught the front car, always caught the back car so it would whup me up behind it.

I lost my leg in Raleigh. I was coming out of Richmond. I had gone uptown and bummed some of those ends they cut off meat. I got me some ends and come on back down near the tracks and laid down, I was right tired. My buddy shook me and said, "Train coming." That's all I remember. I caught it but I don't know how I fell off. I believe my head bumped under that bridge. You seen them things hanging down at bridges? That's to warn you before you get to it. I believe that bridge was too low for a man on top. I believe I caught it that way, half asleep when I caught it.

When I found myself, I was laying down on the rails. I thought, "My old leg done gone to sleep." And I got up, looked down, and my shoe was cut off my foot. Shoe split wide open. I said, "Mhnn, mhnn." Never felt bad til then. I fell back down on the railroad and yonder come the yard master. "Hoboing was you?" I says, "Sho was." "Let me see what I can do for you." He called the ambulance. About that time about a thousand people were up on the bridge looking down on me. They lifted me out of there and carried me to St. Agnes Hospital. They might be done changed the name now. That's been about forty-six years ago.

I stayed in the hospital a month and a half. That leg didn't start hurtin until a week after they done took it off. They didn't have the stuff they got now to stop pain. That thing throbbin for three weeks. After that got good, another fellow come in there with his leg cut off, like to bled to death. I give him a quart of blood. They said, "We're gonna give you a big meal if you give him some blood." I was greedy to eat and wasn't used to nothing but a garbage can. I give him that. I give him that blood and they give me a big plate. I like to ate myself to death. When I got out of there, I had $2.02 when I got off at Spartanburg, coming home, and crutches— they gave me a pair of crutches. I stayed at home about a year after that, then took off again.

I hoboed passenger trains all up in New England. I been up to Maine, helping to get taters up. Been down in Florida, cutting cane. Once down in Key West there was a boat headed for Havana, Cuba. I slipped on board. Got way out. When they got about halfway, they found me. "Well, boy, where you going? What are you doing on here?" I told them that I never had no place to sleep and the boat was there so I got on board to sleep and never got off in time. "I guess we'll have to throw you overboard, put a weight to you.” You ought to have heard me begging. Down on my knees, licking dirt. They scared me to death. I didn't believe they was going to drown me, but they scared me so bad. You ought to have heard me. "I'll work. I'll work it out, sir." Down on my knees, hat in my hand, bowing.

You know they gave me a job and I worked three years from Havana to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas. I got a little knot in my pocket—saved up a right smart because I couldn't get a pass off the boat but every once in a while. Quit work after I saved up quite a bit of money. "On my feet" I called it. You know how long I had money? Come up to Jacksonville, down on Oakland Avenue. One night and I was broke as a he-haint in Georgia. I left there with a low and bowed-down head.


They Carried Me To The Brown Farm

I had a rough time. Ate out of the garbage can more than I ate at a table. Heels stayed in the air more than they did on the ground. Been in the soup line in Georgia. Give you a bowl of soup and a loaf of bread. I was there two times a day, morning and evening, for six months. Stayed around Atlanta. That was back in Hoover's times. Times was tough then, great God!

I never will forget when I hoboed down on the Southern in Savannah, Georgia. They had a place they called Seven Mile Hill. All the hoboes got off there. I was a big man, though. I told them, "I can't walk that far, boys. I'm gonna ride on downtown." I was on an oil tank, standing up there. Directly a light hit me. "Stick em up." I said, "I can't turn aloose. My hands are holding onto the rail.” He come down there, patted me down, and took me down. Called the pattyroll wagon. I was so hungry I could see stars. They throwed me in jail. I stayed in that jail all night.

The Brown Farm was about seven or eight miles from there and their truck didn't roll but in the evening. So I was sittin there all that day with nothing to eat. When that truck come, I was so weak I could hardly get on it.

Carried me out to the Brown Farm. When I first got out there, I seen a fellow sittin at a piano. Looked like he was playin. Had his hands buckled down. Both hands had a place they would let down, then lock it. Then they put his feet in something and locked that. He was sittin good, you know. Then they kicked a plank down to his knees. Balls of sweat rollin off of him and he's hollerin, "Aaaahh, Captain!” I thought he was playin a piano. I said, "God, this is a rough place here.”

I run away the next day. But that peg got stuck up. You know it's mucky down there —out from Thunderbolt, Georgia, right down below Savannah. I run away and got stuck up and the mosquitoes like to ate me up. The man told em, "Go down there and get him.” They went down there and they found me. You know what he done? Took the peg from me and made me hop in line. When I go to the mess, I go there hoppin, like a frog. They kept my peg til I made my thirty days. I was shelling beans and cleaning fish, peeling potatoes, sometimes skinning a bear — among a crowd of all them that couldn't work out there in the muck.


