The Haywire Mac Story

Haywire Mac composed “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” in 1897. He was fifteen, living on the road after running away to join the circus. But that was just the beginning of his long and amazing life. He was a hobo, a boomer trainman who traveled from town to town in search of the best railroad jobs. A lifelong member of the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World), he helped organize oil workers in west Texas in the early 1920s. He was a singer, songwriter, poet and radio host. He composed “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” a standard in the Wobbly’s Little Red Songbook for nearly 100 years. Robert Crumb included Haywire Mac in his “Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country” trading cards.

Haywire Mac was born Harry Kirby McClintock, on October 8, 1882, in Knoxville, Tennessee. He started singing in St. John’s Episcopal Church when he was twelve, but only lasted 14 months before his cracking voice made him undesirable. He ran away from home in 1896 and joined the Gentry Brother’s circus. But he quit after a month and started hopping freights, inspired by stories of his uncles who were boomer trainmen.

On the Road

Mac hoboed south to New Orleans, where he learned that he could support himself with his singing. In the spring of 1897, he hit the road again, drifting throughout the south, and then to St. Louis, Pueblo, Chicago and Cincinnati. This was when he composed “Big Rock Candy Mountains” and “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” singing without accompaniment since he hadn’t yet learned to play any instruments.

He was good at making money, both from panhandling and from singing. But there were lots of bums who tried to take advantage of kids his age. So, he carried a Barlow knife and often had to fight or run. One time, he jumped from a boxcar at 30 miles per hour to save his life. A railroad crew found him next day and took him to hospital, with a concussion, fractured collar and cracked ribs.

Haywire Mac Goes to War

When the Spanish-American war started, he supported himself performing for soldiers in Chackamuaga Park, in Chattanooga. He couldn’t get into the army because he was too young and skinny. But he got a job as a civilian muleskinner, for the cavalry, packing supplies through the jungles of the Philippines. After the war, he went to China, serving as an aide to newsmen covering Boxer Rebellion. After that, he traveled to San Francisco.

He intended to return to Knoxville to visit his parents, but got shanghaied along the way. He sailed to Africa and remained there, working as a muleskinner. A Scotsman, named MacKelvie, was impressed by his familiarity around the rails and wrote Mac a letter of recommendation. With that letter, Mac got a job as a brakeman in Rhodesia, in the middle of the Boer war.

After seven months, he shipped out to Australia, where he tried to ride the freights and was promptly jailed. After his release, he traveled into the interior with a group of musician rugby players, before sailing to England to see the coronation of King Edward. Then he went to Argentina, where he immediately jumped ship and wandered for several days.

On the Road Again

He returned to U.S. in 1902, at the age of twenty, and worked as a stevedore, in Philadelphia, and as a switchman, in Pittsburgh. In 1903, he was a brakeman on an iron ore train near Lake Superior. After that, he traveled south, to Memphis, and cruised down the Mississippi. He spent the winter in Shreveport, fishing and relaxing, using his free time to read about socialism and learn everything he could about air brakes. In the spring, he went to Denver and worked the Rio Grande Railroad, proving himself with the air brake on the steep mountain roads.

By 1905, Haywire Mac had tired of booming and traveled from Mexico to Nome. Along the way, he supported himself by playing vaudeville, medicine shows, dance halls and saloons, street corners, brothels, mining camps and train terminals. Around this time, he met Jack London at the artist colony in Carmel, California. They became close friends and traveled to Oakland together, swapping hoboing stories. Mac sang at London’s political rallies during his run for mayor in 1905.

The Wobblies

In 1905 and 1906, Mac printed the sheet music for “Big Rock Candy Mountains” and “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” as broadsides and postcards. He sold these at his performances to earn extra money. Flush with cash, he traveled to San Francisco, ready to party. But then the earthquake hit. He spent the next three days among the fires and rubble, making coffee and sandwiches for the firemen, remaining close to engines because soldiers were shooting looters on sight.

There was a financial panic in 1907 and most work came to a stop. Tracks were lined with empty cars and more locomotives were idle than working. Haywire Mac was already a Wobbly at this point (the union was founded in 1905). He joined the IWW band as one of its first singers and musicians and his song, “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” became its unofficial anthem. The song was published in the first edition of the Little Red Songbook at Spokane, 1907.

