Where the Boxcars Are All Empty: The Mysteries of Harry McClintock's Knoxville Youth

If you’re a student of folk music, over 50, or both, you can sing along with an unusual song called “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” A hobo’s vision of paradise, it had several spells of radio popularity between 1928 and 1960, in Burl Ives’ family-friendly version from 1949, and in its first recorded version, which included lakes of gin and cigarette trees.

That earlier version belonged to the guitar-playing hobo who first recorded it in 1928, a larger-than-life figure named Harry McClintock, the guy who famously worked as a cowboy and as a radical union organizer and also wrote and recorded “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.” He was a pretty big star when he died in San Francisco in 1957, but some here were surprised at the detail that Haywire Mac, the old singing cowboy, had been born in Knoxville.

No one recalled his family; one elderly vaudevillian claimed he remembered the kid “vaguely.” McClintock’s an outlier in Knoxville’s rich folk-music history, one with no known connections to other locals, to our famous live-music radio stations, or the recording projects of the 1920s and early ‘30s.

After his song appeared in the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I looked for information about his family. But in the 1880s and ’90s, I found hardly anyone named McClintock here. Accepting the story that he ran away from home at 14 and started hoboing, I looked no further. The only census that would have listed him was the one in 1890, the one that was destroyed by fire.

My friend Wes Morgan found more. The psychology professor has created his own cottage discipline, a second cousin of deconstructionism, chasing down historical references in the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Morgan, who contributed to the unusual new collection, Cormac McCarthy’s House, is the authority on what’s real and what’s not in McCarthy’s work.

In his western novel, All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy makes a glancing comparison to McClintock’s song: “He made that country sound like the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

Intrigued by the fact that McCarthy and McClintock had a shared home town, Morgan looked into the matter with his customary thoroughness. He discovered that I didn’t look quite far enough.

Via the 1900 census and an account of McClintock’s father’s dramatic death, Morgan found strong evidence that McClintock was born not in Knoxville, but in Ohio—and perhaps not in 1882, but four years later. His father was a carpenter. Walter A. McClintock moved to Knoxville in the early 1890s and found work at the Southern Railway, which ran one of America’s biggest train-car refurbishing plants here. The McClintocks don’t show up in local directories until 1900, when they’re shown living on McMullen Avenue, between downtown and Mechanicsville, on the northern fringe of what’s now World’s Fair Park. One of their closest neighbors was one of Knoxville’s biggest factories, the Knoxville Iron Co., of which the Foundry is a remnant. The McClintock home was very near both the Southern and L&N train tracks. McClintock would be well known for his train songs.

A few details of Harry’s youth might ruin his hobo cred. His first experience with a stage may have been as a member of the choir at St. John’s Episcopal. That church had a pretty astonishing record for turning out creative people, from Frances Hodgson Burnett to James Agee to MGM director Clarence Brown, who was younger than McClintock, but close enough in age that they might have known each other.

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But the family’s main connection to show business was tragic. Walter McClintock picked up some freelance work in the summer of 1901 when he was helping with an elaborate renovation of Staub’s grand theater at Gay and Cumberland. Just after lunch on an August Saturday, the 49-year-old father was doing some carpentry work on the second balcony, on the right side where it wrapped closest to the stage, when he fell, 23 feet, head first onto a floor joist. He died instantly. The newspaper account mentions that he had a wife and son. By the October, 1886, birthdate, Harry would have been 14 then, the age at which he later told West Coast journalists that he ran away from home to join the Gentry Brothers Circus.

According to the standard biographies with the 1882 birthdate, Harry was almost 19 that summer of his father’s death, and long gone from Knoxville. However, the Knoxville City Directory of 1901 has Harry K. McClintock as an employee of the Knoxville Furniture Co., the big factory on McGhee Street, a few blocks from his mom’s house.

He’s listed living with his widowed mother again the following year, 1902, when they lived, perhaps in a cheaper residence on Leroy Street, on the town side of Baxter Avenue. Suddenly lacking a family, Josephine McClintock became a professional nurse, and appears living alone on Chamberlain Street, near Mechanicsville, in 1904, without Harry. Then she disappears, too.

It’s not Harry’s disappearance, but his appearance that’s most mysterious. The only years that Harry McClintock surfaces in Knoxville records are the years he claimed he’d spent as a mule packer in the Philippines, helping foreign correspondents in China during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, sojourning in Africa, attending the 1901 coronation of King Edward VII.

These were his years of high adventure, when he was hoboing on freight trains, writing “Big Rock Candy Mountain”—by some sources, it was first intended as a warning for naive boys about the motives of too-friendly hobos. The first, unrecorded version reportedly includes a surprise conclusion: “to be buggered sore like a hobo’s whore.”

Maybe his adventures were real. But maybe, like some other notable singer-songwriters—Bob Dylan comes to mind—he re-imagined his biography. An urban, Episcopalian youth and a job in a furniture factory might have to become something more marketable for a fellow who has learned to make a living as roving cowboy.

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