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“).
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.”
As to what it was originally… that’s likely to remain a mystery. There is a story that McClintock had to go to court to defend his copyright in the late 1920s, and established his authorship by explaining the story behind the original, but the quotations provided are instead quoted from an interview with Sam Eskin, issued by Folkways Records. McClintock explained that “the ambition of every hobo was to snare some kid to do his begging for him, among other things,” and when Eskin asked him to sing the original, uncensored version he declined. Presumably the lyrics related to those “other things” — specifically, serve as a “punk” — a word that by now has lost its original connotation of a boy kept for sexual purposes by an older man.
In American Songs of Protest, published in 1953, John Greenway wrote that McClintock sang an “original version of the song, which, despite the necessary expurgation, retains enough of the original significance to certify its precedence over other versions now current on family radio programs,” and quoted a different lyric than in McClintock’s recordings, including a final verse that went:
The punk rolled up his big blue eyes
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,
I’ll be God damned if I hike any more,
To be * * * * * * * *
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
The problem with this ascription is that it is almost exactly the lyric printed by George Milburn in 1930, in The Hobo’s Handbook, and when Greenway recorded the song he filled the asterisks with the line in Milburn’s book: “To be a homeguard with a lemonade card.” So I doubt he actually got it from McClintock and there is no reason to think he knew a dirtier line.
Myriad internet sources and a few books and scholarly articles quote Greenway’s missing line as “To be buggered sore like a hobo’s whore,” but that lyric is a good example of the internet echo chamber: it started in 2002 with a writer on the Mudcat folk music site suggesting that lyric would fit the rhyme and meter of Greenway’s missing phrase, was picked up and repeated on other sites, and by 2010 was being reposted on mudcat as established fact.
Dave Van Ronk quoted me an alternate line that would fit the scan and almost make a rhyme for the Greenway verse: “And be cornholed till my ass is raw.” But I have no reason to think that was not just another attempt to fill in the asterisks, whether by Dave or one of his Village compatriots.
I’ve never heard anyone sing either of those lines, 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.