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About Harry McClintock

Some of the career experience this artist had -- such as actor, poet, painter, newspaper reporter, or set designer -- is similar to what many other performing artists might list on their resumés. But as for some of the other things Harry McClintock did, he would find himself in an elite group of recording artists who have also been seamen, sheep herders, railroaders, union organizers, cowboys, hobos, and muleskinners. Ironically, he is most remembered for songs about people who choose to do nothing at all, such as "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" and "The Big Rock Candy Mountain." McClintock successfully established himself as the copyrighted composer of these numbers, despite the fact that folk music experts and copyright lawyers continue to argue amongst themselves. Known in his recording and broadcast career as Haywire Mac, Radio Mac, or just plain Mac, he made more than 50 excellent records of original songs and folk classics. Much of this material has been reissued by Rounder and Smithsonian Folkways. He was the first artist to record what have become classic American folk songs, such as "Red River Valley," "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," and "Jesse James."

McClintock was the son of a cabinet maker. He began singing in church as a child and was still a child of 14 when he first took off on the road. He toured with a dog and pony show as a horse groomer, but was never paid. Heading to New Orleans and the prospect of warmer weather, he found himself in the company of bums from all over the land, all of whom had the same idea. It was here that he first developed his strong sympathy for these individuals, later to be expressed in the classic rhyming couplets of tunes such as "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" and "The Bum Song," the latter recorded twice as there were always new verses pouring out of each sidecar. At 16, he began playing music on the streets for the promise of "spare change." He had discovered what he recalled later was one of the great secrets of life: "Anyone who can sing never has to go hungry." This was when he wrote his first song, the story of "Big Rock Candy Mountain." It was based on fairy tales he had heard growing up, conjuring up images of houses built out of sweet cakes and candy. Except in McClintock's song, there is no evil witch and it is the hobos, not Hansel and Gretel, who live happily ever after. By 1905, the song had become so popular that he had a printer run off packs of cards with the lyrics printed on them. He wrote "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" in 1902, following his involvement with labor organizations such as the Wobblies. The popularity of these songs would multiply many times over once McClintock got on the radio in San Francisco in 1925. His big radio break was a program aimed at children, a crowd he immediately wowed with his authentic cowboy material. Native American "performers" -- they were mostly just various interesting and rowdy friends of McClintock's -- were also regulars on this show, including Tall Pine, Joe Longfeather, Silver Cloud, and Evening Thunder. A few years later, he made his first recordings for Victor. He would continue recording for the label over the next three and a half years, completing a total of 41 titles. The performances were solo, in duo with fiddler Virgil Ward or vocalist Dorothy Ellen Cole, or with the full orchestral backup of the Haywire Orchestra. Following the end of his Victor contract, McClintock cut sides for Decca and a small local label, called Flex-o-Disc. Eventually he had to mount several lawsuits to establish the publishing rights for the original songs he had recorded. Mixed in among the folk songs and cowboy numbers, some of McClintock's work was passed off as traditional by other artists looking to cash in without shelling out publishing royalties. In a letter to the League of Composers, McClintock made fun of the idea that so-called "hillbilly" songs were not written by anybody. "The theory seems to be they are created by some sort of spontaneous generation," he wrote.

McClintock moved to Hollywood in 1938 to see what he could get going in the movie business. He wound up appearing in several Gene Autry films, a Durango Kid oater, and a variety of serials done at the Universal and Republic studios. He tended to be a villain, when he was lucky. Unlucky, he just got to stand there and say "He went thataway." McClintock also did radio work as well as writing articles, plays, and fiction for pulp magazines under pseudonyms. In 1953, he went back to San Francisco to appear on the radio and television program entitled The Breakfast Hour. He continued with this program off and on until 1955, and died several years later. ~ Eugene Chadbourne