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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Episode 61 - Oh, That Big Rock Candy Mountain

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Our Host: We must have a lot of sugar and candy fans out there. Let's see who's on line number two.  Hello, caller, you're on the air!

Candy McNeal: Hi!

OH: Hello there, what's your name?

CM: I'm Candy McNeal.

OH: Where ya calling from Candy?

CM: I'm calling from Rockville, Maryland.

OH: Rockville, Maryland?

CM: Yeah, Rockville, Maryland.  It's the "Valentine City."*

OH: Oh, sure, of course.  What can I do for you, Candy?

CM: Well, I remember when I was a kid, there was this song I used to hear. It was something about "peppermint trees" and there were "streams of lemonade." And I think there was a lake of soda pop? People just think I'm crazy when I talk about it. Could you possibly tell me if I'm dreaming, or if that's actually the song.

OH: Well, Candy, you're not dreaming, and you're not crazy.

[music]  There is a song like that. We talked about Harry McClintock. We played him on our "Rich Man, Poor Man" show.**

We told you about him being an actor, poet, and painter... and a songwriter.  He wrote a song called The Big Rock Candy Mountain from the perspective of a hobo. He gained experience from traveling all over the land with the unemployed. He had great respect for the hobos and bums, and became their musical voice. The song Big Rock Candy Mountain is about a heaven for the homeless. The dogs have rubber teeth.  The police have wooden legs. The jail bars are made of tin. They're going to "hang the jerk who thought of work."

Well, it's got a catchy tune, and kids loved it, but these weren't appropriate words for kids.  So, they changed it.  The cigarette trees became the peppermint trees that you remember. The streams of alcohol - that's right - they became the streams of lemonade.  And that lake of soda pop you asked about is really a lake of whiskey.

People like Burl Ives recorded the kid's version, and it's great for kids to learn songs like this, but here on Theme Time Radio Hour we're all grown-ups. So why don't we listen to the original version: Big Rock Candy Mountain by Harry McClintock.  I hope that helps you out, Candy, and have fun in the Valentine City!

CM:  Thank you so much. I'm so glad to have cleared that up.

~ Phone call during the "Sugar & Candy" episode of Theme Time Radio Hour

Notes and Corrections

Some notes before we get started.

* Rockville, Maryland may well be known to someone, somewhere, as the "Valentine City," but if so, the City Fathers don't go out of their way to advertise that fact.  I can't find any mention of Rockville ever having any nickname.  Maybe if Dreamtime has any listeners in the Rockville area, they can straighten us out.

On the other hand, there is a Valentine, Nebraska, so maybe Candy was really from there and concealing her location in order to thwart stalkers.

** After nearly 100 shows, Mr. D. can be forgiven for occasionally mixing up episodes. And no Tim Ziegler, we, or us, or something.  However, Harry McClintock's Hallelujah, I'm a Bum didn't appear in "Rich Man, Poor Man" but in the first Theme Time Radio Hour potpourri show, "Thanksgiving Leftovers," way back in November of 2006.

As I write this addendum in late 2018, I've probably received more email on this article than any other Dreamtime post, almost all from lawyers or people who have run afoul of the current copyright holders of Big Rock Candy Mountain.

When I originally posted the story in 2009, my research indicated that Harry McClintock had lost his case against Billy Mack, and the song had been ruled in the public domain. Wherever I found that claim has long disappeared from these here Webbernets, and if true, appears to be unprovable, at least as far as my later research now indicates.  What is true is that McClintock's heirs are not shy about defending their rights to Big Rock Candy Mountain including obtaining a settlement from Burger King for its unauthorized use of the song's music in a 2005 commercial.

I still have my doubts that McClintock authored Big Rock Candy Mountain, no more than Bob Dylan wrote the music to Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum,  but can I help you prove it?  Nope, sorry.  If I do ever come across that long-ago case, I'll be sure to post it here. Normally I resist making after-the-fact corrections or edits, preferring to let my mistakes stand, but in this case, I've revised my article to reflect the facts, such as they are, so as not to raise any more false hopes for those thinking Big Rock Candy Mountain is in the public domain.

On with our show...


