The obscure and contradictory story of Haywire Mac
In that interesting masonry peninsula where southern Old North narrows to a point as Broadway encroaches on Central, there, off Irwin Street, is a large, colorful mural on the back of a building depicting a happy-looking guy with bushy eyebrows and a big cowboy hat.
That’s the only local portrait of Haywire Mac, otherwise known as Harry McClintock, the adventurous, offbeat, and somewhat mysterious folk icon. In his life, he worked as a courier for war correspondents during the Boxer Rebellion in China, was involved somehow in British railroads during the Boer War in South Africa, and was a mule-packer helping U.S. forces during the Philippine Insurrection. He worked as a sailor on the high seas, a railroad man, a horse groomer, a farmworker, an oilfield roughneck, a B-Western actor, somehow reserving time to live as a freight-hopping hobo, too.
He did some of those things, anyway.
This is the guy who wrote “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which I think is depicted in abstract form on the mural. He also wrote, or popularized “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and famously made an early recording of “The Preacher and the Slave”–Joe Hill’s bitterly sarcastic secular hymn that included the phrase, “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die”–an irreligious parody that became an anthem of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, of which he was an enthusiastic member. Several of his other songs, like “Fifty Years from Now,” had buoyant anticapitalist messages. Some others, like “Ain’t We Crazy” were just silly jazz-age fun.
He was literally a “singing brakeman” even before Jimmie Rodgers claimed that title.
But he was best known for his own “Big Rock Candy Mountain”–a hobo’s vision of paradise where whiskey flows in streams and cigarettes grow on trees and “the handouts grow on bushes” and “the boxcars are all empty” and “the cops have wooden legs.” One stanza of the original lyrics is very bawdy–but evolved over the years into a children’s song. It may be the only song in history that’s been recorded by Burl Ives, Bing Crosby, and Tom Waits.
In the late 1920s, deeply involved in the radical labor movement, he made the acquaintance of an unsettled young oil worker in Texas named Jim Thompson. McClintock introduced Thompson (not the Knoxville photographer) to the writings of Karl Marx and Eugene Debs, and encouraged Thompson to join the IWW—and eventually, to write. Thompson became one of the hardest-core of America’s hardcore crime novelists, and based some of his characters, notably Strawlegs Martin in Thompson’s autobiographical novel, Bad Boy, on this unusual balladeer.
By some accounts, McClintock made a living of sorts in Hollywood, recording some, playing bit parts in Gene Autry westerns, often in non-speaking roles, though that appears to be hard to track. When he was approaching 60, he did make a goofy short video of “Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
In old age, McClintock found himself unexpectedly gaining new esteem as the sort of godfather of the 1950s folk-music revival in the Bay Area of California.
And naturally, he was from Knoxville.
The degree to which Harry McClintock belongs to Knoxville is debatable for interesting reasons, but he definitely spent several of his formative years here—and that he considered it his birthplace, whether it was or not.
We might jump to the conclusion that he was part of our country-music heritage, exemplified by the great old live-radio shows of the ’30s and later. McClintock may have begun his musical career here, playing on the streets. But it appears that he left town forever about 20 years before Knoxville even had a radio station. He seems plumb off the grid of everything we know for certain about the evolution of country music here.
I’ve never written in much detail about him before, because he’s always been a bit of a cipher. Lots of sources say he was born in Knoxville in 1882, but also that at some point, he ran away from home. At the time of his death, in 1957, the News-Sentinel noted that he had left at age 14, in 1896.
But during the 1882-1896 period that national biographical sources suggest he lived here, I couldn’t find a single jot about him. I seem to recall learning somewhere that he ran away after the sudden death of his father in an accident at Staub’s Theatre. Back then, I deliberately looked for an account of that accident. But it was back when newspapers weren’t indexed and research was a laborious, needle-in-a-haystack sort of a process. I assumed that his father had died, and that Harry had run away from home. That would put him old enough to be in China in time for the Boxer Rebellion, and on from there.
I didn’t find any reference to such a dramatic theater death in the 1890s. And the only McClintocks listed as living in Knoxville in the 1890s were an African American family.
I came to assume that maybe he was born here, but maybe just that. If he spent much time, here, it was pretty obscure, and probably not relevant to his career. Sometimes a birthplace is just biographical trivia.
It took me a couple of decades to realize I was working with some faulty assumptions about chronology and causation.
As it turns out, the seeming certainty of when and where Harry McClintock was born turns out to be no simple thing. In fact, the official story has shifted some in recent years. Lately, Wikipedia says he was born in Uhrichsville, Ohio, in 1884.
