After my last hobo missive, my friend Paul Sanchez, the marvelous New Orleans songwriter and historian, gave me the lowdown on a song called The Big Rock Candy Mountain, which has its roots in hobo culture. It is often passed off as a gospel song and the Coen brothers used it to great effect in O Brother Where Art Thou? It is thought of as one of those musical gems culled from the hard lessons of The Depression. It was first recorded by Harry McClintock, whose hobo name was Haywire Mac, sometime around 1930, and it describes a land of plenty for bums; complete with cigarette-trees and rivers of whiskey, wooden-legged policemen and jails with tin bars. There is also a darker and more unseemly verse which is never sung, which deals with older “wolves” or “jockers” (road-hardened hobos of a deviant make-up), who seduce a young hobo with tales of a “glowing light” and the “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” only to lure him into the woods and “bugger” him. “Bugger” is never a good word for a song, particularly a sing-a-long song.
The incidents of hobo-rape are well documented in the book Riding the Rails by Errol Lincoln Uys, which tracked teenagers riding the rails during The Great Depression. Many teenage boys fell prey to the “Yeggs,” which is slang for the master rail-tramps of a criminal bent. These young men referred to themselves as “bindle-stiffs” and learned quickly to travel in groups as to avoid the approach of older, creepy hobos. They followed the migration west to get jobs as cattlemen or fruit-pickers or even railroad workers. It was a rootless existence that held little security and these young men learned how to blow around the country via rail wherever there was a rumor of work. They could count on little hospitality, particularly in the south and the west, where hobo ass-kickings were considered sport.
I’ll not ever be abnle to hear The Big Rock Candy Mountain again without thinking of its darker and more desperate undercurrents.
This piece is the Hobo symbol for “Go.” It’s called “Toward a Glowing Light.”