The song is generally recognized as a turn of the century hobo ballad based on An Invitation to Lubberland, but authorship is also generally attributed to Harry McClintock since earlier written evidence of the song is not known. As a result, the song's copyright status is also in dispute. There are secondhand reports that McClintock attempted to enforce a copyright on the song but lost his lawsuit; in that case the song is in the public domain. Without further verification it must be assumed that the song is copyright by Harry McClintock.
Before recording the song, McClintock cleaned it up considerably from the version he sang as a street busker in 1897. Originally the song described a child being recruited into hobo life by tales of the "big rock candy mountain". Such recruitment actually occurred, with hobos enchanting children with tales of adventure called ghost stories by other hobos. In proof of his authorship of the song, McClintock published the original words, the last verse of which was:
The punk rolled up his big blue eyes And said to the jocker, "Sandy, I've hiked and hiked and wandered too, But I ain't seen any candy. I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore And I'll be d--ned if I hike any more To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.In the released version this verse did not appear; in fact all mention of the "hoosier boy" was removed. The "cigarette trees" became peppermint trees, and the "streams of alkyhol" trickling down the rocks became streams of lemonade. The lake of gin is not mentioned, and the lake of whiskey became a lake of soda.
In 1929, the song lent its name to a cluster of brightly-colored hills a short distance north of Marysvale, Utah, and a spring nearby was named "Lemonade Springs". The Big Rock Candy Mountain Resort is at the base of the hills.