Episode 61 - Oh, That Big Rock Candy Mountain 

[Harry McClintock on The Big Rock Candy Mountains]

Harry McClintock, known at various times in his colorful career as "Haywire Mac," "Radio Mac," sometimes simply as "Mac," and maybe once as "Hats McKay," (more on that one later) claimed to have written Big Rock Candy Mountain - originally as The Big Rock Candy Mountains - sometime around 1898 when he was 16 years old, on the bum, and singing for his supper on street corners.

"But my new trade," McClintock told an interviewer. "brought new dangers.  I was a shining mark; a kid who could not only beg handouts but who could bring in money... a valuable piece of property for the jocker who could snare him... there were times when I fought like a wildcat or ran like a deer to preserve my independence and virginity..."

That last word, virginity, is key.  McClintock is referring to one of the dirty little secrets of the Romance of the Open Road.  Rather than yard bulls and train wheels, the biggest danger a rail-riding youth faced was being besieged by predatory hobos, known as "wolves" and "jockers," who promised food, protection, booze, and what-all in exchange for the boy's, ah, sexual favors.

Ghost Stories

"The Big Rock Candy Mountains may appear a nonsense song," noted a commentary that accompanied the first publication of the adult version. "But to all pied pipers in on the know it is an amusing exaggeration of the 'ghost stories' used in recruiting kids."

"Ghost story" was a hobo slang term for any plausible - but untrue - story, whether told to a housewife in order to promote a handout, or told to a young boy to entice him into the hobo life.  As ghost stories go, The Big Rock Candy Mountains was one big fable of fun and adventure, where cigarette trees,  lemonade springs and soda water fountains were always at hand for the taking. Harry McClintock's claimed original is pretty much recognizable as the better-known Big Rock Candy Mountain.  At least until we get to the final stanza, where a sadder but wiser lad tells his older traveling companion:
The punk rolled up his big blue eyes
And said to the jocker, "Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered too,
But I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
I'll be God damned if I hike any more
[To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore]
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."
The exact wording of that penultimate line is in question, as both published transcripts of The Big Rock Candy Mountains blank the line out to spare the tender sensibilities of their readership.  Musicologists have extrapolated gentler versions of that missing line, and some even randier versions.  But in all cases, the ah, thrust, is the same.

For obvious reasons, Harry McClintock never recorded his "adult" The Big Rock Candy Mountains, although he comes teasingly close in the interview I played at the beginning of the show.  He did record  a clean version for Victor in 19 and 28, and promptly launched a plagiarism suit against a "Billy Mack," a ukulele player who had copyrighted the sheet music for his take on Big Rock Candy Mountain that same year.  McClintock produced his lyrics, including the final stanza featuring the buggered boy, as evidence of his authorship to what must have been a very bemused judge.

Evidence about whether McClintock won or lost that particular case is shrouded in the mists of history, with some writers noting that the court ruled that Big Rock Candy Mountain was a traditional tune and in the public domain, fair game for any musician to try his hand at. However, at some point McClintock definitely won a ruling about his ownership of Big Rock Candy Mountain, as to this day his heirs take aggressive legal action against anyone, including at one point, Burger King, who use the song without their permission. McClintock complained bitterly about the appropriation of Big Rock Candy Mountain  in a letter to the League of Composers, asking how they thought so-called "hillbilly" songs could apparently be written by no one.

"The theory seems to be they are created by some sort of spontaneous generation," he wrote.


Actually, that's not a bad theory.  And, we'll talk about that it a moment, but first:

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Thanks for your time, friends, and now back to our show.


The Strange Case of Miss Peggy Lee and Mr. "Hats" McKay

It's likely that Harry McClintock's version of Big Rock Candy Mountain was one in a long line of songs that derived from an English ballad that first appeared in written form in 16 and 85, called An Invitation to Lubberland.  In Lubberland, all the brooks and streams ran with fine wine, and the hills were spun of sugar candy.  There's even a sexual element to the old song.  In Lubberland, if one found himself without a wife, you simply borrowed your neighbor's.

Wherever Mac first heard the source song of The Big Rock Candy Mountains, it's obvious that it was itself a variation of another, much more explicit, song called The Appleknocker's Lament, which Harry McClintock also may or may not have written. The only known written copy of The Appleknocker's Lament was sent to the Library of Congress by a collector in 19 and 27.  The big rock candy mountains make an appearance in that song, as does the disillusioned kid, who relates very explictly that he's tired of sitting on a hobo's peg and of being a "punkerino."

