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Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock and The Dark Side Of 'Big Rock Candy Mountain'

On Thursday, March 1, 1928 Mac McClintock and Virgi Ward went into Victor’s Oakland California studio to wax their first sides. McClintock, who would be known for his Western ballads and “bum” songs cut four cowboy songs: “Get Along Little Doggies,” “Cowboy’s Lament,” “Texas Rangers,” and “Sam Bass.”

Later that month McClintock, himself a wanderer, would record his first hobo song: “The Bum Song.” McClintock would have hits with his other hobo songs: “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” The latter song, “Big Rock” would sweep the nation with renewed popularity in 2000 with its inclusion in the “O Brother Where Art Thou” movie and soundtrack.

Early Life Harry Kirby (nicknamed “Mac,” “Radio Mac” or “Haywire Mac”) McClintock was born on October 8, 1882 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the only son of an Ohio cabinetmaker (Walter and Joana McClintock). According to the reference book, Definitive Country, "The two most distinguishing characteristics of Mac's childhood were his love for singing, as a boy "soprano" in the choir of St. John's Episcopal Church, and an infatuation with railroading," which rubbed off from uncles who were railroad men. He began singing in church as a child and learned to play the guitar.

“When I was fourteen I ran away from home to join the Gentry Bros. Dog and Pony Show,” said McClintock [Sam Eskin interview]. “When the season ended, I hoboed to New Orleans where I was lucky enough to meet Captain and owner of a small stern-wheeler steamer that was laid up for the winter. The old boy was glad to have a trustworthy person to leave aboard when he stepped ashore to catch up with his drinking. I got comfortable quarters and most of my meals.”

Heading to New Orleans and the prospect of warmer weather, he found himself in the company of bums from all over the land, all of whom had the same idea. It was here that he first developed his strong sympathy for these individuals, later to be expressed in the tunes such as "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" and "The Bum Song." At 16, he began playing music on the streets for the promise of "spare change."

“It was in New Orleans that I found singing in saloons could be profitable,” said McClintock. “A bunch of Limey sailors were having a bit of a sing-song and I ventured in and shared in one of the choruses. I was immediately asked to grab a glass and sit it. Someone called on me for a song and I obliged. I scored a hit. I sang, it seemed, for hours. I'll never know how I got back to the boat, but in the morning I shook something like three bucks in nickles, dimes and quarters out of my pockets. I had made a discovery that shaped my life. No one who can sing need ever go hungry. They kept dropping coins in my pockets.”

The biography at the radio station KFRC where he became established states: “He ran away from home as a boy and joined the circus. After fighting in the Spanish American War he headed for the Klondike and the Alaskan Gold Rush. He worked as a railroad brakeman and as a miner in Utah, Wyoming and Nevada.”

Traveling Man “When I hit the road again in the Spring I faced the world with confidence (for) even a ragged kid singing without accompaniment could pick up the price of a bed and breakfast in almost any saloon, anywhere,” said McClintock. “Came the war with Spain. I latched onto a troop train bound for Chicamauga Park, near Chattanooga, Tenn. Hired by a hustling circulation manager, I built up a newspaper route and, as I ate at army chow lines and slept in the hay at the supply base I had no expenses and I prospered.”

When he returned to Tennessee briefly, Mac was already singing an early version of his classic, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" for recruits for the Spanish-American War in early 1898—but he soon found himself in the Philippines, working as a mule driver hauling supplies to the American troops. The following year he was in China, helping American reporters escape harm during the Boxer Rebellion. After a brief sojourn in Australia, he was off to Africa, where he worked on a British railroad supplying troops during the Boer War. In 1901, he was in London to witness the coronation of Edward VII. Then he was in South America. By the time he was 20, Harry McClintock had lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica.

