Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tobacco: King Of The Road

Roger Miller: King of the Road


When I announced this week's theme on our little collaborative's backchannel listserv, I noted that smoking and tobacco references often function as signifiers of class or social status, and as earlier entries have demonstrated aptly, it's true - though of course, as times evolve and smoking goes underground, old songs can take on new meanings, too, changing one-time rebels into more pitiful social outcasts in the eyes of the beholder. But smoking and its references can also signify mood - of post-sexual or post-prandial satisfaction, of nervousness or nerve, and of a dozen more connotive, memetic associations, that live in culture like spores, familiar to us all.

Nowhere do these several functions come together more sharply and effectively than in the dual references to tobacco found in King of the Road, Roger Miller's 1964 country celebration of the free-traveling underclass. First, the notation that our narrator "ain't got no cigarettes", coming as it does at the end of a litany of housing and other household signs which are absent in the life of the titular hobo, casts sharp relief upon the unpinned lifestyle, combining as it does the constant requests to "bum" a smoke we've all experienced in the wild, and the sheer triviality of owning so little that cigarettes themselves fall into the "too heavy to carry" category. And second, the subsequent verse's beginning, with its potent imagery of smoking "old stogies" that the narrator has found, reveals deep truths about the hobo's sense of inner worth incarnate - a king indeed, smoking such high-class rolls, even if his royal trappings are scavenged.

Teddy Thompson & Rufus Wainwright: King of the Road


The Proclaimers: King of the Road


As a homecoming - I've been away for the past few weeks, and just returned home today - I've included two favorite versions of the oft-covered song. Teddy and Rufus slow the thing down, and it just sounds good, especially when placed in the context of its origin in the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack. And The Proclaimers' 1990 cover is a bonus I couldn't resist - delightfully accented, proving primarily, to American ears at least, that the sentiment is more universal than you might think.

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