You can walk right out again as soon as you are in

The song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” is one of the most sociologically fascinating songs I’ve ever heard. I tell you this because one of my kids said something the other day about escaping the horrible drudgery of daily life (I don’t know how horrible their lives can be in second grade, but that doesn’t mean they can’t complain about it), and I started singing the line from “Big Rock Candy Mountain” where they say: “I’m going to stay where they sleep all day / Where they hung the jerk that invented work.” i’ve always found that song to be intensely fascinating, and this brought it back to the forefront of my mind, so now you, dear reader, get to listen to me think out loud about it. That’s what you get for reading my blog, I guess.

For those who don’t know, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” is an American folk song written by hobos, i.e., homeless people who traveled by train during the Great Depression. It was a rough time when food and work were extremely difficult to come by, and sometimes riding the rails and picking up migrant work on a passing farm was the best you could hope for. They kept their spirits up with songs and stories and such, and this song is both: a fanciful description of an idyllic paradise. What makes it interesting is that it’s not just any paradise, it’s an itinerant hobo’s paradise–they describe the world the way they would want it, based on the context of their lives.

Note that the song is often recorded in a kid-friendly version, with most of the references to alcohol removed. There’s no real “correct” version of a folk song, but I prefer the older, hobo-tastic version.

The description begins simply: “In the big rock candy mountain, the land is fair and bright, and the handouts grow on bushes, and you sleep out every night. The boxcars all are empty, and the sun shines every day, on the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees, and the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings, in the big rock candy mountain.” Their ideal world is more or less like ours, full of sunshine and free food and cheerful birdies. Not everyone would get specific enough to mention cigarette trees, but whatever floats your boat. What’s really interesting, though, are the living arrangements: they’re describing their perfect world, where they can have anything they want, and instead of giving themselves homes they give themselves nice weather so they can sleep out in empty boxcars. Instead of imagining a different life, they just imagine the best possible version of the one they already know.

Verse three: “In the big rock candy mountain, the cops have wooden legs, and the bulldogs all have rubber teeth, and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.” More dreams of free food, this time combined with the incapacitation of authority figures. They can’t imagine a world without cops, and not even a world where the cops don’t chase them, but hey–wouldn’t it be great if the cops had wooden legs so we could always get away? It’s a fascinating kind of humility: they’re not asking for the world, just a break here and there to make the world livable. We get more of the same in verse four: “The brakemen have to tip their hats, and the railroad bulls are blind. There’s a lake of stew, and of whiskey too, you can paddle all around them in a big canoe, in the big rock candy mountain.”

The fifth verse is the one that always gets me, because even as they start to really think big–there’s no work at all in paradise, not even the concept of it–they still can’t imagine an escape from certain problems in their lives: “In the big rock candy mountain 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, or picks. Oh I long to stay where they sleep all day, where they hung the jerk who invented work, in the big rock candy mountain.” It’s easy for them to imagine an end to all work because they never have jobs anyway–in some ways they’re already living in a world without work, they’re just imagining that it’s awesome instead of depressing. But they can never escape from authority. People force them to do stuff every day of their lives. In concepting the most wonderful place they can imagine, they still think they’re going to get thrown in jail all the time–they don’t get rid of the jails because obviously that’s impossible, they just make them really easy to escape from.

This wonderful mix of dreams and desires says so much about the people who created it: not just the free food but the specific foods they choose; not just the absence of certain problems, but the ongoing presence of so many others. It is a life completely free of responsibility, answering to no one, where they can live the cool parts of the hobo life without being brought down by any of the lame parts.

I love discovering characters like this, in songs and in fiction and everywhere else, because I know that they’re different from me: they have different hopes, different goals, and different values, and that makes them intriguing. I want to spend time with those people and see how they view the world.

8 Responses to “You can walk right out again as soon as you are in”

  1. I want to spend time with those people and see how they view the world.

    Does Dawn know that you’re about to run away and become a hobo?

  2. admin says:

    Not as such, but on the other hand it wouldn’t exactly surprise her.

  3. Steen says:

    You should read the novel by Wallace Stegner that bears the same name as this song. It’s basically the story of author’s family, his parents in particular, and illustrates the tragic consequences of always chasing the “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” In many ways it’s a nice foil to the Horatio Alger narrative.

  4. Dan,

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts about this song. I’ve always liked this song myself, and was more recently reintroduced to it on the O’ Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. They’re great observations.


  5. Carolyn says:

    Love this song, and your comments. I’ve never thought much about this song from the sociological perspective, but rather how the melody so perfectly complements the pathos of the lyrics. Also, it’s easy to sing, and I have a range like Madonna’s, so, bonus. I would add – my grade school years were hard, and nowadays, kids start getting homework as soon as they start school. Not only that, but recess has been reduced in most schools, and eliminated in others. When you’re a kid, you’re built to run free and play and imagine. And instead you’re stuck inside doing every math problem on page 38. If that’s not work I don’t know what is.

  6. There’s an apparently abandoned string of boxcars by the Benjamin exit off I-15 near Salem that would be an awesome place to hide a body. No one would ever find it, except perhaps taggers if the smell gets too bad.

  7. Rick Griffin says:

    I think it’s a little much to assume “can’t imagine . . .” when it comes to poetic devices. A major key to poetry is imagery, and the more familiar you are with something the stronger the image is when used as a device.

    Also, images of paradise, especially among poor rabble, are not necessary supposed to imply the best possible outcome. I’m sure many hobos would have loved it if authority was gone (especially since, given the behavior of most, they pretended it was most of the time)–but while on earth, they have to deal with it. The use of denigrating authority in the song is a kind of catharsis, not lack of imagination.

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