I learned this from a Pete Seeger songbook, American Favorite Ballads, and it was at least a dozen years before I became aware of its author, Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock, a cowboy, hobo, and IWW singer who also wrote “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” (as well as “The Trusty Lariat,” a.k.a. “The Cowboy Fireman,” which I’ll be singing later in this project).
As usually sung, it’s in the genre of comic hobo songs, along with things like “I Just Don’t Want to Be Rich,” but the version we know is a censored shadow of what hobos actually sang — as McClintock explained, he had “to clean that song up; it wasn’t a parlor song, originally.” Fortunately for history, in the early 1930s he had to go to court to defend his copyright, and established his authorship by explaining the story behind the original… which is that the protagonist is a hobo trying to “snare some kid to do his begging for him, among other things” — specifically, to serve as his “punk” — a word that by now has lost its original connotation of a boy kept for sexual purposes by an older man.
As evidence, McClintock produced a final verse he had written but not recorded:
The punk rolled up his big blue eyes and said to the jocker, “Sandy,
I’ve hiked and hitched and wandered too, but I ain’t seen any candy.
I’ve hiked and hiked till my feet are sore, I’ll be god damned if I hike any more,
To be buggered sore like a hobo’s whore on the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
I’ve never heard anyone sing that verse, and a lot of songbooks even expurgate the basic hobo fantasy elements, removing references to alcohol, getting out of jail, and hanging “the jerk who invented work.” One of my ongoing projects is exploring the censorship of our musical and cultural history — the first published fruit was The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama, republished in paperback as Talking ‘Bout Your Mama — and I’ve turned up even more graphic lyrics about hobos making use of young boys, which apparently was very common. McClintock described having to fight “like a wildcat” to protect himself from sexual assaults when he took to the road as a youth, and Ernest Hemingway traced his homophobia to similar experiences, writing:
I had certain prejudices against homosexuality since I knew its more primitive aspects. I knew it was why you carried a knife and would use it when you were in the company of tramps when you were a boy in the days when wolves was not a slang term for men obsessed by the pursuit of women.
Of which more to come when I get around to that book (which will also explore plenty of lyrics that provide positive depictions of homosexuality, and sexuality of many and varied kinds)….
Meanwhile, I sing the Seeger verses.