And now for something completely different… A hobo anthem. A paean to all the drifters, all the homeless floaters who sneak rides on dusty freight trains – no ties, no families, picking up a couple cents as they go… Sounds depressing? Well…
King of the Road, by Roger Miller (his 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 13th – 20th May 1965
It’s not. Perhaps it should be; but it’s not. A groovy bass rhythm slinks in, fingers click… Trailer for sale or rent, Rooms to let fifty cents, No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes… Add a lightly strummed guitar, and a saloon bar piano, and you pretty much have it. A simple song. A ditty.
The singer is a wanderer – one that’s happy with his lot. He finds jobs as he goes – two hours of pushing broom – and travels in the third box-car on the midnight train, where he’s friends with all the engineers. The references are very American: Bangor, Maine – union dues – old stogies… I think I know what they all mean… Why on earth this song hit #1, across the Atlantic, in the middle of the swinging sixties, is a mystery. The closest reference point I can think of for ‘King of the Road’ is Tennessee Ernie Ford’s similarly finger-clickin’ ‘Sixteen Tons’, from way back in January 1956.
But then again, why not? It’s a song that’s hard not to love. A song you know you must have heard somewhere before, with a hook that most people can sing from scratch: I’m a man of means by no means… King of the Road. I’ve listened to it several times now, and read the lyrics, and I still can’t work out if he means he’s king of the road despite having nothing, or if having nothing makes him king of the road… And it’s been a long day, so I’m not up to thinking that much more about it. It is what it is. Whatever it is.
I can remember precisely how I heard ‘King of the Road’ – or a version of it – for the first time. There was a road safety ad they used to show during children’s TV in the nineties featuring two hedgehogs who crossed roads slowly and safely, looking both ways, thereby becoming – you guessed it – kings of the road. Happy memories. But… in doing a little more Roger Miller related research for this post I discovered that he impacted on my childhood in a much bigger way, without me ever realising. You see, Miller wrote and performed several of the songs for the 1973 Disney version of ‘Robin Hood’ (AKA Disney’s Most Underrated Animation) – a film I must have watched around a hundred and fifty six times between the ages of seven and ten, after taping it off the TV on a grainy old VHS. The second I read that, I could hear the same deep, gravelly voice from this record coming from a cartoon rooster, singing ‘Oo-De-Lally’, ‘Not in Nottingham’, and other early-Medieval classics.
Anyway, back in 1965, all that was still to come. For now, we’ll leave Mr. Miller at the fade-out –one of the longest fade-outs we’ve heard so far. The full final thirty seconds of this record is him repeating the first verse, mumbling as he wanders off, back on the road again. There he goes, a black silhouette against an orange setting sun, the dusty highway stretching out in front, a tumbleweed spinning slowly by… The King of the Road.
(The version of ‘King of the Road’ in this video may be a re-recording. It seems to be the only version available on YouTube. Spotify has both.)