I Like To Froze To Death

I was up in Detroit, come from out over in Canada. I caught a train to Buffalo, New York. You know how cold it is around Detroit and Lake Erie. After I got about fifty or seventy-five miles, I was stiff as a board, like to froze to death. My God, it was like an icebox! When I got into the railroad yard in Buffalo, I couldn't move. Couldn't shut my mouth. Brakeman come around and I hollered "Afffffaggh.” Tips of my ears busted, fingernails come off. They carried me to the hospital and I stayed there three weeks. When that heat hit me and I commenced unthawing I felt like I weighed two thousand pounds. Hungry, too. You know when you get hungry you freeze to death in a minute, got to have something to keep the body heat up. I never had no body heat, all that was out of me.

I come out of that hospital and an old lady took me home with her. I stayed there about six months, she wanted me to stay on. I let my fingernails grow long as an eagle claw I was so glad they come back. Looked like I could climb a tree, looked like a coon. 

I stayed there a pretty good while with her. Then I said, "Lady, the best of friends have to part sometime." I forgot about my fingernails being so long and went to point and hit her on the nose, blood come out. I said, ”Uh oh, lady, I forgot about my fingernails done come back.”


Been Married A Heap of Times

I had some pretty good marriages til I ruint em. I started em drinking if they ain't had a drop. Say, "Aw, take you a little sip, baby." 'Rectly they would get unruly, regular alcoholics. I was out on the road all the time.

I married one at night. Had on a red dress. I couldn't see her good. She had on a red dress, red shoes and black hose. I said, "That's a cute little thing yonder." I was half drunk. I carried her to a preacher and married her that night. We went to bed and I got up the next morning to go to the toilet. I met her at the door and I hollered, "Awwwwwwwiiiiieee!" I thought she was a haint. Mouth was long enough to eat peas out of a jug. "My gollies, what's the matter?” I said, "Oh, I thought you was in the bed in there. I thought that was a spook or something out there I had seen." I sent her back home that day. Aw, I been married a heap of times.

I married one well-to-do woman. She never lived long. I was a big shot while she was living, though. You ought to have seen me out in the park. Sittin there, legs crossed, and had a big German shepherd with me. I'd throw up a handful of pennies, nickels and dimes and see the little boys rassle for em. "Yes, yes, what fun, what fun . . . "Finally, she took sick, went into a coma. Nothin willed to me. I was in a bad stage then. Yeah, she died. I'd been a big shot in town, rode a Cadillac. I left town to keep people from seeing me. Slept under a house that night and got up next morning and caught a freight train. Funny things happen in this world.

Woman, you know what her glory is, don't you? Hair of her head. Man's glory is a woman. She can make a fool out of him when she gets ready. Look at Samson, Delilah. Look at John Dillinger, the woman with the red dress on. Look at Solomon, women tore him down —300 concubines and 700 wives. What can one man do with a thousand women? All of the men that ever fell, women tricked em.


God, Can't He Preach!

I was a preacher once in Baltimore. Way I started to preachin, I hoboed into Baltimore and I met a preacher, but I didn't know he was a preacher sho 'nough. He said, "Looks like you just into town." I said, "Yeah, I come into town. A little bad luck struck me. I'm a preacher.” He said, "Well, I work for a cleaner downtown and I can get you a good shirt and an old suit of clothes. I want to hear you preach tonight.” I told him, "I'll do that."

He got me a suit of clothes and dressed me up. Looked like a Philadelphia lawyer. I went into church and he announced for me, "Reverend Jackson, missionary preacher, goes all over the world. All over Africa, Europe, all over in India," everywhere he could think of, all them low class places, "all down in Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Portugee." Directly he called on me "Reverend Jackson." I got up and took my text about when a man kill a man way back, they tied the dead man to the living man that killed him. Let him tote him til he died. Tied him nose to nose, mouth to mouth, belly to belly. One woman hollered, "Whoo!" Toe to toe let him tote him til he die. As he walked around he was hollering all the time, "Oh Lord, who shall deliver me from the body of this dead?" When maggots got in him, he toted him around, got to stinking. You could hear him hollerin, "Ooooh Lord! Who shall deliver me from the body of this dead?”

And after while, I'd get em to shoutin. I'd give em two or three whoops and get em to shoutin. I'd say:

There's a man

it was a hard time for him.

He was carrying that man around

dead weight was on the living.

You could hear him hollerin, yeaaa!

Old lady said, "Can't that preacher go!"

Oh, yeeeaaaah! I could hear him hollerin,

'Who shall deliver me from the body of this dead?!'

