The movie O Brother Where Art Thou has gotten a lot of attention for its great soundtrack of classic old-time recordings. Some are obscure and known mainly to country and blues aficionados. But the very first one you hear on the movie is a song you've probably heard somewhere before.
The lyrics picture a hobo's paradise with imagery both wistful and bizarre: a landscape of buzzing bees in cigarette trees near a soda-water fountain. A place where you never change your socks and little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks. Where the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the cops have wooden legs...
The song is "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Burl Ives made a hit of it in the 1950s. But the version you hear in the movie was recorded in 1928. The singer's accent isn't easy to place. It's not necessarily Southern or Appalachian; the consonants are precise. That singer was the same guy who wrote this song, picturing his own version of Paradise. And he was, of course, a Knoxvillian.
Harry McClintock appears on the music mural in the Old City. Grinning widely in his trademark cowboy outfit, he looks happy up there. But the fact is he never knew most of the other folks depicted singing and playing around him; he left town long before radio. He left before most of his colleagues up there were born.
Harry McClintock was born on October 8, 1882. He arrived here just days before the Mabry-O'Conner shootout left three distinguished gunmen dead on Gay Street.
We don't know much about his childhood except that he learned to sing and play the guitar in this booming, often violent, Victorian milltown where passenger and freight trains arrived every hour, and where there were three or four new vaudeville shows playing downtown every week, and where hundreds of children lived in the alleys looking for scraps. According to the reference book, Definitive Country, "The two most distinguishing characteristics of Mac's childhood were his love for singing in a local church and an infatuation with railroading," which rubbed off from uncles who were railroad men.
Few McClintocks appear in the local records that survive from Harry's youth. It's hard to tell for sure where he lived. It's also hard to place him in Knoxville's country-music tradition, though there was plenty of country music around town in his youth: fiddling contests and vaudeville shows and saloon singers and railroad-station buskers. Some historians have dated the origin of professional country music to that time and place.
But something here apparently didn't suit him, because in late 1896, when he was only 14 years old, Harry ran away from home. Some sources say he joined a medicine show, others that he just hopped a boxcar for New Orleans. He found he could get by playing and singing for tips in saloons. They say it was there, when he was only 15 years old, that Harry began singing his weird idyll of cigarette trees and lakes of gin. He would sing it for the rest of his life.
His adolescence was right out of a boys' adventure book. Some say he returned to Tennessee briefly, already singing an early version of his classic, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" for recruits for the Spanish-American War in early 1898—but he soon found himself in the Philippines, working as a mule driver hauling supplies to the American troops. The following year he was in China, helping American reporters escape harm during the Boxer Rebellion. After a brief sojourn in Australia, he was off to Africa, where he worked on a British railroad supplying troops during the Boer War. In 1901, he was in London to witness the coronation of Edward VII. Then he was in South America. By the time he was 20, Harry McClintock had lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica.
Back in America, he wound up on the booming West Coast, working as a brakeman as an organizer for the radical socialist union, the IWW, and writing union fight songs. Along the way the sometime comedian picked up the moniker "Haywire Mac."
He married a locomotive engineer's daughter; they had a kid and settled in San Francisco. McClintock worked full time for the railroads, mainly as a brakeman.
But new technology—live radio—lured the old saloon singer back into show business. At age 43, he began singing on San Francisco's station KFRC and even making records. He was a hit; he cut 41 sides for Victor alone. Through his recordings, he's said to have been an influence on Woody Guthrie and other folksingers.
In 1928, at the Hollywood Bowl, McClintock recorded the song he'd known since he was a teenager; they say it's this version you hear in the movie. Some challenged his ownership of this and other songs he sang, claiming they were old "traditional" songs, but he defended his claims. Today he gets songwriting credit for "Big Rock Candy Mountain." He'd record it again a decade later for Decca, about the same time he moved to Hollywood and performed as an actor in a couple of Gene Autry westerns.
McClintock was the hardest-working bum on the West Coast. The Hollywood actor and recording star worked as a brakeman until he got his pension, then got a job with the Los Angeles Harbor Dept. He also wrote a regular column for a national railroad magazine. He retired to San Francisco, where he made appearances on local radio and even TV.
When he died in 1957, Knoxville reporters asked around among the old vaudevillians but found only one who was old enough to remember, and only vaguely, the kid performer who was singing around town back in the '90s.