where the jails are made of tin, and you can bust right out just as soon as they put you in.
The folk music revival—and popular music in general—leaves many trails to follow, and not all of them happy ones. Sometimes one song can take you a million places, both light and dark, though blazing glory and deep into the shadows of the “folk process.”
In my Digitizing Folk Music History research seminar, we spend some time on one such path, wending our way around the many byways that lead to, from, around, and through “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Written by Harry Kirby McClintock, best known as “Haywire Mac,” in 1895, or so he claimed, and recorded for Victor Records in 1928, the song is about a hobo’s paradise, where there are “cigarette trees” and “little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks,” among other fantasies of abundance and ease. My favorite part of the recording is when, as if drunk himself on the flowing booze, McClintock pronounces it “blig rock candy mountain.”
The song has its roots in traditional lyrics and melodies such as “An Invitation to Lubberland” and “The Appleknocker’s Lament.” Deeper into the past, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” joins a long tradition of imagining the Land of Cockaigne, a poor man’s dreamland.
Haywire Mac himself had led a colorful life, covering the Boxer Rebellion in China as a journalist in 1899, traveling the rails in the 1920s and 30s, and working as a minstrel. He was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and was among the first to sing songs written by radical IWW martyr Joe Hill.
The hillbilly singer Vernon Dalhart—in fact the classically trained Marion Try Slaughter—recorded a version for Edison Records one year earlier than McClintock himself. I love the descending guitar line in this one, a sophisticated little chromatic insertion of a flatted sixth in the descending bass line run on the low strings to suggest an augmented sixth chord and a bit of dissonant, devilish temptation in the fantasy of escape. Who is playing guitar on this track? Not Dalhart, but who? Also a wonderful little banjo solo.
Neither McClintock nor Dalhart’s versions were big hits, but the song eventually topped the “Hillbilly Hits” chart in 1939, just as the Great Depression was receding, when it was released in a wacky, cartoonish, yodeled version by the New Zealand-born Robert “Tex” Morton.
Wacky to be sure, but “Big Rock Candy Mountain” also has more to it than just silliness. As Hal Rammel argues in his fabulous Nowhere in America: The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Other Comic Utopias, a number of versions of the song included obscene lyrics. These added other intriguing elements to its imagined land of surfeit and pleasure, such as homosexual relationships among railroad hobos that reflected real-world jockers and wolves (older veterans of the hobo life) and younger, neophyte lambs, prushuns, or punks (perhaps that’s one of the buried origins of the term punk later in the 1970s?). So while the song may seem like a goofy nursery song, there’s more to its historical layers than that. Americana has often been more frank about these matters of sex and power than many think.
Nonetheless, the song eventually emerged after World War II as a sweet, sanitized children’s song, best known through the 1949 version by Burl Ives.
And of course Pete Seeger sang it as one of his folk ballads for kids.
Johnny Cash kept it pretty corny when he performed the song on his television show a few years later. “It’s good sometime to make real the world of fantasy and make believe as some people do, like hoboes for instance,” the Man in Black sang to a group of children on his television show in 1971.
There’s the Wallace Stegner novel, too, published in 1943.
By the 1990s, the later-day bohemian folk hero known as Baby Gramps was turning “Big Rock Candy Mountain” into a seasick Popeye on speed version. Tipping the tune into absurdity, he plays it for kids in a spazz-out style or as a drunk-at-the-end-of-the-bar bizarro surreal blues.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do a nice version ever-so-slightly more on this side of sane.
But perhaps the strangest journey of the song—a journey home to the libidinous dimensions of the song that Rammel noticed—was when it appeared as the inspiration for a Super Bowl commercial in 2005. Performed by Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker to sell Burger King’s Tender Crisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich (yuck!), “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was transformed from a hobo’s to a frat boy’s paradise.
