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Big Rock Candy Mountains

I have a new album out! Here are some details about the song "Big Rock Candy Mountains" the first track from the new release Trade Songs: American West.


One time I went on a road trip with my grandparents, my sister, and my great-grandmother. We drove to California to visit some family and saw a lot of the American southwest along the way. On the way home we drove through Utah, and I remember my grandpa telling me that we were passing the Big Rock Candy Mountain late one night. I strained to see it in the dark.

I knew the song at the time, and I almost certainly learned it from a Burl Ives record (yes a vinyl record) that I had. I know I also had a cassette tape of Tom Chapin songs and it was on that. So maybe I heard it there first, I’m not 100% sure. I know it wasn’t the original Harry McClintock version that I heard first. Regardless, I was impressed that we were there, and that it was a real place.

Turns out it’s half a real place. There are a few places in the United States called “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and they are all named after the song. The resort in Utah that we passed on that trip is just one of them. There’s a climbing area near my home in Colorado that bears the name, but it really looks like a big piece of rock candy. All of them are real places, none of them were named that before the song.

The place that Harry McClintock sings about in the song is a hobo-utopia that maybe represents heaven, or just an imagined paradise for railway ramblers. My other grandpa (mother’s father) hopped a train when he was young to live a hobo’s life and see what it was like. From his account it sounded pretty miserable, and dangerous. He came home after just a couple of weeks on the rails.

I love how this song makes light of hobo struggles and that hobo heaven still has people living the life. It’s not a dream of mansions or angels with harps. It’s still a “bum jungle” but it’s a bum jungle where everything is available. The hardships are a little less hard. There are still jails and shovels, but they are normal shovels and jails that are easy to break out of. It’s a whimsical and humorous take on the hardships of train life.

There’s a great YouTube channel called Hobo Shoestring which features a modern hobo riding trains all over the United States. His videos are amazing. They have great pacing and give an insight to how different America looks from trains versus from a car. I think about this song whenever I watch his videos.

Many people found their way west clinging to trains. Some would find an open boxcar and sneak in when the train started moving. Others would lay on the platforms at the end of the cars. If they were lucky the brakeman in the caboose might let them ride with him just for some company.

Old time train cars had bars that stretched the length of the car and hung underneath. Some hobos would climb under the train and hold on to those bars to ride short distances, or maybe (if they planned ahead well enough) they might build a little makeshift platform and lay under there. Hopefully the train wouldn’t skip any stops because I bet it wasn’t fun to hold onto those bars while the train was moving. People would lose their grip, and, well, they were under a moving train. You can imagine what their fate might be. Riding under the train was called “riding the rods”.

Often, we think about hobos in the depression era, and there certainly were hobos then. That’s when my grandpa was on his expedition. But sneaking rides on trains are as old as the railroads themselves. It seems fairly common that men were moving all around the west sneaking onto trains. By 1890, trains were widespread throughout the United States and there was a significant population of traveling workers “Hobos” and bums (who did not work).

I love this song and could sing it all day. 


Big Rock Candy Mountains - Lyrics

One evening as the sun went down

And the jungle fires were burning,

Down the track came a hobo hiking,

And he said, "Boys, I'm not turning

I'm headed for a land that's far away

Beside the crystal fountains

So come with me, we'll go and see

The Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, There's a land that's fair and bright,

Where the handouts grow on bushes And you sleep out every night.

Where the boxcars all are empty And the sun shines every day

And the birds and the bees And the cigarette trees

The lemonade springs Where the bluebird sings

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains All the cops have wooden legs

And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs

The farmers' trees are full of fruit And the barns are full of hay

Oh I'm bound to go Where there ain't no snow

Where the rain don't fall The winds don't blow

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains You never change your socks

And the little streams of alcohol Come trickling down the rocks

The brakemen have to tip their hats And the railway bulls are blind

There's a lake of stew And of whiskey too

You can paddle all around it In a big canoe

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, The jails are made of tin.

And you can walk right out again, As soon as you are in.

There ain't no short-handled shovels, No axes, saws nor picks,

I'm bound to stay Where you sleep all day,

Where they hung the jerk That invented work

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

I'll see you all this coming fall

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

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