“Army teamsters and packers were civilian employees in the Army of that day,” said McClintock [Sam Eskin interview]. “I was fascinated by the packers, a bunch of tough, competent westerners, and I hung out with them until I was a pretty good hand myself. It was claimed that Army chow killed hundreds of soldiers that summer but I thrived on it. And in the autumn of 1898 I was hired as a full-fledged buck packer for the quartermaster corps and shipped to the Philippines. For two years I helped freight ammunition and rations to the troops beyond the reach of the wagon trains. The going was rugged at times; we were frequently under fire and we carried Colt 45's for defence. But we figured that we were far better off than the soldiers; we always ate and we drew fifty bucks a month instead of the $15.60 of the buck private."

West Coast Circa 1902 Back in America, he wound up on the booming West Coast, working as a brakeman [Harry listed it as “switchman” on his 1917 draft registration] for Southern Pacific as an organizer for the radical socialist union, the IWW, and writing union fight songs. Along the way the sometime comedian picked up the moniker "Haywire Mac."

“I’m glad that in my hot-blooded youth I was a boomer [a brakeman that follows the work in busy “boom” times],” said McClintock. “I’ve seen a small part of this world and I wished I’d seen more.” During his lifetime Harry worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Sante Fe lines.

“I had plunked my guitar and warbled my ditties for many years in cowtowns and mining camps from Bisbee to Nome and I added to my repertoire whenever possible,” said McClintock.

Joe Hill, Jack Walsh and the IWW (or Wobblies)- Little Red Songbook The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was founded in Chicago in June 1905 at a convention of two hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from all over the United States (mainly the Western Federation of Miners) who were opposed to the policies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). McClintock, a railroad brakeman along the Pacific coast, became involved with the group.

One feature of IWW followers from their inception is song. (for example,). From that start in an exigency, Wobbly song writing became legendary. The IWW collected its official songs in the Little Red Songbook (first edition- 1909) and continues to update this book to the present time.

In 1906, the Wobblies in Spokane had realized their street speakers were being drowned out by the noisy Salvation Army brass band. It was Jack Walsh who hit upon the idea of using I.W.W. parodies, some based on Salvation Army tunes, to compete for the attention of crowds, and he organized a red-uniformed I.W.W. band to accompany the Wobbly singers. Cards bearing improvised lyrics to familiar tunes were printed and sold to the audience. These Wobbly innovations began a noisy contest for followers between the I.W.W. and the Salvation Army. McClintock, who had been writing parodies for years, was a part of the musical team.

To counteract management sending in the Salvation Army band to cover up the Wobbly speakers, Joe Hill wrote parodies of Christian hymns so that union members could sing along with the Salvation Army band, but with their own purposes. Hill’s most famous parody was of "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," which became "There'll Be Pie in the Sky When You Die (That's a Lie)." “Then,” according to Lomax, “they convulsed their hard-boiled audience with irreverent parodies of Salvation Army tear-jerkers” many of them Joe Hill compositions.

Ever resourceful, they decided to form their own band which Harry McLintock and Jack Walsh, a longshoreman, wrote additional parodies of Salvation Army hymns that were so successful the Wobblies put them out in a publication with lyrics only called the “Little Red Songbook.” [Subtitled: Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent]

Wallace Stegner: McClintock had been a busker, a sort of saloon guitarist and singer up and down the coast and in mining camps. He did know Joe Hill. He had, he said, taken the laundry ticket on which Joe Hill had written "The Preacher and the Slave" on Burnside Street up in Portland. He sang it on a street corner at an IWW meeting the first time it was ever sung. And he had sung the Wobbly version of "Casey Jones" and some other Joe Hill songs at that meeting. [Conversations with Wallace Stegner (University of Utah Press, 1990), p. 70.]