But McClintock himself, on repeated legal documents in the last 20 years or his life, claimed he was born in Knoxville in 1882, as I learned from the McClung Collection’s resourceful librarian, Danette Welch, who turned them up for me—as well as some earlier, conflicting documents. The singer apparently didn’t get a birth certificate until 1941, when he convinced a California judge of his estimate of his year and place of birth. (Even in his late 50s, he was apparently obliged to register for the draft during World War II.) That’s how he was officially born in Knoxville, even if he wasn’t.
I went deep into the weeds, into the records of a small family in a rapidly growing industrial city, when people were arriving and leaving at a rapid rate.
We can track McClintock’s working-class family only in glimpses.
They were indeed originally from Uhrichsville, Ohio, a small town south of Akron in the Appalachian part of that state, where Walter McClintock was a skilled carpenter who worked on railroad cars. They arrived in Knoxville when the city was growing most rapidly, and the father worked for the Southern yards, after 1894 one of the nation’s biggest employers of railroad-car carpenters.
The relative rarity of their last name makes them easy to track. There are very few people by that name in Knoxville. They were a family of three when they arrived, Walter, his wife Joanna, and their son Harry. They had seen some tragedy, as had most families of the era; their first son had died at age 4, before Harry was born.
Knoxville was a much bigger city than any they’d lived in, and by the 1890s it was known for live performances in vaudeville, offering drama and music in in multiple venues, the largest and grandest of which was Staub’s Theatre on Gay Street. There were also a few street musicians, like Charlie Oaks, the blind balladeer and guitarist who hung around the train stations singing tales of tragedy. Once considered an exotic Spanish instrument, the guitar was just beginning to catch on in Knoxville, mainly on the streets.
McClintock was reportedly playing in the streets by the time he was 16, which would have been during their Knoxville years, regardless of which birthdate you like.
By early 1898, they were living at 517 Asylum Street, as evidenced by a listing of Knoxville Sentinel subscribers. That address was within sight of the old Deaf and Dumb Asylum, what’s now LMU’s law school. The following year, Walter and his wife Joanna were among the 200 charter members of an Ohioans Club, attending an Ohio-themed picnic at Fountain City Park in September, 1899. We might bet Harry was there, too.
Soon, the McClintocks were living in another house very near Asylum, on McMullen Street, which was a very short street that as far as I can tell approximates the little road that connects Henley Street with the World’s Fair Park, near the Foundry—which was still part of an iron factory when the McClintocks lived there. There were several other Ohioans on the street, but their closest neighbors were a large Russian-Jewish family, the Silbermans. Ben Silberman, born in Russia, was a tailor.
Harry McClintock’s name first appears in Knoxville when he is listed as “new member” of the YMCA, one of several, in November of 1899, when he would have been about 15—or 17. At the time, the Y was in an upper floor of the Borches Building, at the northern end of Market Square, but a few weeks later, the organization moved into its longtime quarters at the old Palace Hotel on State Street.
The following month, a report from the public high school—presumably the Boys’ High School, previously the private Hampden-Sidney School, at the corner of State and Commerce–noted that student Harry McClintock read a paper called “Washington as a Statesman,” on the centennial of the first president’s death, Dec. 14, 1899.
In the 1900 U.S. Census, the McClintocks all live at 719 McMullen Street: Walter, Joanna–and Harry K. McClintock. The census—apparently gleaned from the opinion of his parents—says Harry was born in 1884, in Ohio. He was just 15 in early 1900, when the census was taken. His occupation is described as “at school.”
Of course, there’s a problem with all this. According to most of the thumbnail sketches of his fantastic life, he was supposed to be in China or South Africa or perhaps the Philippines at the time he was observed to be joining the Knoxville Y and reading a report about our founding father at the local high school. One of the most detailed bios is the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, which notes that McClintock ran away from home in 1896, worked for a traveling show, and hoboed to New Orleans. And that in 1898, he was in the Philippines, then sojourned in Australia for a time before migrating to China in time for the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, then went to South Africa, working on the railroad for the British war against the Boers. Then he did some more world traveling, ending up in London in time for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.
Knoxville’s city directories, along with a couple of other articles, make it sound like he was right here that whole time. The period of his far-flung adventures, 1898-1902, is exactly the period that he’s provably and repeatedly in Knoxville.
In 1901, Harry McClintock rates a separate listing from his father, not typical for a dependent teenager. He’s living with his folks, on McMullen, but working for the Knoxville Furniture Co. He may have seemed to be following in his father’s footsteps as a cabinetmaker.
What got me to renew my 20-year-old quest to run down what was provable about Harry McClintock’s youth was a colleague, scholar Paul Brown, who was researching another subject recently when he found a vivid item about his father’s peculiar show-biz death.