Licentious, smutty, salacious, lewd, vulgar, offensive—the advertisement transforms a song with lost meanings referring to the homosocial and homosexual (and often predatory) masculine worlds of the hobo jungle into exaggerated, heteronormative (and often predatory) fantasies of sexual conquest. All in the name of corporate-controlled consumption, to be sure. It’s NFL-sanctioned debauchery. Created by the advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusly, the ad starts in black and white, then shifts to a creamy, dreamlike, oversatured color as Rucker, dressed just a bit too garishly to be a Marlboro Man, sings of how he closes his eyes and imagines himself on a “Chicken Bacon Cheddar Ranch.”
It’s a place where the “the breasts they grow on trees” as a buxom young woman with long blond tresses almost bursts out of her midriff-bearing gingham blouse as she harvests sandwiches; a place where “Folks don’t hunt you ’cause you got the juice,” and “there’s a train of ladies comin’ with a nice caboose” as two women in hot pants push a handcar past Rucker; a place where “no one tells you to behave” as “you’re wildest fantasies come true, Dallas cheerleaders give you shaves” as the Americana imagery (lassos, barber poles, hula-hoops, yellow brick roads, swings, a large chicken, french fries, handlebar mustaches, and lots of scantily-clad, costumed young women) proliferate; it’s a place where “you can veg all day” and “there’s a king who wants you to have it your way” (that would be the Burger King and his corporation’s slogan).
Positioned in the advertisement from 2005, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” strives to be acceptable and transgressive all at once. It’s a quaint folk song! It’s a naughty tale of debauchery! You can have it your way, and eat it too!
What it is most of all in this version is downright pornographic. It’s a reminder, or better said a tease, that fast food’s pleasure is to be found in its capacity to deliver abjectness to the main stem. Go ahead, soil yourself, sad Darius Rucker proposes, his pop stardom on the wane to celebrity b-list level if even that by 2005. We’re all garbage. You are what you eat, so treat yourself, and others, as such. After all, you’ll never really be a king. That’s the guy putting money in the bank as he sells you this degredation of edibility compressed between two buns. Royalty you are not, and sink your teeth into it.
On “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” overindulgence and unscrupulousness go hand in hand. Maybe you can grease the pole for a day, boys, and reach that prized Tender Crisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich perched at the top, but you’ll always return from any sense of great heights to feel the pits. Luckily, there are endless more to eat down there too, at your local Burger King franchise.
Such are the strange byproducts when the folk process gives way to processed food. While once, during the early twentieth century, Big Rock Candy Mountain was a cornucopia with a nagging political conscience, a place where “they hung the jerk who invented work” and “boiled in oil the inventor of toil,” here, in this Burger King ad, it is deprived of any radical resistance or subversion at all. Now it is just a demeaning, hyper-sexualized, frat-boy wet dream trading on Americana kitsch. Once handouts grew on bushes. Now you pay for them. What you get in return is not just a disgusting chicken sandwich, but also, more importantly, entrance into a routinized, corporatized, wink-wink affirmation of adolescent, aggro, misogynst bro culture.
There is no perfectible post-work utopia hidden up there in them hills anymore, no place of potential peace and plenty, equality and emancipation, inexhaustible and boundless freedom. We have truly arrived at a place “where the jails are made of tin, and you can bust right out again just as soon as they put you in.” Because the whole damn thing has become a prison: a fake set, a televised gilded cage.
To be sure it’s a luxurious, minimum security prison, but that’s the point. The bulldogs really do have rubber teeth here. The railroad bulls are blind. The brakemen have to tip their hats. No limits here. No shovels, axes, saws, or picks. Just corporate-approved torpor. There is no more weather. The farmer’s trees are full of fruit. You really can sleep all day and never have to change your socks.
On the Super Bowl broadcast, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” has reached its logical conclusion, and in doing so, we witness a kind of mountaintop removal, the loss of it as an impossible place one seeks far away, beside the crystal fountains. There is no turning away from paradise now. It’s been fully incorporated into the networks of power.
And yet, as is always the case with traditional music, just out of sight, a burly bum slips away, heading down the track for other destinations. One day, beyond the next bend, we’ll catch up.