Joe Hill, an itinerant songwriter who was more rogue than radical, came to symbolize the spirit of the Wobblies in the public mind, mostly because of the phenomenal success he achieved in orchestrating his own martyrdom. After arriving from Sweden in 1902, he wandered through the West for the next thirteen years. Not much was known about him except that he often hung around the San Pedro I.W.W. hall. Some of the old-timers suspected he made his living as a robber, and only used the Wobblies as a social club. Then, in 1914, he was arrested in Utah for the murder of a market owner, a murder he didn't commit. Since he refused to say where he'd been at the time of the shooting (to protect the honour of a lady, it was said), he was convicted. While Hill languished in the Sugarhouse Prison, protests and telegrams flooded in, including one from the deaf and blind humanitarian Helen Keller. President Woodrow Wilson requested a stay of execution granted by the governor; but when the stay ran out, Hill died in a fury of bullets on November 19, 1915. Hill became a symbol of persecution for the IWW- and a rallying cry. His funeral was attended by over 30,000 members.

A new music book, “The Big Red Songbook” by Archie Green, who has compiled and reprinted these protest songs, includes the editions of “Little Red Songbook” in songbook, starting in 1909. Included, are some songs by Harry McClintock.

Settles down in San Francisco He married a railroad engineer's daughter, Bessie (Jan. 25, 1899- Dec. 16, 1980); they had a daughter and settled in San Francisco. McClintock worked full time for the railroads, mainly as a brakeman. According to the 1920 census, his daughter was four years old, making the date the McClintocks established a permanent residence in San Francisco around 1915-16.

Early 1920s It was in the oil fields that Jim Thompson met “Haywire” Mac, who is memorialized as the character Strawlegs Martin in his novel Bad Boy. McClintock is singularly responsible for convincing Thompson to return to Dallas and continue his education, as well as seriously pursue writing at this point.

KFRC Radio Star 1925 At age 43, he began singing on San Francisco's station KFRC. He hosted one daily children’s program called “Mac and His Gang.” His comic Western band, “Mac and His Haywire Orchestry” frequently played on the variety shows. Among the group of musicians was painter Ralph Chesse who played fiddle with the group in 1925. During this time he began being called, “Radio Mac.”

McClintock also played on KFRC on the Blue Monday Jamboree program that was extremely popular in the late 1920s. He played on KFRC occasionally until 1955.

“In April, 1925, I got my big break,” said McClintock [Sam Eskin interview]. “I was handed a whole hour on radio KFRC, San Francisco, Monday through Saturday. The program was aimed at children and it's immediate success surprised the hell out of me and everyone else. There never was a kid that didn't like cowboys and Indians and the daddies of my youthful audience had nearly all knocked around this western country in their own youthful days. Some Indian friends dropped by occasionally and sang their own songs to the thump of a knuckle-drum. There was Tall Pine, a Sioux from the movie lots, Joe Longfeather, a tall handsome Blackfoot who was selling automobiles, Silver Cloud, a Laguna and a copper smith in the Sante Fe railroad shops and Evening Thunder, a Pima who was a pretty good middleweight pugilist. I had written a few hobo songs in my rambling days and radio listeners liked them too. I was signed by Victor in 1927 and was under contract for four years.”

Signs with Victor 1927- Makes First Records On Thursday, March 1, 1928 Mac McClintock waxed his first sides for Victor. He was the only artist to record in the Bay Area and then be issued on a Victor hillbilly series--both the V-23000 and V-40000. Mac specialized in hobo songs and cowboy songs. Mac recorded nine different times in 1928 at Victor’s Oakland and Hollywood studios. The performances were solo, in duo with fiddler Virgil Ward or vocalist Dorothy Ellen Cole, or with the full orchestral backup of the Haywire Orchestra. Fiddler Asa “Ace” White and drummer Buck Buck holtz played at some of the 1928 sessions.

In 1929 Mac’s Haywire Orchestry consisted of Ace Wright (fiddle); Waite “Chief” Woodall (fiddle); Jerry Richard (banjo); Cecil “Rowdy Wright (guitar) and Cleo “Doc” Shahan (guitar). They recorded “He Sure can Play Hamoniky,” “Homespun Gal,” and the Charlie Poole hit, “Can I Sleep In Your Barn,” in December, 1929.

