Dirty Hobos

John Hodgman won my undying admiration when he penned the following response in his McSweeny’s column, Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, to a fellow who was interested in receiving a dump truck full of money for his brilliant satires:

John Kellogg Hodgman, Former Professional Literary Agent: You are right to conclude that book publishers love to spend money on satire. Traditionally, humor battles only poetry and jazz criticism for the title of most lucrative prose form, and that is why editors who specialize in these fields wear lots of jewelry and furs and silk.

Only poetry and jazz criticism…genius. He forgot Catholic fiction, but we’ll forgive him that.

Anyway, Hodgman recently did an interview with The Onion AV Club, in which he reveals the following terrifying story about one of my favorite childhood songs. He’s not only funny; he shatters your fondest illusions! What’s not to love?

There’s a famous children’s song called “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” but it’s not a children’s song at all. It’s an old hobo folk song describing the hobo Valhalla where cigarettes grew on trees and streams of alcohol trickled down the rocks, and there’d be a lake of gin and whiskey. Handouts grew on trees. Harry McClintock [who popularized it] said a lot of people think this song was written by the hobos as a type of pied-piper tune to sing as they went through towns, to try to bring children with them. He goes on to explain that the most valuable possession a hobo could have would be a child who would do his begging for him—then McClintock said mysteriously, “and other things.” I’m like, “What the hell?” I had been really worried that people were going to find the hobo material [in Expertise] offensive, because on one hand, they might confuse the hobo material with making fun of contemporary homelessness, which is the last thing that I’m interested in doing.

I felt the obligation to do a certain amount of research in this area, and what I discovered—quite to my horror and surprise—was that the hobos had this “road kid” culture, that hobos would have homosexual relationships with young men that they would lure onto the hobo road. I’m talking early teens. The hobo slang is so colorful and evocative, but I discovered this culture infected a whole different realm of hobo slang that was just awful and dispiriting, so a hobo’s road kid might be called his “possesh.” A road kid’s life was much like a punk in prison—about serving the hobo master until he could become strong enough to become a hobo in his own right. I did a fair amount of casual research on hobos, and it never came up until I heard this song.


  1. Mark Lickona says

    Well, Harry may be right…but the song in itself simply sounds like a hobo’s dream, namely, a land where being a hobo really is all it’s cracked up to be (i.e., paradise)–when in reality hobo life is merely a state of non-work, which to the lazy man might sound like paradise, until he runs into that whole how-am-I-going-to-eat thing (which is precisely the problem that The Big Rock Candy Mountain remedies).

    So that’s what I’ll continue to think of when listening to this song I’m not listening to you lalalalala.

  2. Sine Metu says

    McClintock later claimed to have left out the following last verse:

    “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
    And I’ll be damned if I hike any more
    To be buggered sore like a hobo’s whore
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”


  3. How common was the child abuse? That’s just horrifying.

  4. Mark Lickona says

    Dude. That’s disturbingly authentic-sounding…

    Have to admit that opening verse “So come with me/We’ll go and see/The Big Rock Candy Mountain” fits McClintock’s story well…

    But then, the land described really does sound like a place that a lazy and destitute hobo would consider heaven…so it sounds like a true fantasy of longing, not merely a self-conscious ploy or ruse…and anyway, would a kid really fall for this line? One that was old enough to keep up with a hobo, anyway?


  5. Mark Lickona says

    Of course, my “no kid’s that dumb” objection goes away if the song wasn’t actually used by pied-piper hobos (as some perhaps-overly-literal “people” have speculated) but rather a fictional rendering, a darkly-humorous send-up (via fantastical set-up and a nasty punch line), of an all-too-real atrocity…

  6. The Dictionary of Old Hobo Slang unpacks some of the meaning of McClintock’s last verse.

    A “punk” is a boy discarded by a jocker or, alternatively, a young hobo. A “jocker” is an experienced hobo who taught minors that way of life, noting further that “the relationship was often sexual.”

    On a less disturbing note, I was pleased to learn that a “slob sister” is a moocher who weeps when begging from his clients.

  7. Rufus McCain says

    And then in the early 1970s the slacker sexual deviant predators that in the past would have become hobos discovered they could enroll in Catholic seminaries … “The Big Rock Catholic Mountain”

  8. Dorian Speed says

    Yoicks and grossness.

    la la la

    This makes me rethink my “Big Clean Laundry Mountain” post I was considering earlier today.

  9. Anonymous says

    See, you take a profession such as “hobo” and then soil it. Some make the same mistakes with “journalists” or “politicians”. “He used to be a serious journalist then started writing for a rag”.

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