The song was first recorded by McClintock, also known by his "hobo" name of Haywire Mac. McClintock claimed credit for writing the song, though it was likely partially based on other ballads, including "An Invitation to Lubberland" and "The Appleknocker's Lament". Other popular itinerant songs of the day such as "Hobo's Paradise", "Hobo Heaven", "Sweet Potato Mountains" and "Little Streams of Whiskey" likely served as inspiration, as they mention concepts similar to those in "Big Rock Candy Mountain".
Before recording the song, McClintock cleaned it up considerably from the version he sang as a street busker in the 1890s. Originally the song described a child being recruited into hobo life by tales of the "big rock candy mountain". In later years, when McClintock appeared in court as part of a copyright dispute, he cited the original words of the song, the last stanza 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 damned 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.
The song was not popularized until 1939, when it peaked at #1 on Billboard magazine's country music charts. But it achieved more widespread popularity in 1949 when a sanitized version intended for children was re-recorded by Burl Ives. It has been recorded by many artists throughout the world, but a version recorded in 1960 by Dorsey Burnette to date was the biggest success for the song in the post-1954 "rock era", having reached No. 102 on Billboard's chart.
Sanitized versions have been popular, especially with children's musicians; in these, the "cigarette trees" become peppermint trees, and the "streams of alcohol" trickling down the rocks become streams of lemonade. The lake of gin is not mentioned, and the lake of whiskey becomes a lake of soda pop. The 2008 extended adaptation for children by Gil McLachlan tells the story as a child's dream, the last stanza being:
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you're going on a holiday
Your birthday comes around once a week and it’s Christmas every day
You never have to clean your room or put your toys away
There's a little white horse you can ride of course
Just north of Marysvale, Utah, near the Fishlake National Forest, stands a cluster of brightly colored hills named the "Big Rock Candy Mountain". However, the song was written before the mountain got its name; in 1928, after the song had been released, some Utah residents jokingly placed a sign at the base of the hills labeling it the "Big Rock Candy Mountain", along with a sign next to a nearby spring proclaiming it "Lemonade Springs". The Big Rock Candy Mountain Resort currently sits at the base of the hills and is a major hub in the Paiute ATV trail.
In 2000, inclusion in the popular soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? brought the song to a modern audience. The version in the film, sung by Harry McClintock, includes the original references to "cigarette trees," "streams of alcohol," and the lake of whiskey as well.
The song was used in a 2005 Burger King commercial, although the lyrics are changed to reference the food being promoted. In the commercial almost all of the promises of the song are shown in detail. Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish) is shown as a cowboy singing the song. Brooke Burke also appears in the commercial as a cowgirl.
A recording of the song was used as background music in a 2010 L.L. Bean commercial for the outdoor apparel maker.
A version of the song was recorded by The Restarts, a punk band from London, England.
In 1943, Wallace Stegner published an autobiographical novel titled The Big Rock Candy Mountain. He published a further autobiographical work in 1992 entitled Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, a reference to a line in the song.
In the 1970s, Big Rock Candy Mountain was made into an environmental fairytale, published on an LP intended for children with the namesake and addition songs. It is the story of a goose, a crawdad, a family of rats, a whangdoodle, and two hobos who journey to the fabled mountain in search of a home. There they find Pollution Pete, Cement Sam, and a construction crew damming the rivers, cutting down forests, and turning the mountain into suburbia. The animals steal shovels, paint them with glow-in-the-dark paint, and use them to scare away the crew so that the mountain can be returned to its pristine state.
In the Cormac McCarthy novel All the Pretty Horses, John Grady Cole comments on how much the Mexican Tavern keeper loves the Mexican ranches in the South by saying "He made that Country sound like the Big Rock Candy Mountains." The allusion reflects John Grady's dream of trying to discover his paradise.
In Glen Cook's 1982 novel Shadowline, first in the Starfishers trilogy, a planet named the Big Rock Candy Mountain is the location for several scenes of the story.
The children-friendly version of the song was also used in the Rankin Bass stop-motion video "The Easter Bunny is comin' to town".
In 1987, Scottish indie pop band The Motorcycle Boy released an original song with the same title as a single.
In 1990, Jane Wiedlin recorded an unrelated song with the same title on her album Tangled.
The theme song to the TV series The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack draws heavy inspiration from this song. In fact, some of the lines in the theme song are lines from this song with a few words changed to include more references to candy (for example, "little streams of alcohol come'a tricklin' down the rocks" became "sody pop come tricklin' down the rocks.", or even more starkly "come with me, we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains" became "come with me, we'll go and see a place called Candied Island") Episodes of the series often tell the story of an adventure Flapjack and Captain K'nuckles have while searching for the legendary Candied Island. In many ways, the series itself could be a huge allusion to the song, as K'nuckles tells incredibly tall tales about lands much like the one in the song to convince Flapjack to go adventuring, and both characters appear to live poor, hobo-like lives.
In Mur Lafferty's Heaven audiobook series, the Big Rock Candy Mountain is portrayed as the hobo afterlife.
Grammy-winning artist Bruce Hornsby used the song as an intro to his song Candy Mountain Run at the Biltmore show in Asheville, NC on July 25, 2009 - and possibly in other venues on other dates.