Mac cut 41 songs for Victor from 1928 to 1931 before the Depression slowed his record sales and he, like so many recording artists, were no longer able to record. Following the end of his Victor contract, McClintock cut sides for Decca (1938) and a small local label, called Flex-o-Disc. Through his recordings, he became an influence on Woody Guthrie and other folksingers and helped glamorize the hobo lifestyle. He also made critical first recordings of many important cowboy and bum songs, which were highly popular in the 1920s and 30s.

Hallelujah I’m a Bum “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” was recorded by McClintock for Victor on March 31, 1928 backed by his Haywire Ochestra. McClintock claimed to write it and the song appeared in the IWW Song book in 1909. This tune is a parody of an old Salvation Army tune called "Revive Us Again." The song was often attributed to Wobbly organizer Joe Hill, who also was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Vernon Dalhart, heard it and then quickly recorded it for Columbia and he made it a hit. It was recorded by a host of other early country artists including Frank Luther and Arthur Fields.

While hoboing on the open road in 1897 or 1898, bumming his meals or singing for his supper, McClintock says he put new words to "Revive Us Again," and called it, "Hallelulia on the Bum."

"There were only two or three verses at first but new ones practically wrote themselves. The junglestiffs liked the song and so did the saloon audiences, most of whom had hit the road at one time or another, and the rolicking, devil-may-care lilt of the thing appealed to them."

During the Spanish American War, McClintock says, he sang the song in an army training camp in Tennessee, and the soldiers took it up, adding new verses. After the war they helped to spread the song around the country. By the late 1920s, more than a dozen publishers had turned out sheet music of the song. McClintock then charged them with infringement of copyright, and managed to establish his authorship legally. [Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer, eds., Songs of Work and Protest, New York, NY, 1973, p. 127.]

According to Sandburg: This old song heard at the water tanks of railroads in Kansas in 1897 and from harvest hands who worked in the wheat fields of Pawnee County, was picked up later by the I. W. W.'s, who made verses of their own for it, and gave it a wide fame. [Carl Sandburg, The American Songbag, New York, NY, 1990 (originally published in 1927), p. 184.]

Big Rock Candy Mountain Harry McClintock accompanied Dorothy Ellen Cole by recorded “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” for Victor on Sept. 6, 1928. According to Meade the song, word and music, is attributed to Marshall P. Locke, 1906. The song is probably best remembered for its inclusion in the “O Brother Where Art Thou” movie and soundtrack but was a hit for Burl Ives in 1949, but it has been recorded by many artists throughout the world. Another popular version, recorded in 1960 by Dorsey Burnette, reached the Billboard top ten.

In an interview with Sam Eskin, folklorist, on a Folkways LP, McClintock tells how and when he wrote "Big Rock Candy Mountain." He sings the song on that recording but says that the original he'd first written was pretty "adult". Sterilized versions have been popular, especially with children's musicians; in these, the "cigarette trees" become peppermint trees, and the "streams of alcohol" trickling down the rocks become streams of lemonade. The lake of gin is not mentioned, and the lake of whiskey becomes a lake of soda pop.

This is what Wallace Stegner has to say, discussing his novel, The Preacher and the Slave: "later, while I was working on the novel, I discovered Mac McClintock. He said he wrote "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," and Victor at least paid him royalties as author. Actually, I think "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" was written by T-Bone Slim, or some other nameless balladeer, a long time before McClintock came along. He may have added two or three verses.”

