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McClintock claimed to have written the song in 1895, based on tales from his youth hoboing through the United States, but some believe that at least aspects of the song have existed for far longer.
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. Before recording the song, McClintock cleaned it up considerably from the version he sang as a street busker in the 1890s.The song was not popularized until 1939, when it peaked at #1 on Billboard magazine's country music charts.