Big Rock (Sugar) Candy Mountain? How George Orwell Tramped toward Animal Farm

By Rodden, John | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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Big Rock (Sugar) Candy Mountain? How George Orwell Tramped toward Animal Farm


Rodden, John, Papers on Language & Literature


After Eric Blair returned from Paris in the spring of 1928, he began tramping that autumn through the metropolitan area of London and his native Southwold. Around that time, a traditional ballad that had been popular in the hobo world since the turn of the century received its first recording, sung by a hobo known as Haywire Mac a.k.a. Harry McClintock. McClintock and other hobos in the U.S. and Europe had been singing the tune at least since the 1890s. (1) Originally, it described a child being recruited into hobo life by tales about "The Big Rock Candy Mountains." Such recruitment efforts, however amateurish, apparently did occur, with hobos enchanting poor children with fantastic "ghost tales" featuring wondrous adventures of hobo life. (2)

Did the future author of Animal Farm ever hear the song? Might its hobo vision have figured in Orwell's creation of Old Major's Beasts of England and Moses the raven's fraudulent Sugarcandy Mountain? This hobo ballad, which became known as "The Big Rock Candy Mountains"--even though the unsanitized version below was never published verbatim in any recordings (3)--runs as follows:

   One sunny day in the month of May,
   A jocker he come hiking;
   He come to a tree, and "Ah!" says he,
   "This is just to my liking!"

   Chorus:
   "I'll show you the bees,
   And the cigarette trees,
   And the soda-water fountains,
   And the lemonade springs
   Where the bluebird sings
   In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

   So they started away on the very same day,
   The bum and the kid together,
   To romp and to rove in the cigarette grove
   In the land of sunny weather.

   They dreamed and hiked for many days,
   The mile posts they were countin',
   But they never arrived at the lemonade tide
   And the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

   The punk rolled up his big blue eye
   And said to the jocker, "Sandy,
   I've hiked and hiked and wandered too,
   But I ain't seen any candy.

   I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
   And I'll be damned if I hike any more
   To be a homeguard with a lemonade card
   In the Big Rock Candy Mountains." (4)

The lyrics of the last four stanzas in the best-known recorded version of the ballad are as follows (5):

   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
   In the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
   In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

   In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs
   And 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
   Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
   Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
   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 going to stay where you sleep all day
   Where they hung the jerk that invented work
   In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The lyrics of "The Big Rock Candy Mountains" project a hobo's idea of utopia--a vagabond vision of paradise. The recorded song is a Depression-era vagrant's version of the medieval concept of Cockaigne, the land of milk and honey, for it speaks of trees on which cigarettes dangle like autumn leaves about to fall, of "streams of alcohol" trickling down through the mountain crevices, and of a lake of whiskey that greets the always-parched pilgrim like oases amid a desert.

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