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Singing the Saga of Booger Red

Dallas newspaperman Kent Biffle gets to the root of East Texas Red

Red was tougher than a cheap fajita, the meanest railroad bull in Depression Texas.

He answered to Kilgore Red, East Texas Red or Booger Red.

He sensed importantly that he'd been divinely called to beat up hobos. Tossing freeloaders out of boxcars was his job and his joy.

Red was infamous in the folklore of vagabondage. But he was an unsung villain until Woody Guthrie (1912--1967) sang Red's obit in the 1930s.

Mi amigo Gene Fowler of Austin told me about the ditty. I had perhaps heard it and forgot it. You know long time passing, as we folk fans say.

Mr. Fowler steered me to a Guthrie scholar in Tulsa, Dr. Guy Logsdon, author of The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing and Other Songs Cowboys Sing. A Smithsonian Institution fellow, he wrote for the traveling show This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie.

Lived like a fascist

At the Smithsonian, Dr. Logsdon disinterred the Dust Bowl balladeer's notes on East Texas Red. Guitarist Guthrie credited the plot to "stories told to me while I was on the freights down in East Texas and Louisiana."

He noted, "People all up and down the lines, from the Katy Flyer to the Southern Pacific, knew about East Texas Red. He chased me out of a boxcar one day but I didn't know who he was at the time.

"East Texas Red was a bully and he thought like a fascist if they think it all. He lived like a fascist and he died like a fascist. I have sung this song in more foreign countries than one, and they all say it's a good anti-fascist song. I'll just set down over here at the side of the road and whittle another notch on my anti-fascist guitar."

Mr. Fowler, who captured Kilgore captivatingly in an April 2000 spread for Texas Highways magazine, mused, "I wonder how many folks in Kilgore today are aware of this song."

The stew tale

Hard traveling Guthrie sang that the bully "worked the town of Kilgore and Longview, 9 miles down. Us travelers called him East Texas Red, the meanest bull around."

He describes Red's "mean freckledy face" and tells how much Red "hated the guts of a railroad bum."

The composer sang about three cold, hungry, jobless boys "in a blizzardy wind" who went to the doors of working folks to beg spuds, carrots and bites of meat for constructing a stew.

"Then East Texas Red walked down the track and he flagged old Number Two. He kicked their bucket over a bush and he dumped out all of their stew.

"And a traveler said, 'Mr. East Texas Red, You better get your business fixed, because your gonna ride your little black train just one year from today.'

"Red he laughed and he clumb the bank and he swung aside of a wheeler. The boys caught a tanker to Seminole and west to Amarillo. They struck them a job of oil field work and followed a pipeline down. It took them lots of places till the year had rolled around.

"In warm overcoats with pockets jingling they returned in affluent triumph.

"O'er sandy hills and hard froze roads where the cotton wagons roll, down past the town of Longview and on to old Kilgore."

This time, the onetime panhandlers paid cash for mulligan stew components at a store. They walk the rails to the spot were Red had upended their stew pot a year earlier.

The really big finish goes something like this matter of fact, it goes exactly like this:

"The smoke of their fire went higher and higher and a man come down the line. His head ducked down in the wintery wind as he waved old Number Nine. He walked on down that cinder dump till he came to the same old spot. And there was the same three men again around that same little pot.

"Red went to his knees and hollered, "Please don't pull that trigger on me. I did get not get my business fixed!' But he did not get his say. A gun wheeled out of an overcoat and a played the old one two. And Red was dead when the other two men sat down to eat their stew."

Sic transit inglorious Red.

Woody's son, Arlo Guthrie (Alice's Restaurant) has recorded East Texas Red on a CD, Dr. Logsdon told me.

Mr. Fowler quoted Joe Klein, author of a book on the life of Woody Guthrie:

"Early in 1936, Woody decided to go to East Texas and visit Tom and Nonie Moore, his old favorites from Okemah (Oklahoma). Tom was a barber in the town of Kilgore, and Woody stayed with them for about a month, testing the waters.

"East Texas wasn't nearly as dusty as the Panhandle, but it wasn't all that different either. He found a job painting signs and soda jerking for the local druggist... and gave his first week's pay envelope to a crippled black man sitting in the street outside the store."

In the holdings of the Smithsonian Folklife Program are Guthrie's notes that mention other notorious bulls Denver Bob, McAlester Dan, Yuma Ike, Tucson Slim. But East Texas Red was perhaps the baddest bull on the tracks. Boxcar balladeer Guthrie commented on Red:

"I heard many men swear that if he ever hurt a hair on their head that would be it. There's two kinds of people in this world, one kind you can push around and the other kind you just don't push ...

"So, this is the way it goes. And this song is just about the cashing in of the checks of another mean bull."

Details on Red's demise are lacking. We know he existed from tales handed down by East Texas oil boomers to another generation. Mr. Fowler said stories told in the family of his friend Tom Zigal referred to East Texas Red as Kilgore Red . A Zigal antecedent proudly recounted an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Red in a dance hall and Red blinked.

Texas Rangers Capt. M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas knew him as Booger Red and whupped up on him.

Lone Wolf told Rangers' historian Robert W Stevens of Dallas that he ordered a naive teenage boy who had alit in dangerously wicked Kilgore to seek his fortune to get out of town.

Author Stevens, who wrote a biography of Lone Wolf, said, "The boy tried to follow Cap's orders but was unsuccessful.

"He said he told the boy of an afternoon freight train that would take them out of the boomtown. He instructed the boy to tell the railroad officer that he should be allowed to ride because the Ranger had sent him.

"The next day Cap was surprised to see the boy, his face badly beaten, on the streets of Kilgore. He identified Booger Red as the railroad detective who had administered the beating. The youth said he boarded the train but was discovered by the detective, who was experienced in dealing with the numerous vagrants that plagued the railroad.

"Even after being told that Cap had assured him of safe passage, the detective overzealously beat the boy and threw him from the boxcar.

Angry because Red hadn't cooperated, Lone Wolf looked him up and worked him over with his brass knuckles, bloodying up the bully pretty badly. The boy described by Lone Wolf as "just a skinny-necked kid" departed Kilgore on the next freight.

Bruised Booger Red didn't try to stop him.

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