They'd get to shoutin. Just when I would get them all to shoutin, you know what I hollered?

Aaaaaooooowww, bum, bum, bumble, bum, bum, bu, bum!

They couldn't hear me, I was walking all through there. Old lady said, "God a'mighty!" Fast as I could open my mouth,

Bum, bumble, a bum ba!

A boom baw, boomle a boom boom ah!

'Oooooooh Lord,

Who shall deliver me from the body of this dead?!'

I could see two billy goats hooking one another, aahh!

The two rams, ah! When they run backwards and

run up against one another it sound like thunder!

She said, "God a'mighty! Can't he preach!"

Oooh yeah! OOOH Yeah!

A bum ba bummle ah bum baw

"God, just as fast as he can open his mouth, he can tell it, can't he."

Yeah! I can see an old train coming down the railroad track, ah, Great God . . .

You oughta seen me walking through there. They saying, "God, can't he preach." Everything in the church shoutin. Yeah.

After I get through, I tell em, "Now ladies and gentlemen, we have such and such a one here to lift collection for me. That fellow right there looks like a pretty good fellow." He'd throw five on the table and I'd say, "God a'mighty," admire it myself. I'd get two fellows, the other one would lay five. Then everybody would give them fives, them what didn't have it would give a little, quarters and fifty centses. You know what I was singing when one man throwed a fifty cents on there and it was spinnin?

The big wheel rollin

ain't nothing but love.

Big wheel rollin

ain't nothing but love.

That big wheel rollin

ain't nothing but love.

Fire in the spirit

coming down from above.

Another rascal over there trying to steal a five dollar bill, had his hand cuffed back. I said, "Don't cuff it back brother. The Lord will afflict that hand. You'll have it dangling by your side. No thieves and robbers can. Get into heaven." I didn't let everybody know I was talking to him. You ought to have seen him raise it back up there.


The Last Medicine Show

I was over here in Jonesville one time and I saw Pink, you heard lot of talk about Pink, he was eleven years older than I was then. And I seen him showing over there with a medicine man. That's been fifty-odd year ago. I said, "Lord, ! wish I was that rascal." He was clowning, showing. I was looking at him selling. "Ssooold that!" He was hollerin. "Ssooold!" He didn't get him but one bottle at a time. He had people falling out laughing, they'd buy again.

Sometimes, when I was selling medicine with Chief Thundercloud, they'd get to buying too weak. You know what I'd tell 'em? I'd grab the mike out of Chief's hands and I'd say, "People." "Tell em what it's good for, Sam," the Chief would tell me. I'd say, "Folks, have you got an old mother-inlaw at home? She's down in bed, one leg up? Can't get it down? Buy! Buy this oil from me here today. Carry it home with you and rub her down. She'll wake up in the morning and have both legs up and can't get nay damn one of them down." They'd buy again. "Ssooold." Sell it fast like a rabbit. Good medicine. Good for anything.

Once the Chief and I were selling snake oil. "You take this oil. It's 500 times thinner than water. It's 500 times more penetrating than water." The Chief had a rattlesnake in his hand and went to put him back in the basket he kept him in and the snake hit him. He jumped off the stage. He'd already told em that if a rattlesnake bites you, never mind no doctor, just use the oil over it. But when that snake hit him, he had a fit. "Somebody carry me to the doctor right quick." I was laying down laughing. "Somebody carry me. Get a car, quick!" People said, "Why don't he put that medicine on it?" Me and Chief had to leave there.


Rather Die The Death Of A Lizard

So a man think in his heart, so is he. If he is the poorest man in this country and he think he feels rich, he's rich. You know what a man think? If he got eight cars standing in the yard, he's more than anybody. I don't care what you got, you go to dirt just like me. God made Adam out of dirt and to dirt you shall return. You know where heaven is at? Air. When you breathe that out and you breathe back in.

If I knowed now I would love to live my life over if I could use myself. But if you ask me to go back over it, no. I'd rather die the death of a lizard than go back over the way I lived.

I don't believe the good Lord would let me live threescore and ten and then kill me and throw me in a lake of fire, gnashing and gashing of teeth. If you put a dog in a pit and pour gasoline over him and let him burn, you'll feel sorry for him. Why, ain't no need of praising Him if He gonna do that. Don't ever feel sorry for you? Laugh at your calamities? No, I don't believe it that away. That's the biggest lie ever been told. I ain't scared of being French fried that way. No.

Every time I get sick a preacher comes running. Say, "You making any preparations to leave this world? You oughta pray." Every preacher that meets me, stealin out of my pocket and saying, "You oughta pray sometime." I say, "I didn't make no damn preparations to come in this world. When I get out I'll just go out. Don't torment me to death, let me have a little fun."