(Scroll to bottom to for youtube How to Play video.)
Harry McClintock claimed he wrote Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1895, but it’s an open question; the song may have existed in some form much earlier. Truth or not, it wasn’t until 1928 that McClintock recorded the song. And the recorded version left out some of the more risque elements, which he used in court to prove he had written the song originally.
Big Rock contains elements of wishful thinking. The yearning for things normally denied. From a hobo viewpoint, cigarette trees, lemonade springs, empty boxcars and blind guards sound like heaven. No dreams of vast wealth or power. No huge mansions or private properties. Just a life without struggle. As far as dreams go, it’s small in some ways, but quite grand in others.
If you listen, though, you’ll hear darker overtones. The railroad bulls (guards) are blind… that’s kind of harsh. From what I’ve read, maybe it’s justified. Some of the stories tell of pretty terrible treatment if you were caught stealing a ride. Then again, not all hoboes were nice harmless folk either. I tend to think in extremes… for good and for bad. But the truth is more likely that they were like people everywhere, good and bad mixed. If you do a bit more looking around, you’ll find some verses that didn’t make the final cut when Harry recorded his song. Not for kids, which brings me to Burl Ives. His version is the one you likely know. Child-safe and family friendly, Burl kept things squeaky clean. It’s the one I grew up knowing, and I’m grateful to Burl for this and other childhood memories.
None of this has any bearing on why I chose Big Rock Candy Mountain. The truth is, my Mom’s birthday was coming up, I didn’t have a lot of money, and wanted to do something out of the ordinary. This was one of several songs Mom has mentioned from her childhood. Actually, more from her teens. My grandfather, who we all called Paw, had his own way of watching out for his girls. When a young fellow came by to take them out, they’d come home to find Paw sitting on the porch swing, playing the fiddle. A subtle message to the suitors, and good memories for his daughters.
Of the songs Mom’s mentioned, I’ve already done at least one, some are still copyrighted (which I try to avoid) and this one fit the bill. Especially since it had a melody that worked well for me. Some songs are a struggle for me to remember the tune through several verses. I have a tendency to mash multiple melodies together and lose track of which one I was trying to play. This one stayed in my head, probably because I’ve heard it off and on for decades.
So, got the song down in my mind, recorded, edited, uploaded to Youtube, and burned onto a disc with all my other piano videos. Printed a picture of me on the disk, wrapped it and gave it to Mom. I think it worked out. Kind of the adults version of giving her a crayon drawing for the refrigerator. Now I just need to make her a disc that will play in her car. :^)