Jungle fires

Hi AC,

Recently I saw an ad for a pickup truck that used the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain" in the background. I thought I knew the words, but in the beginning, the guy sings, "the jungle fires were burning." Jungle fires? Did they change the lyrics and if so, why?

Steve from Boston

Big Rock Candy Mountain shaped cake photo credit: Big Rock Candy Mountain HarshLight(CC-BY-2.0) Color enhanced

Dear Steve,

I think I know the ad you're talking about. A rancher and his very dog-like cat, named Walter, do outdoor activities like fishing and herding cattle. (To those readers who have not seen it, yes, the cat is herding cattle.)

Actually, those are the original lyrics:

One evening as the sun went down,

And the jungle fires were burning,

Down the track came a hobo hiking,

And he said, "Boys, I'm not turning.

I'm headed for a land that's far away

Besides the crystal fountains.

So come with me, we'll go and see

The Big Rock Candy Mountains."

The song, recorded by folk singer Harry McClintock in the 1920s (though written earlier) is about hoboes, and what they might fantasize about as the perfect world.

Hoboes had no permanent address, and since they traveled around the country illegally on frieght trains, many fantasies in the songs relate to the harsh realities they faced.

For instance, in McClintock's imagination, the police that chase hoboes "have wooden legs, and the bulldogs all have rubber teeth." Railway employees show respect to the hoboes, if they notice them at all.

As for the jungle fires, a jungle was an informal camp outside of a town for hoboes, who would warm themselves with traditional campfires or fires made in barrels. The hoboes that spent time in these camps were called junglestiffs.

For more hobo slang, click here and here.

You can listen to the song and watch Walter the cat herding cattle in the video below.

Your pal,


A. C. Kemp

August 10, 2021

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