Friday, June 27, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 178): "KING OF THE ROAD" (1965) Roger Miller

We’re fast approaching the mid-point of the year. And that means I’m almost halfway through my intention of a daily post about a different song each day. Looking back over the first half of the year (for some accounting and tallying I’ll do at the halfway mark), I notice that there are a few unrepresented years, from 1956, the earliest year, up to 2013, the latest. While it’s no prerequisite that all years be represented, there are two years I’d like to get into the mix in the first six months.

One such year is 1965. In January of that year, today’s song was released. Which means that the song came along after The Beatles were already on the radio, but Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” was in many ways closer to home for me than the Fab Four. To some extent, Miller was my dad’s music. We had a collection of Miller’s biggest hits, including what was by then his signature song. In a sense, it seems as if I’ve always known this song, which is a way of saying that I have very, very early memories of it, of “knowing” it without really knowing what he was singing about, exactly.

When I got older and preferred pop and rock, I retained a fondness for this song—and for the odd vocalizing of Miller on other songs on that collection, most notably “Do-Wacka-Do”; though many of Miller’s songs struck me as corny in my teen years, “King of the Road” never did. The song is infused with the life and times of where I’m from—New Castle, Delaware. We lived in post-war constructions in tract housing just off a major highway—called DuPont, after the storied family that thrived in that area and forged into industries that made them the state’s biggest employer—barely a mile from the Delaware Memorial Bridge that stretches across the Delaware River to New Jersey. Over in Jersey, it was pretty rural round there (and is still), if you don’t count the big DuPont plant on the shore. On the Delaware side, it’s mostly the suburban developments that ring Old New Castle settled on the Delaware in all its pre-Revolutionary War quaintness. The area, in 1965, was thrifty working-class, mostly Protestants and Catholics, and nearly all white. “Country,” to me, was further down the DuPont Highway—to the St. Georges Canal and beyond, which we drove through on our way to the Delaware and Maryland beaches. But on family drives, we mainly went northwest, to the suburbs outlying from Wilmington, where my mother had grown up and where her sisters mainly settled. That is until they started to retire and moved down into southern Delaware toward the shore.

It’s a small state and yet when I see movies set in the midwest I don’t see that much difference in terms of the kinds of people. Delaware is very flat and its climate very moderate—worst things are humidity and mosquitoes in the summer—and the kind of character who sings “King of the Road” was not unfamiliar. He’s a kind of regular odd-job worker, rarely employed and just long enough to get some money for smokes, drink, and that “four-bit room” to shave and shower and sleep in.  He’s not a scoundrel, not even a vagrant, really, just a knock-about, a “good old boy.” And, while in those days there was already the pressures to educate the next generation (the one I’m in) for the competition with godless communism, in the generation that fought “the Big One,” and maybe even in Korea, there was time to just enjoy the fruits of the boom. My own father began life as such a worker, then got a wife, a family, and was a company man pretty much by the time I was on the scene (DuPont, of course). And some of the people who were around in my kid years come vaguely to mind when I hear this song. Not that any of them were on the bum like this guy. But the immediate recognition of the song was in the fact that it captured a real American type. The “just passing through” brethren of the road.

Living on the East Coast corridor also meant that trains were known entities—between the Northeast and the South, they passed through too. “Third boxcar, midnight train / Destination: Bangor, Maine.” Riding the rails was a fond dream of the Thirties for writers like Kerouac and even someone closer in time to me: Bob Dylan. Miller’s version isn’t glorified but it isn’t chastened either. “Old worn out suit and shoes / I don’t pay no union dues.” Probably the best couplet in the song: on the one hand, the wear and tear of this kind of rootless life; on the other, a finger to The Man (which includes the union boss as much as the plant or shift boss). It’s a great ironic line and Miller makes it a punchline by having the music pause there.

“Trailers for sale or rent / Rooms to let, fifty cents.” For all the consolidated child-rearing of those suburban spaces we all inhabited, there was lots of transience around. In the neighborhoods, Catholic families with a lot of kids—our church and its school was right up there on that highway too—and on that highway plenty of motels, and even a trailer park. “No phone, no pool, no pets / I ain’t got no cigarettes.” Every time I hear the lines, into my mind pops an image of those not-so-inviting, but clean and not at all derelict rooms on the road. Park your car in front and sleep inside (though the traveler in Miller’s song isn’t a car owner). And the string of “no”s: they don’t have a phone for you, nor a pool to use (this isn’t for families on vacation), and you aren’t permitted pets. “Twelve hours of pushing broom”—a great phrase that means just what it says; the kind of job that basically means helping to clean up. Dish washer. Garbage man. Smoking the tossed-away ends of other people’s smokes.

Then the verse that makes you perk up a bit, and always got me with its detail and its implications: “I know every engineer on every train / And all of their children and all of their names / And every handout in every town / And every lock that ain’t locked / When no one’s around.” Kids had a way of knowing about those unlocked locks too. There’s—if not exactly an underground or an underbelly—an underside to things. However keen everyone is to be upfront there’s always a little spying and sneaking and stealing going on. Our free-loading tramp knows how to make himself presentable, to listen to yarns and the brags about kids, to put in his time till things settle down and something might just get up and walk away.

It’s a homely little song, clear-eyed about its hero, but not unwilling to make him a hero. “A man of means by no means,” he’s “king of the road” because he doesn’t fear the road. The highway is his home. Walking it as kids—and if you dared, hitching on it—you could see how easily the highway could take you away into a world this song winks at. A very comforting song to hear in a grocery store, a barber shop, on the car on the way home from church. And Miller sings it so warmly, with a kind of affectionate twinkle. That kind of ornery cuss who likes to josh with kids and tickle a laugh out of their moms. Mornin’, missus.

Anyway, it’s one of my favorite songs.

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