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Big Rock Candy Mountain: An Introduction to Hobo Poetry
2003-05-19

hen I was younger, I gave myself a sort of sleeping disorder. Throughout my childhood, I would fall into a deep slumber the moment I arrived home from school, and then wake myself up just past midnight and spend the evening watching movies on television. These were in the days prior to VCRs, of course, and usually I had plotted my television viewing very carefully. On Sunday, when my family got the Sunday paper, I would abscond with the television listings for the week, pouring over it for films I had not seen, circling the ones that looked interesting, and planning my week's worth of television viewing around this. Of course, the best laid plans o' mice and men gang aft aglai, and my schemes ganged alai with great frequency. Television programming after midnight was preposterously flexible back in those days. I believe that for most of the evening the all-night station managers simply ran whatever they wanted to, entirely on a whim, television guide be damned. So the Hammer horror film I keenly anticipated might turn out to be a Douglas Sirk melodrama, while the pirate epic that was supposed to follow it, as often as not, turned out to be a David Soul movie about a harmonica player who befriends an elderly, tap-dancing vagrant. (I kid you not about this: The film is titled Dogpound Shuffle, and I must have watched it a hundred times in my youth.)

I don't remember even being bothered by this. I suppose that, at the beginning, I might have been a little frustrated that, rather than seeing the The Day of the Triffids, I ended up seeing Johnny Guitar instead. But, then, the campy noir Western Johnny Guitar is so very, very good, how could I complain? My evenings were filled with adventure thanks to the impulsive programming of late-night television, and it more than made up for the fact that I wandered through most of my early daytime education in a numb state of exhaustion. Even when VCRs became widely available, the films that I had stumbled across and grown to love were not released, or, if they were, could not be found at the neighborhood video store. My experience with Walter Matthau was not as a humorously grouchy, somewhat avuncular figure, but instead as a wry, sharply intelligent star of offbeat crime films, such as 1973's Charley Varrick and 1974's The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three. Both of these films are, in a word, magnificent — brooding, finely crafted, and unexpectedly sinister. But they never appeared in the Sunday television schedule, and I never watched them deliberately.

Every blue moon, when the Italian slasher film I expected wound up being a rerun of the previous day's football game, I would flip channels and find myself looking at exactly the same awful scene. A man in shabby dress, quietly eating a sandwich while sitting on the coupler of a freight train, is suddenly and viciously attacked by the train's conductor, played by Ernest Borgnine. The conductor beats the man with a ball peen hammer, knocking him beneath the train, where he is neatly severed — as the train pulls away, the man's corpse lies in two pieces on either side of the tracks.

This is the opening scene to Emperor of the North, the only great American film made about hobos. Admittedly, it doesn't have much competition. Perhaps we could point to William Powell's stately performance as a "forgotten man" in 1936's My Man Godfrey. But while Powell's performance as a hobo certainly reflected the way hoboes viewed themselves — as a thoughtful, knightly class of itinerant workers, the royalty of the road — the film was a classic screwball comedy, a fantasy about the foibles of the rich. By comparison, Emperor of the North was set on the rails during the depths of the Depression, and written in a close approximation of the hoboes' own strangely poetic cant. In an early scene, the film's main character, a wry, surly hobo named A No. One (expertly played by Lee Marvin) enters a hobo jungle after having done the impossible — riding Ernest Borgnine's train without getting murdered. Word of his achievement has preceded him, and a grinning fellow hobo, played by veteran character actor Liam Dunn, calls to his fellows in the encampment to boast of Marvin's achievement. He does this in soaring, near-evangelical language, crying out like a carnival barker, saying:

"Come this way! Gather ye round, I got some news. I got the message. Come on open up you stew bums and alkis, get in here. Open up you shuttle bums, fakers, mothers, and gay cats. Well you think your the road, well he's the road! He's the Emperor of the North Pole! He came in on the 19!"

It is impossible to believe that anyone ever spoke this way. And there are reasons to believe they didn't. This is a film that has a mannered quality to it — director Robert Aldrich staged scenes, such as one in which hoboes taunt Borgnine from the fog, that feel more mythic than true. Screenwriter Christopher Knopf, in the meanwhile, was best known for overblown genre pieces, such as a 1957 adaptation of Louis L'Amour's The Tall Man and the 1958 juvenile delinquency film titled Joy Ride, in which a cadre of punks wage a campaign of terror on a man because he won't let them borrow his T-bird. None of this would suggest that Emperor of the North should be taken as an authentic, if fictional, document of hobo life during the Thirties.

And yet the majestic, self-important dialogue of the film is surprisingly accurate, as hard as it is to believe. Here is a genuine sample of hobo dialogue, taken from the book Knights of the Road: A Hobo History by Roger A. Bruns:

"Liquor has made a goddam monkey outa me, Blondey. Sometimes I gits on the water wagon an' holes on tight ... But one drink! an' my God! I let go de rope wid bot' han's. I fall in de gutter on my royal American sit-downski. An' stay in a gutter until some bull comes along an' plays a tune on my soles nex' morning."

And this is where I come in. Not only does it turn out that hoboes spoke their own glorious demimonde lingo, but many of them actually used it to author poetry. I will be exploring the subject of hobo poetry for a few weeks, but let me start this series off by reprinting some of the lyrics to a song that might as well be the hobo national anthem, recently featured in the film O Brother Where Art Thou?: "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The lyrics describe a hobo's paradise, the mythical Candy Mountain of the title, and it was authored by Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock, who also penned "Hellelujah I'm a Bum." McClintock knew his subject — he himself bummed around the country on and off from about 1894 to as late as 1925, and was so involved with the hoboes' labor union, the Wobblies, that "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" was one of the organization's theme songs. So we will begin this series on hobo poetry with McClintock's fantasia about a world in which the regular order of things is flipped upside down, landing the hobo squarely on top:

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
You never change your socks
And little streams of alkyhol
Come trickling down the rocks
O the shacks all have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew
And gingerale too
And you can paddle
All around it in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
The cops have wooden legs
The bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmer's trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
I'm bound to go
Where there ain't no snow
Where the sleet don't fall
And the winds don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain,
The jails are made of tin.
You can slip right out again,
As soon as they put you 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 Mountain.

Cheers!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 1:45 a.m.

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