A favorite since I was introduced to it, strangely enough, in bowdlerized form in the Rankin-Bass classic The Easter Bunny is Comin’ To Town, Big Rock Candy Mountain (in its non-bowdlerized form) has popped up twice in recent days on my various music-shuffling devices. The all-knowing oracle tells me that it’s a modern Cockaigne song, a tale of a mythical land of improbable liberty and plenty. A fun tune, despite it’s somewhat troubling views of paradise, including jails made of tin, from which you can walk right out of as soon as you’re in. The crime rate in Big Rock Candy Mountain is likely astronomical. Nonetheless, I can see how it’d be appealing to early 20th-century transient rail enthusiasts, i.e, hobos. Apart from shotguns, what else do hobos want?
A land that’s fair and bright. Everyone wants this. See, hobos are people too!
Handouts that grow on bushes.
To sleep out every night.
For the sun to shine every day.
For all the cops to have wooden legs. Nevermind, hobos are cruel, cruel beasts.
For the bulldogs all to have rubber teeth.
For hens to lay soft-boiled eggs.
For the farmers’ trees to be full of fruit. See, they support the family farmer; maybe a hobo could get elected president one day!
Barns full of hay.
To never change their socks. We’ll come back to this one.
Little streams of alcohol trickling down the rocks.
For the brakemen to have to tip their hats.
For the railway bulls to be blind.
A lake of stew, and one of whiskey too, in which one can paddle all around in a big canoe. Right with ya up until that last bit.
Jails made of tin, from which you can walk right out again as soon as you are in. Note that they’re fine with being
arrested and processed and incarcerated, so long as they can Kool-Aid man out of the jailhouse wall once they’re in a cell.
No short-handled shovels, axes, saws or picks
To sleep all day.
To hang the jerk that invented work.
All in all, not the craziest list of demands I’ve ever heard. Given the challenges of the lifestyle and the meager comforts available, I can sympathize with almost all of these hobo dreams. Except the sock thing. It nearly ruins the song for me, really, because I can’t for the life of me figure out how not changing one’s socks would be of either material of emotional benefit to anyone. I’m not some sock-changing fanatic, either; in a pinch, I’ll slip on a previously worn pair. But consider: long days, or even weeks holed up in a boxcar, or worse, on foot, trekking from hostile town to hostile town with aggressive vagrancy laws, scrounging for sustenance, contending with your own funk and that of fellow-travelers all the while. Why, for the love of all that’s fluffy and cottony, wouldn’t you want to change your socks? And how, given the manifold dangers and deprivations faced by hobos, does this bizarre desire rate high enough to make it into the song?
I must say that I’m stumped. I welcome any theories or speculation you may have to cast light upon this lyrical hosiery mystery.