Oh the buzzin’ of the bees In the cigarette trees Near the soda water fountain At the lemonade springs Where the bluebird sings On the big rock candy mountain

Shortly after the release of the song in 1928, some local residents, as a joke, placed a sign at the base of a colourful mountain in Utah naming it “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” They also placed a sign next to a nearby spring proclaiming it “Lemon Springs.” These names stuck, and the mythical Big Rock Candy Mountain of the song became perhaps one of the most recognized geologic sites in west-central Utah. Geologic Information: Located a few miles north of Marysvale in Piute County, Big Rock Candy Mountain consists of altered volcanic rock in various shades of yellow, orange, red, and white. The British anarcho-punk band The Restarts have recorded a version using an early, uncensored version of McClintock's lyrics. The song was used in a 2005 Burger King commercial, although the lyrics are changed to reference the food being promoted. In the commercial almost all of the promises of the song are shown in detail. Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish) is shown as a cowboy singing the song. Brooke Burke also appears in the commercial as a cowgirl. The punk rock band Ashtray re-recorded the song but changed the name to "Punk Rock Candy Mountain" for the Rock 'n' Roll Three Way CD with The Secretions and Final Summation.

Actor Hobo Harry McClintock later became an actor, appearing in several Gene Autry movies. McClintock moved to Hollywood in 1938 to see what he could get going in the movie business. He wound up appearing in several Gene Autry films, a Durango Kid oater, and a variety of serials done at the Universal and Republic studios. He tended to be a villain when he was lucky. Unlucky, he just got to stand there and say "He went thataway."

Decca 1938 After he moved to Hollywood, Harry arranged a recording session at Decca’s Holywood studio on Dec. 14, 1938 wqhere he recorded four of hiss bigger hits singing accompanied by his own guitar: “Bum Song,” “Bum Song No. 2,” “Hallelujah I’m A Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

Later Life McClintock was the hardest-working bum on the West Coast. The Hollywood actor and recording star worked as a brakeman until he got his pension, then got a job with the Los Angeles Harbor Dept. In 1943 McClintock published his short 47 page book, “Railroad Songs of Yesterday” published by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co.

Mac also wrote a regular column for a national railroad magazine. He retired to San Francisco, where he made appearances on local radio and even TV. When he died in 1957, Knoxville reporters asked around among the old vaudevillians but found only one who was old enough to remember, and only vaguely, the kid performer who was singing around town back in the '90s.

On November 17, 1952 Mac recorded some Wobbly songs, occupational songs and spoken folk tales (Paddy Burke) for Sam Eskin in San Pedro, California. Most of the quotes in this bio come from the interview which resulted in the 1972 Folkways recording. McClintock also did radio work as well as writing articles, plays, and fiction for pulp magazines under pseudonyms. In 1953, he went back to San Francisco to appear on the radio and television program entitled The Breakfast Hour. He continued with this program off and on until 1955. He died in San Francisco on 1957.

McClintock claimed to have written 'Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1895, based on tales from his youth hoboing through the United States, but some believe that at least aspects of the song have existed for far longer and likely partially based on other ballads, including "An Invitation to Lubberland" and "The Appleknocker's Lament". Other popular itinerant songs of the day such as "Hobo's Paradise", "Hobo Heaven", "Sweet Potato Mountains" and "Little Streams of Whiskey" likely served as inspiration, as they mention concepts similar to those in "Big Rock Candy Mountain".

Before recording the song, McClintock cleaned it up considerably from the version he sang as a street busker in the 1890s. Originally the song described a child being recruited into hobo life by tales of the "big rock candy mountain". In later years, when McClintock appeared in court as part of a copyright dispute, he cited the original words of the song, the last stanza of which was:

In the released version this verse did not appear.

The song was not popularised until 1939, when it peaked at #1 on Billboard magazine's country music charts. But it achieved more widespread popularity in 1949 when a sanitised version intended for children was re-recorded by Burl Ives. It has been recorded by many artists throughout the world, but a version recorded in 1960 by Dorsey Burnette to date was the biggest success for the song in the post-1954 "rock era", having reached No. 102 on Billboard's chart.

Sanitised versions have been popular, especially with children's musicians; in these, the "cigarette trees" become peppermint trees, and the "streams of alcohol" trickling down the rocks become streams of lemonade. The lake of gin is not mentioned, and the lake of whiskey becomes a lake of soda pop. The 2008 extended adaptation for children by Gil McLachlan tells the story as a child's dream, the last stanza being:


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