By the fall of 1909, the panic had ended and the railroads were hiring again. On a run from New Orleans to Memphis, in 1909, Mac met Wallace Saunders, a black roundhouse laborer from Mississippi, who composed the Ballad of Casey Jones, about the famed train wreck of 1900. This was the first time Mac heard the song.

In the summer of 1910, Mac worked as a firefighter in Spokane and Couer D’Alene. But the Forest Service paid them with “time” checks, which the banks refused to cash. The saloons only offered them 75 cents to the dollar. So, the men occupied a freight train and refused to leave, holding the train for two hours and demanding a meeting with the mayor. A Forest Service official finally arrived and paid them real money. The incident supposedly led to an investigation of Forest Service graft and led to several convictions.

Haywire Mac Joins the Revolution

Mac returned to Oakland and, from there, shipped out to Hilo, Hawaii, where he did a short stint as a stevedore and beach bum, and probably drank a lot with Jack London. After that, he returned to California, working on a sugar mill railroad in San Luis Obispo. It was here that he heard about the Mexican Revolution. So, that fall, when the millwork slowed, he went to Mexico and joined other Wobblies who were participating in the anarchist Magonista rebellion in Baja California. He fought in several battles against the Federalistas and helped capture the city of Tijuana during the Battle of the Barley Fields. But in the spring of 1912, they learned of a large contingent of Federalistas heading toward Tijuana and marched across the border, surrendering to the 22nd U.S. Infantry. (For more on this rebelion, read The Desert Revolution).

Family Life

Back in the U.S., Mac traveled to Salt Lake City, where he met his future wife, Bessie Katherine Johnson. Traveling south, to Marysvale, Utah, in 1913, Mac saw a beautiful multicolored mountain that reminded him of the mountain in his song. According to his biographer, Henry Young, this is how Utah’s Big Rock Candy Mountain got its name, although other sources say that locals gave it this name after hearing Mac’s recording of the song in 1928.

Mac continued to travel and live on the road, even after his daughter was born, in 1915. But by 1917, he finally settled in San Francisco with his family, where he remained for many years. In 1925, a friend dared him to apply for a radio show. This was the origin of his program on KFRC’s Blue Monday Jamboree, which lasted for the next thirteen years. On the show, he told tales of his wanderings and adventures, mixing in comedy songs, accompanying himself on guitar, and later bringing on a full band. The show became one of the most popular radio shows on the west coast.

Haywire Mac Recordings

From March 1, 1928, to October 15, 1931, Haywire Mac recorded 38 titles for Victor Records. Unfortunately, he couldn’t collect royalties for many of his songs because they had already been absorbed into the American folklore, having been performed by him and imitators for nearly 30 years prior to his first recordings. “Big Rock Candy Mountains” was copyrighted by an imitator in 1906. But Mac put out a plea over his radio show for anyone who had a copy of any of his old broadsides or postcards from prior to 1906. Sure enough, some turned up, proving his authorship of the song, which was confirmed by Rae Korson, at the Library of Congress, in 1965.

In 1938, Mac moved to Los Angeles, where he worked until 1952, before retiring at the age of 70. Throughout his time in LA, he continued entertaining, including a weekly radio show sponsored by the Southern Pacific railroad. He then moved back to San Francisco, to be near his daughter and grandchildren. In the 1950s, he performed on several early television shows, including “San Francisco Beat,” and “You’re Never Too Old,” and he returned to radio, with the “Breakfast Gang” show.

Haywire Mac's mausoleum site, Colma
Photo by Marshall Law, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1956, he was diagnosed with diabetes and on April 25, 1957, he died of a heart attack. He had requested that his ashes be strewn over Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, but government rules forbade this. So, his remains were interred at a mausoleum at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, in Colma, just south of San Francisco.

References used to write this piece:

Young, Henry, Haywire Mac and the Big Rock Candy Mountains, Stillhouse Hollow Publisher, Inc. 1981

The IWW Little Red Songbook, 35th Edition, Published by the Industrial Workers of the World, July 20, 1990.

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