Big Rock Candy Mountain

By Christopher Zoukis

Big Rock Candy Mountain is a song first recorded in 1928.  More than a mere song, its hillbilly evocation of Cocagne, which is an imaginary country of idleness and leisure, a Utopia, has percolated through many imaginations resulting in many spin-offs:

The title of the song attached itself to the multi-hued hills near Marysvale, Utah.  Residing at the base of the hills is The Big Rock Candy Mountain Resort, once a fashionable vacation spot, now a dilapidated congregation of ramshackle structures visited only by ghosts and local history buffs.   And a spring of water in the area is called Lemonade Springs.

Fishlake National Forest in Utah boasts a range of mountains called Big Rock Candy Mountains.  So also is one of the peaks in the Capitol State Forest in the state of Washington. 

North of Grand Forks, British Columbia, there is a borite mine called Rock Candy Mine. 

The literary world, too, has appropriated the whim of the song.  Wallace Stegner, the author, used the title The Big Rock Candy Mountain for his autobiographical fiction novel.  And no less a personage than George Orwell, in his atavistic novel Animal Farm, paraphrased the song’s title.  Sugarcandy Mountain is the name he gave to animal heaven.

Not to be left behind, the music world found inspiration in the song and its expressive title.  The Beat Farmers released their rendition of the song in 1985.  Another band, The Motorcycle Boy, borrowed the title of the song for one of their own songs, but discarded the lyrics as well as the music, coming up with something original.  Recording artist Jane Wiedlin recorded the song.  Tom Waits sang the song for the soundtrack of the movie Ironweed. 

Even the anarchist band The Restarts recorded a punk rendition of the song. 

Inevitably, some ad agency concocted the insane idea of taking a song that speaks of hobo heaven and reduced it to peddle products via television.  Alas, the song’s tune graced a Burger King commercial in 2005.  Of course, the lyrics hawk food, burgers, fries and super-sized soda pop, not the land of ease and pleasure.  Worse yet, the commercial has a postmodern cowboy motif.

The song was written and first recorded by Haywire Mac, which was the pseudonym of Harry McClintock, who was born in Knoxville, twenty miles north of the Great Smoky Mountains.  It’s a rover’s ballad, relating the recruitment of children to the drifter way of life.  In the song, all obstacles to the wanderer are neutralized:  dogs with rubber teeth, police with wooden legs, trees with cigarettes rather than leaves, and streams of alcohol.  In contemporary terms, it would be called an homage to homelessness.

And in one sense, the song is religious:  the desire for heaven on earth, a kind of Millennial peace and plenty, a dream of the Promised Land.  

Haywire Mac’s rendering of the song is available on the soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?