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Of Cigarette Trees and Alcohol Streams

When I was a little kid and my grandparents still lived on the farm, one of my favorite things to do was listen to records. Grandma had an old Brunswick hand-cranked record player and dozens of old records, including some of those really old, thick Edisons. I’ve listened to every one of those records, but there were two I listened to over and over again. One was a song called something like “Little black shack back in Hackensack, New Jersey.” (I’ve checked the internet, and a quick search only turned up one reference to it in a ukulele songbook.) The other was a song with quite a bit more history. Apparently in 1928 Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock recorded “Big Rock Candy Mountains”. I think this is the version I grew up listening to, but there are dozens of others. Burl Ives sang it in the 40’s and 50’s. It appears that it was based on earlier Hobo songs, and according to one source I found, McClintock himself may have lost a copyright lawsuit over the song. (He also my have been a travelling organizer for the “Wobblies.” Anyway the version I found that I seem to remember comes from

A couple of my favorite verses are:

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there’s a land that’s fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Where the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks
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 ’em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains 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
I’m a goin to stay where you sleep all day
Where they hung the jerk that invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

I got to thinking about this song and whether or not it could get airplay today (I don’t remember the version that was in the movie “Brother, Where Art Thou?” getting any airplay, but then I don’t listen to country music radio very often) while I was being annoyed by another one of those Government Minding my Business “public service” ads on TV. This one in particular was about what a great thing the V-chip is so that parents can decide what is appropriate for their children to watch.

Here’s a news flash: I don’t need a V-chip. I’ve got an on-off button and a channel changer. If your five year old isn’t couch-potatoed out in their room watching their own personal TV, you don’t need a V-chip either. I distinctly remember my mother turning off some variety show on TV when I was a kid because Jim Croce sang the word “damn” in “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I thought then (and still do) that that was a bit excessive, but I’ll give Mom credit. There was no question as to what she thought was appropriate for children to view, and she wasn’t afraid of our opinion of her actions where TV was concerned.

One of the problems with the way we raise children today is that we don’t want to limit their self-expression and we have to explain everything. “No” no longer means “no”, it has to be followed by a lengthy explanation and we have to get the child’s agreement in the cooperative venture that is the child’s behavior.

People who tout the V-chip point to working poor parents who can’t be home all the time to monitor their children’s TV habits. I suspect that this is one of those arguments that sounds good, but in practice sort of evaporates when you think about it logically. (Yes, I know I’m speculating here, but if you wanted research, you would be at a different web page…) I suspect that unsupervised TV watching is more of a problem for middle and upper-middle class families who have a TV in every room of the house and the cable package that has 900 channels. And that is what infuriates me about the V-chip. It is one more thing that the government is responsible for. I don’t have to tell Billy Bob that he can’t watch “Freddy massacres all of Jason’s friends and neighbors with a Texas Chainsaw, Part 19”, I just program the V-chip and the government will do it for me. That way Billy Bob won’t think I’m a mean horrible person and he will still like me. Which is the most important thing in middle class parenting, isn’t it? I mean, if your kids don’t like you, you’ve failed, right? So, thank God the government is protecting us from our childrens’ scorn.

OK, the rant is over, and I’ve just got one weird, quirky little thing to share. While looking into the Big Rock Candy Mountain lyrics, I discovered that the US Government’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has a web site for kids. Among the many pretty cool features is a “sing along” song section. There must be a few hundred songs in midi format available for kids to sing along with. Among them just happens to be “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Of course, it is the government, so they couldn’t just leave well enough alone, so they added this disclaimer:

Words and music written and performed by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock; copyrighted. Mr. McClintock’s song dates back to the 1920’s. It was written from the perspective of a “hobo” of that time period who did not hold a steady job, and instead traveled the roads looking for handouts and possibly getting into trouble with the law. Remember, although this is a fun song to learn and sing, having such easy access to cigarettes and alcohol would not actually be a “good” thing. Smoking and alcohol addictions are harmful to your health.

(I could get off on another rant here about the tendency for government to be less concerned with truth than with convenience, but I have to go to work tomorrow, so I’ll leave that for another day.) Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking about the concept of singing about what’s near and dear to your heart.

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