Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

One of the joys of researching my book is discovering musical nuggets in Chaplin’s films that contemporary audiences in his day may have been familiar with but have since faded with time. In MODERN TIMES, Chaplin weaves the American folk song “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” into the fabric of the score as pointed commentary on the Tramp’s on again/off again employment status. But the song’s origin and subsequent history give no hint of its later protest fervor.

The seeds of the tune can be found as far back as 1813 in a waltz for The Miller and His Men, a Romantic-era melodrama composed by Sir Henry Bishop (1786–1855), composer of “Home, Sweet Home.” In 1815, British-born John J. Husband (1760–1825), who had emigrated to the Philadelphia in 1809 and combined his church post with teaching music, interpolated the melody into the chorus of a hymn originally titled “Thine the Glory.” The melody also made an appearance in an 1858 hymn book as “Rejoice And Be Glad,” with words by Horatius Bonar.

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, William P. Mackay (1839–1855), a Scottish-born doctor and later Presbyterian minister, used Husband’s tune for his hymn “Revive Us Again”:

Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Hallelujah! Amen.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Revive us again.

The authorship of “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” offers a more rural set of stories. It is said that some verses were written by a Kansas City hobo known as “One-Finger Ellis,” who reportedly scribbled it on the wall of his prison cell in 1897.

Around the same time, singer Harry McClintock (1882–1957), who later became well known for “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” was hoboing on the open road (he was only 15 at the time), bumming his meals and singing for his supper, after having run away to join the circus. McClintock took the old Presbyterian hymn and called his version “Hallelulia on the Bum.”

“There were only two or three verses at first but new ones practically wrote themselves,” McClintock said in Songs of Work and Protest. “The jungle stiffs liked the song and so did the saloon audiences, most of whom had hit the road at one time or another, and the rollicking, devil-may-care lilt of the thing appealed to them.”

During the Spanish American War, McClintock reportedly sang the song in Army training camps in Tennessee. The soldiers added new verses and helped spread the song around the country. By the late 1920s, when more than a dozen publishers had turned out sheet music of the song, McClintock charged them all with copyright infringement and managed to establish his authorship claim legally.

McClintock was a lifelong member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a U.S. labor organization dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. The IWW used parodies of songs (sung by a leader known as a Wobbly) to compete for the attention of crowds, inspire militancy and solidarity in its ranks, and to help enlist new members. Cards bearing the lyrics to familiar tunes were printed and sold to the audience. The organization printed “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” in 1908, and IWW’s Spokane, Washington, branch adopted the song as their anthem that year. It found widespread popularity during the IWW’s Free Speech fights of 1909. 

The song gained further traction with McClintock’s 1928 recording. Al Jolson also released a record of it that same year and later starred in a 1933 film of the same name. But it is Chaplin’s musical treatment in MODERN TIMES that has stood the test of time, primarily because of the primary scene it accompanies.

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum

The Tramp, who has just been let out of jail after his nervous breakdown, walks the city streets as one of the many unemployed from the now-shuttered factory. When a flag drops off the back of a delivery truck, he picks it up and waves it to get the driver’s attention. As a crowd of protesters round the corner, the Tramp is mistakenly accused of leading the protest and hauled off to jail.

As the Tramp shuffles along the city streets, the “Hallelujah” melody starts in a muted trumpet with a gentle rocking motion in the accompaniment. Strings take up the tune and a snare drum foreshadows the marchers off screen. A full-throttled statement of the melody brings the revolutionaries around the corner until the police break up the rally with an interruption of fanfare snippets and sheep music from the beginning of the film. A succession of brass paraphrases of the seven-note “Hallelujah, I’m a bum” underscore the policemen throwing the Tramp into the back of the police van, and the gentle strings suggest that his return to jail is almost like returning home.

The lyric, though not heard in the film, fits in with the philosophical points Chaplin is trying to make. The chorus not only provides the musical quote used in the score but captures the Tramp’s carefree attitude towards his unemployment:

Hallelujah, I’m a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout
To revive us again.

When MODERN TIMES was set to premiere in Austria, government censors cut the scene. It’s not surprising that the implications of this particular sequence would come back to haunt Chaplin in later years, adding to the numerous accusations about his political affiliations. Chaplin deliberately uses the tune to underline his political points throughout the film—when the Tramp foils the jail break and hands back the cell block keys, and when he unwittingly sabotages a succession of new jobs (the ship, the department store, and with Chester Conklin at the reopened factory) and is once again “on the bum.”

Most Depression-era audiences would have recognized the tune. Though the musical joke may have been more obvious in 1936, knowing the background of the song gives that particular scene and later musical quotes added punch even today. Most of the cues using the tune are less than 15 seconds long, just enough time for the ear to hear the melody and get the joke, without detracting from the visuals on screen.

Chaplin wouldn’t always be as subtle with his musical quotes of pre-existing tunes. An argument could even be made that its use in this particular scene is hardly understated. But the combination of music, arrangement, and visuals work together to create one of Chaplin’s best onscreen gags.

Can I get a “hallelujah”?

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