Big Rock Candy Mountains won a new audience when it was included in the soundtrack of the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? a decade ago, but I'd known it from childhood - one of those songs that somehow always seemed to be in the background of my earliest memories. I don't think it was part of my parents' large and eccentric - if mostly very middlebrow - record collection, so I guess I must have been hearing it on the radio. There was a Saturday morning show "for kids" on BBC Radio 2 (I think) which we used to listen to a lot, and which had a tiny repertoire of songs that used to get endlessly repeated: Three Wheels On My Wagon, Wonderful Toy, My Brother Sylvest, Three Little Fishes, Lily The Pink, Two Little Boys. These are all indelibly hardwired into my brain, with (mostly) fond memories; and a few more of them might find their way into the 'Great Songs' series eventually.
Big Rock Candy Mountains was really a rather inappropriate song for a children's show, since it's a 1930s fantasy of a hobo heaven ("where the handouts grow on trees"), and thus contains a number of uncomfortable - if mostly fairly oblique - references to the poverty, hardship, and violence encountered in that way of life. Beneath the jauntiness of the tune and the playful inventiveness of the lyrics, there's a deep vein of sadness, a sense of desperate self-delusion. It's similar in some ways to that other great hobo-ing song - possibly my favourite song of all time - Roger Miller's King of the Road, but its apparent buoyancy and optimism is more superficial, less convincing. It's got some great lines in it, though; how can you not love "where the little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks"?
Here's some scratchy archive footage of the song's composer Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock.
[Wikipedia tells me that Harry was included in a set of trading cards on 'Heroes of Old Time Country Music' by the cartoonist Robert Crumb, but unfortunately I can't find that picture anywhere on the Internet.]