Oh, That Big Rock Candy Mountain

Fred Bals
10 min readFeb 4, 2020

Bob Dylan: Harry McClintock [was] an actor, poet, and painter… and a songwriter. He wrote a song called The Big Rock Candy Mountain from the perspective of a hobo. He gained experience from traveling all over the land with the unemployed. He had great respect for the hobos and bums and became their musical voice. The song Big Rock Candy Mountain is about a heaven for the homeless. The dogs have rubber teeth. The police have wooden legs. The jail bars are made of tin. They’re going to “hang the jerk who thought of work.”

Well, it’s got a catchy tune, and kids loved it, but these weren’t appropriate words for kids. So, they changed it. The cigarette trees became the peppermint trees that you remember. The streams of alcohol — that’s right — they became the streams of lemonade. And that lake of soda pop you asked about is really a lake of whiskey.

People like Burl Ives recorded the kid’s version, and it’s great for kids to learn songs like this, but here on Theme Time Radio Hour we’re all grown-ups. So why don’t we listen to the original version of Big Rock Candy Mountain by Harry McClintock. ~ Phone call during the “Sugar & Candy” episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, airdate: February 25, 2009

Harry McClintock aka “Haywire Mac

Harry McClintock, known at various times in his colorful career as “Haywire Mac,” “Radio Mac,” sometimes simply as “Mac,” and maybe once as “Hats McKay,” (more on that one later) was born on October 8, 1882 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

When he was fourteen Mac ran away from home to join the Gentry Brothers Dog and Pony Show. In addition to serving in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, Mac worked on the railroad, as a cowboy, stevedore, and as a union organizer with the “Wobblies” (Industrial Workers of the World). He claimed to have written Big Rock Candy Mountain — originally titled as The Big Rock Candy Mountains — sometime around 1898 when he was 16 years old, on the bum, and singing for his supper on New Orleans street corners.

“But my new trade,” McClintock told an interviewer, “brought new dangers. I was a shining mark; a kid who could not only beg handouts but who could bring in money… a valuable piece of property for the jocker who…

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Fred Bals

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.