Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Big Rock Candy Mountain - Maybe At Times It's Better Not to Know

Songs written as far back as "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" tend to morph into nursery rhymes over time, until they're sung almost exclusively by or for children, much in the same way modern parents may sing "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer." "The Big Rock Candy Mountain's" best-known version tells of a magical place where peppermints grow on trees, lemonade flows in streams, and the very ground is made of candy. The song is saccharine and cloying and various other adjectives that unintentionally riff on the song's lyrics. Yet in its earliest form, the song's extra words render it unsavory at best.

Let's start with the milder bits, shall we? Listen to the opening verse, as sung by its writer, Harry McClintock, in 1928: One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning/ Down the track came a hobo hiking and he said, "Boy, I'm not turning/ I'm headin' 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." The magical story in the song is narrated by a hobo to a boy. The description of an ideal land is a hobo's tale of his destination. This ideal land is a bit different in the original (however much it sounds like Pleasure Island in Disney’s Pinnochio). It was not a place delicious to children, and not unlike the candy house in Hansel and Gretl. The "peppermint trees" were, in the original song, "cigarette trees." The lakes of "gold" and "silver" originally held "stew" and "whiskey." Cops had wooden legs because it kept them from catching hobos. The jails were made of tin so you can break right out of them. The railway guards were blind, so you could sneak aboard a boxcar and sleep whenever you like. 

So yeah, creepy subtext of a hobo trying to lure away a boy? But wait. The song's final verse, one that's rarely sung, perhaps never recorded, and only shared by McClintock to prove a copyright claim. Let’s see. It goes: The punk rolled up his big blue eyes and said to the jocker, "Sandy/ I've hiked and hitched and wandered too, but I ain't seen any candy/ I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore, I'll be god damned if I hike anymore/ To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore/ on the Big Rock Candy Mountain." Yepper, the hobo spins his tale hoping the boy will follow and he can sodomize him. Tramps regularly tried to seduce youngsters with such "ghost stories," an outright "homosexual tramp serenade" (look it up). McClintock based it on his actual experiences. He said that while on the road, "There were times when I fought like a wildcat or ran like a deer to protect my independence and my virginity."

The records of homosexual conduct from that time mostly point to an adult and youth relationship where one dominated the other. In his 1897 book Sexual Inversion, sexologist Havelock Ellis included, as an appendix, an essay by Josiah Flynt on “situational homosexuality” among tramps. "Every hobo in the United States knows what 'unnatural intercourse' means, talking about it freely, and according to my finding, every tenth man practices it, and defends his conduct. Boys are the victims of this passion," Flynt later wrote in Tramping with Tramps (1907): "In Hoboland the boy’s life may be likened to that of a voluntary slave. He is forced to do exactly what his 'jocker' [adult partner] commands; and disobedience, willful or innocent, brings down upon him a most cruel wrath. Besides being kicked, slapped and generally maltreated, he is also loaned, traded and even sold, if his master sees money in the bargain." In the big rock candy mountain…