Harry McClintock made something of a career of claiming authorship of traditional songs and trying to copyright them, usually without much success from a monetary standpoint, although he was persistent enough to get credited by History for several works that he probably didn't write.

John Greenway, who first collected the randy version of McClintock's The Big Rock Candy Mountains for his book, American Songs of Protest, was willing to give Mac the benefit of the doubt, although he did note that McClintock offered virtually the same evidence as he had for his claim that he wrote Hallelujah, I'm a Bum.  That is, he produced a version of the song with some added and some changed lyrics, which he claimed was the true original. McClintock probably wasn't the original author of Hallelujah, I'm a Bum either. It's more likely he heard the original of that song at some I.W.W. meeting in the early 1900s, although Mac claimed he authored it at around the same time he wrote The Big Rock Candy Mountains, when he would have been age 15 or 16.

And then there's the strange case of Peggy Lee and "Hats" McKay.

In 19 and 47 Peggy Lee had a Number One hit with a song she co-authored, Manana. One "Hats" McKay, described in reports as an "elderly banjo player," filed a plagiarism suit against Lee and company, claiming that Manana was a reworking of a song "Hats" had written way back in 19 and 19, Midnight on the Ocean.

Here's where things start to get interesting.  According to her biography, Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, "Hats" McKay real name was "Harry McClintock". Whether this was our Harry McClintock, I  can't determine, but I'm pretty sure it was. Harry McClintock was also the author of a song called Ain't We Crazy, which was a variation of yet another traditional tune titled - you guessed it - Midnight on the Ocean.

Our Mac or not, "Hats" McKay followed in Harry McClintock's grand tradition, losing his case against Peggy Lee.  This may have been partially due to "Hats" habit of strumming his banjo while court was in session, irritating the judge no end. More likely the scales of justice tilted in Peggy's favor when Jimmy Durante made a surprise appearance, wheeling in a piano and launching into his Laughing Song, which also shared musical similarities with Manana and Midnight on the Ocean.

With the Ol' Schnozolla on your side, how could you lose? The court ruled that the melody Manana shared with Midnight on the Ocean was in the public domain.  "Hats" retired back into the mists of history.  Manana, however, wouldn't be a particularly happy memory for Peggy Lee.  Her co-author husband, who had a drinking problem, went out on a binge to celebrate their winning the case, and tried to sell the rights to the song for two tickets to the Rose Bowl that same night.


A Poet, Pirate, Pauper, Pawn and a King

Haywire Mac would move into radio in a big way in the mid-20s, becoming "Radio Mac" and hosting a popular children's show in San Francisco called "Mac and his Gang." He'd later try his hand in Hollywood, and Mr. D. might have even seen him on-screen, as Mac made it into several Gene Autry films, although his part was usually limited to saying "He want that-away."

In the early `50s, Mac returned to San Francisco and radio, and eventually even television. He passed away at age 74.  He was at various times in his life a bum, street musician, cowboy, railroad brakeman, poet, painter, actor, labor organizer, magazine writer, and model for several fictional characters...

... and maybe the composer of Big Rock Candy Mountain and Hallelujah, I'm a Bum...

...or maybe not.

Thanks as always for reading and listening to Dreamtime.  Remember you can find out what we're up to as well as Bob Dylan and Theme Time Radio Hour-related news on Twitter at DylanTweets.

Sources:Various entries on Harry McClintock and Big Rock Candy Mountain at the always invaluable Mudcat Cafe.  

American Songs of Protest, John Greenway;The Folk Songs of North America, Alan Lomax; Harry McClintock's AllMusic and Wikipedia biographies. Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee by Peter Richmond.

Haywire Mac's Big Rock Candy Mountain story and song is from a 1972 Folkways recording and can be found on Amazon in mp3 format, as can the complete album.  A bargain at $8.99.

This show was suggested by a friend of Dreamtime, Mr. Adam Dean.

Opening segment courtesy of Arnold Stang from, The Clock That Went Tock-Tick.


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1 comment:

Reverend Frost said...

Great ! (as always)