"There's a Lake of Stew and of Whiskey too"
Updated: Jun 16
The title for this post was borrowed from the original lyrics of Big Rock Candy Mountain, a song about a hobo's paradise, where there were "cigarette trees" and "alcohol streams ". Like most people I was only familiar with the much sanitized children's version first recorded by Burl Ives in the late 1930's, where the trees were full of peppermint and the streams ran with lemonade. As much as this revelation muddled a few quaint childhood memories, these days the initial version sounds sounds much more appealing.
This delightful nugget of information was first brought to my attention recently while reading Imagery Cities by Darran Anderson. Imagery Cities is a lengthy but highly informative and entertaining piece of nonfiction exploring the many facets cities( both mythical and actual) through art, literature and architecture throughout history.
This mythical "land of plenty " is hardly a new idea as Anderson points out, the song was actually a modern version of the fabled land of Cockaigne that first appeared in 12th century European folktales. It was a carefree world of gluttony and vice, a place where religious and sexual taboos of the day were nonexistent ,"where cheeses fell from the sky and streams flowed with wine, geese roast themselves and rooves are made of bacon". At a time when most of your short life was spent toiling in the muddy fields it's not difficult to see why fantasizing about such a place would be appealing.
In a way this same concept of a fantasy world of ease and abundance is found in the consumer culture of today. In order to fuel economies increasingly based on the mass consumption of trivial goods, clever advertising and marketing embed in our minds that whatever they're selling will provide us with the cheese from the sky or cigarette tree we've been seeking. The residuals of these overhyped empty promises collide and combine to form a Cockaigne of the present, as gluttonous and slothful as any hobo or medieval peasant ever dreamed of. I know mine has a tequila jacuzzi, what does yours have? Let me know in the comments, cheers!