Crawling Inside Myself: Roger Miller Keeps Warm

“Jimmie Rodgers’ hobo was the mistreated and wandering poor white who was just looking for a home, just an old boy down on his luck…thinking about mama more than anything else. And then nearly forty years later, came Roger Miller, a young cat from a different generation whose hobo was a don’t-give-a-damn punk who takes it all in stride.”

Jimmie Rodgers’ hobo:

Will there be any freight trains in Heaven,
Any boxcars in which we might hide;
Will there be any tough cops for brakemen,
Will they tell us that we cannot ride?

Roger Miller’s hobo:

Old stogies I have found,
Short but not too big around…
I’m a man of means, by no means,
King of the road…

~ excepted from The Nashville Sound by Paul Hemphill

It’s 40 degrees and clear tonight in Fort Worth, Texas; chilly perhaps, but not downright cold. Maybe the weather was the same 76 years ago today when Roger Miller was born. But what’s it matter the temperature on the night a person is born? He was born poor and with the death of his father at age one and his mother becoming ill he and his brothers were split up and sent to other relatives to live. Miller ended up with an Aunt and Uncle in Oklahoma and could add loneliness to his poverty. There’s a funny connection between loneliness and humor, where one is the other seems to be close by. I once read, off of a widely exposed music website, the following quote about Miller:

“Roger Miller is best known for his humorous novelty songs, which overshadow his considerable songwriting talents as well as his hardcore honky tonk roots. “

So, we have two statement being said about Miller here; one, his wild songs like Dang Me, The Moon is High, Chug-A-Lug and My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died should apparently be considered second rate and even harmful to his reputation as serious songwriter and two, his betrayal of the traditional country music sounds for novelty and pop hide who he really was as a singer and songwriter. These assertions are ridiculous and show more about the authors prejudices and the continued in-fighting about what country music really is than any serious critique of Miller’s work.

It’s easy to pass over the comic for the serious I suppose, we do it all the time in film and plays and literature. To consider a writer like Miller however to be working beneath his talents on songs like Do Wacka Do is looped. He has as much in common with surrealist pranksters like Salman Rushdie and Woody Allen as he does with the traditional country writers like Felice & Boudleaux Bryant or Hank Cochran. His scatting seems wildly out of place in the honky tonk world, but taken in its own context, which is the only way to take Miller, it is a genius mixture of everything that came before it in American music including the hard jazz of the 40s and 50s as well as Ray Price shuffles, Lester Flat guitar runs all churned together and taken with amphetamines.

Well she gave me fair warning, many times my wife said
She said if you aim to keep me quit your fool hearty ways
I said now listen woman you better leave me alone
How long is forever that’s how long she’ll be gone
Hard hard headed me…

Hard Headed Me, Roger Miller

or

I hear tell you’re doin’ well,
Good thing have come to you.
I wish I had your happiness
And you had a do-wacka-do,
Wacka do, wacka-do, wacka-do.

Do Wacka Do, Roger Miller

I believe there’s a lot of truth to be found in the absurd. Kafka, Faulkner, O’Connor, Calvino all peddled it at times to prophetic heights. Cole Porter, Lennon & McCartney found buried observations about love and loss to be best viewed from the side. Miller came at the truths from upside down and backwards. He’d have us trip over them like banana peels and hit our heads. He’d stick his fingers in our eyes. He’d also pick us back up again and help brush us off. We’d all do well on chilly winter nights to crawl into some old Roger Miller songs, he had a knack for keeping us all warm.

The only time I feel the pain
Is in the sunshine or the rain
And I don’t feel no hurt at all
Unless you count when teardrops fall
I tell the truth ‘cept when I lie
And it only hurts me when I cry

It Only Hurts Me When I Cry, Dwight Yoakam

No matter how big you get the size of your funeral depends on the weather.

~ Roger Miller

About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Bluegrass, Country, Doo Wop, Folk, Honky Tonk, Music, Pop, Radio, Rockabilly, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Crawling Inside Myself: Roger Miller Keeps Warm

  1. Chris says:

    I’ve read similar comments about Miller several times, and while I agree with you that people who dismiss his humorous songs are morons, I think what a lot of writers are trying to point out is that it’s a shame how everybody knows “You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd” when they haven’t heard “One Dyin’ and a Buryin'” or “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me.”

    • iaanhughes says:

      Yes, I think you’re right about that, and while I certainly grant the “Buffalo” isn’t on the same level as “One Dyin'” or “Lonesome” the same techniques are being used. “Lonesome” after all boils down to word play, wonderful wordplay, but wordplay just the same. As I’m writing this I’m wondering if the true offense is the sing-song melodies of songs like “Buffalo” rather that the crazy lyrics? I don’t know that it would benefit from a more serious melody, but it makes it so goofy we almost miss the point – you can be happy, if you want to. Profound in a Roger Miller kind of way. Thanks for the comment.

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