It’s from the Journal & Tribune in August, 1901: “Walter A. McClintock, one of the carpenters who has been working on Staub’s new theater, was instantly killed a few minutes after 1:00 Saturday by falling from some scaffolding on the second balcony, a distance of about 23 feet to the floor below.”
Staub’s wasn’t a “new theater,” of course—it was almost 30 years old then, and still Knoxville’s biggest and most popular theater–but was undergoing one of its several major renovations. They did that sort of work in the summertime, because it was deemed to be too hot for audiences anyway.
“He fell head downward, and the right side of his head struck one of the big floor timbers, which crushed his skull above the right temple, producing practically instant death,” reported the Journal & Tribune. “He did not move or even quiver after he fell, but the men did not at first realize that he was dead, and fanned him and ran for water to dash in his face, thinking he was only stunned.”
The article mentioned his home at 719 McMullen Street.
“McClintock was 59 years old, and had a wife and one son.” Harry would have been 20 at the time. Walter “was considered a skillful workman and one of the best men on the job. He had just recovered from a long spell of malarial fever….”
The funeral was at First Methodist Church, which was on Clinch Avenue, representing a slightly different denomination from that of Church Street Methodist, which was then just a block away, on Church Street. He was a member of the Odd Fellows, and more than 100 members of his lodge attended the funeral, along with 56 members of the Carpenters and Joiners Union.
In a show of fraternal loyalty, at least some of them marched with the funeral procession all the way to Woodlawn Cemetery, a fairly new burial ground in South Knoxville. I don’t think we do that anymore. For a guy who was a relative newcomer, he seemed to have a lot of friends—but then, he was a union man. His son would be, too.
The Knoxville papers didn’t say much about Harry, but his father’s hometown paper, the Uhrichsville News-Democrat, did. “Mrs. McClintock will remain in Knoxville for a time, where she will probably keep a few select boarders.” That was exactly true–suggesting the Ohio paper got their information from her. “The son is a manly young fellow 17 years of age and has a natural genius for architecture, he will be able to contribute much to his mother’s aid and support.”
Architecture! In 1901, there was probably not one teenager in 100 who aspired to be an architect, much less showed a “natural genius” for it. This is Haywire Mac, the famous hobo troubadour?
There are other contradictions in the various accounts, which is not necessarily unusual. The Sentinel said Walter was 59 when he fell to his death, the Journal and the Ohio paper just 49. The younger age was apparently correct. The Knoxville paper said he had been here 8-10 years, the Ohio paper said only four; neither would allow for him to have been here when Harry was born in the 1880s.
The Ohio paper said his son was 17—as he would have been, almost, if he were born in 1884, as opposed to 1882.
As the Ohio obit suggested, the month after her husband’s death Mrs. McClintock began advertising “three nice rooms” in her house. In the 1902 directory she’s listed as a “nurse,” living with her son, Harry, at another house a few blocks to the north, at 800 LeRoy, just north of the National Cemetery—and, as is happens, not far from that mural. Harry is listed with no occupation. By that time, the Boxer Rebellion was over, and the Boer War was winding down.
They both disappear from Knoxville records soon after that. A mention of the Ohioans Club in October, 1903, implies that Joanna is still a member. After that, it’s hard to track Harry at all. He was about 18 when he was last seen in Knoxville, and perhaps a little too long in the tooth to run away from home. But its’s not impossible he did some global traveling, perhaps in the employ of the U.S. Army, which was still embroiled in the Philippine Insurrection. Maybe he made it to China in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, or to South Africa to witness the aftermath of the Boer War—enough to tell some stories to entertain his audiences.
If he did some fibbing about all that, perhaps it was useful to make himself two years older. It made his exotic intercontinental adventures more plausible.
But it will always be interesting to ponder his most puzzling prevarication: why he preferred to tell Californians, including his wife, that he was born in Knoxville.
According to jazz guitarist and music critic Eugene Chadbourne, on AllMusic, McClintock had already written, or adapted, his two most famous songs, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” by 1902, when he is last known to have been a Knoxvillian. Chadbourne said “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was so popular that by 1905, McClintock was selling the lyrics to it on a piece of paper. Which is exactly what the blind guitarist and balladeer Charlie Oaks was doing with his own work at the same time.
Maybe it’s more interesting for us that he may have begun his career here, perhaps singing his comically specific visions of a hobo’s paradise around Market Square or the Southern depot. When he died in San Francisco in 1957, one elderly “vaudeville veteran” claimed he vaguely remembered the boy performing here, sometime back around the turn of the century.
Jack Neely, May 6, 2021