Big Rock Candy Mountain – Harry McClintock
Since I was a little crawling child, I knew this song. I thought it was one of those tunes that all children hear; part of that vaunted company which includes “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” I mean, what kid doesn’t want to go to mountains made of candy? Especially if they’re replete with peppermint (cigarette) trees and lemonade (alcohol) springs and by God, this gets sanitized for children. They just get told of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Or perhaps the rambler’s life isn’t something they grasp yet.
This classic dates all the way back to great ‘28, penned by good old Harry McClintock, the great hobo bard. It was an instant hit, and who can blame it? Back then, folk and bluegrass was all the rage, with traditional musicians getting recording opportunities for the first time in… ever. People came out of the woodwork to get their name on a record. McClintock was one of them, a jack of all trades if there ever was one (at one point, he was in China helping with news coverage of the Boxer Rebellion). This is very much a song of its time: it’s not a nostalgic throwback to the hoboes, instead a timely paean to the then-thriving subculture.
Who doesn’t want to sleep all day? Who doesn’t want to live in a place where you don’t have to break your back for a boss or a landlord? You don’t need a retirement plan; the land itself takes care of you. Maybe it’s a little pro-laziness, but better that than overexhaustion! It sounds, dare I say, a little communistic: all will be provided for, and there’s no money to speak of. Just an assurance of basic necessities. And no cops.
McClintock was a union organizer. He worked for the IWW. He fought and sang alongside the legendary Joe Hill (may he rest in peace). Back then, there was no distinction between protest singers and protesters. Everybody, bard or not, was on the front lines. And even when singing, it was incendiary. Contextually, this is an incredibly political song. Coming on the heels of the violent labor conflicts of the early ‘20s, this is a direct response. After seeing the National Guard fire on its own citizens at Blair Mountain and Ludlow, why not dream of the Big Rock Candy Mountains? What dignity or legitimacy does Work and Profit have if it means children are burned alive?
The Big Rock Candy Mountains are not simply full of provisions and comforts. And the old system still remains, albeit vestigial. Jails exist. The law exists. But it has no power. McClintock didn’t dream of a totally new world. He simply wanted the tyranny of this one to be stripped of its authority. Sure, you can still have men guarding the railroads, but they can’t see, can’t act. The capitalist hegemony still exists, but it is rendered powerless. The Mountains are more refuge than paradise.
This is a song I’ll sing to my children. It’s a protest song through and through, a direct challenge to the validity of the way of things. Look at this wonderful peaceful place! Sure, there’s going to be some problems if the factories and shops and businesses shut down. Big problems. But is it any worse than what we have now?
(The aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre, 1914)