Every once in a while I find myself musing about a song that has had multiple rebirths and, some may say, “upgrades” over the years. Take, for example, an old favorite of mine, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” or, as originally published, “In the Big Rock-Candy Mountains.“
Our song started its musical life in the late 1890s as a lilting, lyrical “hobo ballad” put together and sung on city streets by a little-known at the time guitar-playing busker, one Harry McClintock (1882-1957).
His song was published and recorded some thirty years later minus, however, a final verse of his that we might find rather “linguistically questionable” and would probably be X-rated these days. Over time, his tune was further whitewashed to become one of the more beloved “folk” songs from the late 1940s and, still later with further scrubbing, an innocent children’s song. Long in the public domain, the song has been recorded by dozens of performers right up to today–a fit subject, gentle readers, for a musical musing!
It’s a simple song about a hobo’s idea of paradise, a modernized version of the medieval concept of the “Land of Cockaigne”—an imaginary place of luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of peasant life does not exist. Nothing to do with the modern day cocaine, however!
Here, in a 1567 work, the Dutch painter Pieter Breugel the Elder gives us a rather unflattering, almost comic illustration of the spiritual emptiness of “Cockaigne,” a state believed to derive from gluttony and sloth, two of the “seven deadly sins.” Whew! Who knew?
Specifically, “Cockaigne” was a land of “contraries,” where all the restrictions of society are defied, sexual liberty is open, and food and strong drink are both free and plentiful.
Before recording his song, however, McClintock cleaned it up considerably from the version he had composed and performed as a busker in the 1890s. The story line of his original lyrics told of the efforts of an old hobo to entice (lure?) a young farm boy into hobo-hood with wondrous tales of life on the road and in the “Big Rock-Candy Mountains.” His song ended (the expurgated verse!) with a lurid description of the perils that might befall an innocent young boy amongst not so innocent older men “on the road.” Today, we would probably see this much like the warning we might give our children to avoid a stranger in a car saying “Hey little boy/girl. You want some candy?”
Now, if any of you gentle readers are really curious, you can easily check out the erased, rather coarse “hobo language” verse with our friends at Wikipedia. Moving on . . .
Tap or click on the triangle in the next image to hear McClintock’s original recording of his song–made more a tale of wonder rather than of warning and, of course, more suitable to radio listeners as well as families buying sheet music and records in the 1920s. This recording was also used in the soundtrack of the 2000 Academy award nominated film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” This YouTube version has some fun animation with it!
Here’s a more contemporary artist’s (not a cartoonist’s) take about our song, after Breugel, no less! More than a few similarities!
Those who study such things agree that McClintock based his song on the old English ballad “An Invitation to Lubberland” that had been around since the 1600s and heard, no doubt, in the Scots-Irish mountain music of McCintock’s early Appalachian wanderings. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a simple singing of this ancient tune. Both the melodic and lyrical antecedents are striking!
In 1949, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was “sanitized” even more and recorded by the oversized, avuncular folk singer and actor Burl Ives.
This recording became, before “Oh Brother,” the version most of us had heard and grown up with. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to be reminded of this one.
Notice the “sudsing” at work! What would they do with McClintock’s original lyrics today?
Other popular, so-called “itinerant songs” of McClintock’s day–such as “Hobo’s Paradise“, “Hobo Heaven“, “Sweet Potato Mountains” and “Little Stream of Whiskey“–likely served as further inspiration to him as they touch on concepts similar to those in “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” One of my favorites of this genre was recorded by the late Doc Watson. Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to hear his beautiful guitar accompaniment to this “whiskey” song sometimes known as “The Dying Hobo.” Again, antecedents galore.
McClintock, also known by his hobo name of “Haywire Mac,” was born into a railroader family in Knoxville, Tennessee, and began his drifting when he ran away from home as a boy to join a circus.
He traveled the world as a railroader, seaman, soldier, and—most famously—a singing hobo.
He was a lifelong member of the Industrial Workers of the World—the unionizing “Wobblies”—and, in the early 1920s, worked with and organized union men in the oil fields of west Texas singing and busking as he went along.
McClintock wound up in the San Francisco Bay area and worked as a railroad brakeman. He later became a popular radio and recording singer with his own country band . . .
. . . and even appeared in a few movies, including one based on his most famous song.
He was particular known for performing songs of the union movement in America.
He is known for several other hobo songs . . .
. . . including one popular with the “Wobblies,” “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.”
Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a listen to this one and see why it appealed to labor unionists.
Now, of course, we need to add to this musing with, probably, the most “squeaky-clean” version of our song, one recorded for and by children!
Keep the earworm alive by clicking or tapping on the triangle in the next image to hear this happy interpretation!
As a musing rule of mine, I like to explore themed ukuleles, this time having to do something with hobos. Not many out there but here is one decorated with those chalk-mark symbols that hobos used to “mark” their wanderings and communicate with hobo friends.
And, of course, one of our favorite cigar box ukes. I don’t know if the player is a hobo but he sure looks the part!
So. While wandering or just waiting, stay safe, help those in need . . .
. . . and don’t get lured into the hobo’s irresponsible life as a way of forgetting about the responsibilities of real life.
Join the Union and become a card carrying member . . .
. . . and, above all, STAY TUNED!