Hoboes loved singing; it was free. They grafted their own words onto the popular songs of the day and sometimes worked out their own tunes as well. In the end they contributed much to American folk music. Perhaps the most famous of all hobo songs was “The Big Rock Candy Mountains.” Mac McClintock claimed to have written it, and his claim is as good as any. McClintock, who became one of the great Wobbly troubadours, ran away from home at fourteen to join the circus. When the circus folded in 1896, he went on the bum and, in a New Orleans saloon, found that he could turn a couple of dollars by singing. He was delighted but soon realized that there were dangers in his new trade. “As a ‘producer,’” he wrote, I was a shining mark; a kid, who could not only beg handouts but who could bring in money for alcohol, was a valuable piece of property for the jocker that could snare him. The decent hoboes were protective as long as they were around, but there were times when I fought like a wildcat or ran like a deer to preserve my independence and my virginity, and on one occasion I jumped into the darkness from a box-car door—from a train that must have been doing better than thirty miles an hour. I lay in the ditch where I landed until picked up by a section gang next morning.
So it is not surprising that in its initial form “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” was cynical, bitter, and rough. But as it was reworked by hundreds of hoboes in the jungles and around the water tanks, it gradually lost its sharp corners and became a jaunty, wistful Utopian ballad. Here it is as recorded in Alan Lomax’s great anthology Folk Songs of North America:
On a summer’s day in the month of May, A burly little bum come a-hiking, Travelling down that lonesome road A-looking for his liking. He was headed for a land that was far
away, Beside them crystal fountains— “I’ll see you all this coming fall In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains You never change your socks, And little streams of alcohol Come a-trickling down the rocks. The box cars are all empty And the railroad bulls are blind, There’s a lake of stew and whisky, too, You can paddle all around ‘em in a big
canoe In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
CHORUS: O—the buzzing of the bees in the cigarette trees Round the soda-water fountain, Where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, There’s a land that’s fair and bright, Where the hand-outs grow on bushes And you sleep out every night, Where the box cars are all empty And the sun shines every day, O I’m bound to go, where there ain’t no
snow, Where the rain don’t fall and the wind don’t blow In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
CHORUS In the Big Rock Candy Mountains The jails are made of tin And you can bust right out again As soon as they put you in; The farmer’s trees are full of fruit, The barns are full of hay, I’m going to stay where you sleep all day, Where they boiled in oil the inventor of toil In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
Few hobo songs have as clear a provenance as “The Big Rock Candy Mountains.” For instance, nobody knows where or when the Wabash Cannonball first rolled out of the yards, but for a hundred years or more that fabulous special has been the Flying Dutchman of the hobo world, roaring on the high iron through every city and town in America. This is the song as George Milburn took it down in the 1920’s:
From the waves of the Atlantic to the wild Pacific shore, From the coast of California to ice-bound Labrador, There’s a train of doozy layout that’s
well-known to us all, It’s the hoes’ accommodation, called the
Wabash Cannonball. Great cities of importance we reach upon
our way, Chicago and St. Louis, Rock Island, so they say. Then Springfield and Decatur, Peoria
above all, We reach them by no other but the Wabash Cannonball.
This train she runs to Quincy, Monroe, and Mexico, She runs to Kansas City, and she’s never running slow; She runs right into Denver, and she makes an awfull squall. They all know by that whistle it’s the Wabash Cannonball. There are other cities, pardner, that you can go to see— St. Paul and Minneapolis, Ashtabula, Kankakee. The lakes of Minnehaha, where the laughing waters fall— We reach them by no other but the Wabash Cannonball.
Now listen to her rumble, now listen to
her roar, As she echoes down the valley and tears along the shore. Now hear the engine’s whistle and her
mighty hoboes’ call As we ride the rods and brakebeams on
the Wabash Cannonball. Now here’s to Long Slim Perkins, may
his name forever stand. He’ll be honored and respected by the
‘boes throughout the land. And when his days are over and the
curtains round him fall, We’ll ship him off to hell and on the Wabash Cannonball.