Roger Miller: King of the River

By Barry Honold

Roger Miller was once asked how he wanted to be remembered; he fired back with “I don’t want to be forgotten.” The idea of that happening is unlikely. His quirky, fast-paced, and witty nature is reflected in the eclectic quality of his work.  At the very least, he is notable for being the only country music artist (thus far) to win a Tony Award for Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on Mark Twain’s classic novel.

Miller was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression. His father died from spinal meningitis when Miller was an infant. His mother had no way to care for him or his two siblings, so they were scattered to the winds, sent to live with different relatives. He went to live with an aunt and uncle in Erick, Oklahoma. As a child, his musical talent manifested itself early; he wrote a song for his mother at the age of six. However, he was bad at schoolwork and withdrawn. He once joked that he flunked “school bus” but had the “highest marks” at getting rapped on the knuckles with a ruler.

He was excited when a cousin began dating local entertainer Sheb Wooley (who appeared in High Noon, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and sang “Purple People Eater”). Wooley taught him how to play guitar and fiddle, and the two would use everyday occasions to talk about making it in the entertainment industry. According to Miller’s website, Wooley once remarked that it was “really a good thing that [Miler] made it in the music business ’cause he would have starved to death as a farmer.” Miller made little money picking cotton, and had his heart set on a new guitar. He was drifting back and forth between Texas and Oklahoma, and stole a guitar from a shop in Texas. Wracked with guilt, he returned it the next day. He was given the choice between jail or the army, and soon was in Korea.

After serving, he came to Nashville. One of his favorite stories was about an informal audition with Chet Atkins, who famously told the young Miller to get in some more practice in. The Country Music Hall of Fame page notes that he soon landed a slot in Minnie Pearl’s band playing fiddle. Through her, he met George Jones, who recorded Miller’s “Tall, Tall Trees.” Miller’s early success was largely writing for other artists. Soon, marital and financial pressures forced him to move to Texas and become a fireman. There, he met Ray Price and became a backup singer for his band.

Miller continued to write songs for other performers, and started performing his own. A Free Republic article notes that he was signed to the Smash record label in 1964, and released the songs that would launch his career: “Dang Me” and “Chug-A-Lug.” They were instant sensations. He received five Grammy Awards, including “Best New Country and Western Music Artist.” His songwriting and performing continued doing well. In 1965, he had a formidable opponent at the Grammys: the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” His secret weapon: “King of the Road,” which was doing very well on the pop and country music charts. He beat the Beatles “in two separate categories. That year, Miller went home with awards in six of his nine nominations….Miller’s Grammy domination had been so complete, the rules were changed so it wouldn’t happen again.”

In 1982, Miller was approached by Broadway producer (and future NEA chairman) Rocco Landesman. Landesman, a fan of Miller, had been toying with the idea of how to turn the iconic story of Huckleberry Finn into a musical. He thought Miller would be perfect. Miller didn’t know how to write for a musical, and the songs were delayed. Finally, Landesman locked Miller in a hotel room, and told him to start writing. Miller angrily stormed out with a hastily-written song and told Landesman that “if you want Rembrandt – that takes time.” Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a smash hit, winning seven Tony awards. The role of Pap was originally played by a very young John Goodman. Miller later took over the role. Pap reminded him of his uncle, who didn’t drink as much, but enjoyed “cussin’ the government.”

Many of his performances are available on YouTube, and show his quick wit. In 1965, he performed and was interviewed for Gene Davis’ show. Davis mentioned the song “The Moon is High, and So am I,” asking “how does it go?” Miller chuckles his response: “pretty well, so far.” Later, he appeared on “The Dean Martin Show.” He and Martin sang a duet on “King of the Road,” with Martin singing from a lavish trailer festooned with women and a bear rug. Miller’s set trailer was barely big enough to stand in, sparsely furnished, and had a litter of kittens on an old bed. Miller was good-natured during all this and actually had fun at his own expense. Other interesting videos include Miller’s appearances on “The Muppet Show.” He also did voice-over work and a few songs for the Disney animated film Robin Hood.

He spent a few years out of the spotlight, and then went on a nationwide tour featuring just him and his guitar. In 1991, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away in 1992. In 1995, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“Forgotten?” Impossible.

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Race in “Huckleberry Finn”

Edited by Barry Honold

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (set in the 1840s) was published in 1885, after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. It was the beginning of the Jim Crow era and open racial resentment, especially in the South. The routine use of the denigrating word “n****r” was part of this prejudice. Its use at the time was not reviled the way it is today. Twain’s use of it in the novel was an accurate reflection of the “time, place, and people about which he was writing,” according to a Syracuse Stage article.  Roger Miller and William Hauptman decided to keep the use of the word for Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The article also notes that “the use of Twain’s original language, however truthful to the time, requires a degree of discussion and context not entirely provided by the production alone.” The book has long been a source of controversy. It was decried as too vulgar, too vernacular, and most recently (and seriously) racist. Here are some excerpts from various scholars and teachers who have written about Twain and race.

From Lucille Fultz’s review of Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn:

The editors…have compiled some of the most conflicting and controversial critical perspectives on Huckleberry Finn in a highly charged volume that leaves its readers with no stable or comfortable position on Twain’s novel….With the benefit of more than a century of critical studies of Twain’s novel and the responses of several generations of readers, the critics assembled here, within an Afrocentric matrix…historicize and contextualize the issues raised by Huckleberry Finn.

In the first essay, “The Case Against Huck Finn, John H. Wallace…characterizes the novel as “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written…whether the author intended it to be or not.” [He] defends his position on the grounds that no teacher is able to counter the racism and pain engendered in black readers when they hear [that word] and observe the dehumanization of Jim.

Toni Morrison’s reading…grants the use of [that word] as racial and offers a radical counterpoint to Wallace’s assessment of Twain’s novel….She holds that the word…is “inextricable from Huck’s deliberations about who and what he himself is – or more precisely, is not.” Morrison insists that Huck’s moral maturation as a human being is contingent of Jim and that “freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement…the signed, marked, informing, and mutating presence of a black slave.”

From “Old Dog/New Tricks: Reteaching Huck Finn and Pop Culture” (Elisabeth Haley, National Council of Teachers of English):

Everyone knows the problem with teaching Huck Finn. Mr. Twain, himself, would greatly appreciate the irony in the fact that the novel he wrote to condemn racism is one century later condemned as racist trash. The novel is a stick of dynamite that could explode even before being ignited. No teacher in her right mind wants to teach it. But wait a minute…the truth is the novel is as timely today as it was in 1875. Who denies the fact that we live in a world of gang wars, con artists, parents with drug-abuse problems, neglected youth, and racial conflict?

….there is one character who, in the midst of all the confusion and negative messages in his society, in spite of his lack of parental direction or support, looks deeply into his soul and uncovers a strong moral conscience and a working understanding of his own convictions. Most importantly, the book is a tale of an interracial friendship that is one of the enduring bonds of loyalty in all literature. So the problem remains: how to preserve the character and messages in the novel while avoiding the offensive text?

From “Teaching Huck Finn in a Multiethnic Classroom” (Ann Lew, NCTE):

….I took a class called “Race and Literature…” where Huck Finn was a required text. I told the professor of my recent experience with teaching this novel; he encouraged me to investigate any question that would help me teach it again….I reread the novel and examined each episode that involves Jim.

Contrary to the charges of negative stereotyping, Jim is consistently shown to be smart, assertive, and compassionate. In his quiet, gentle way, he boldly violates the behavior code of the slave as prescribed by the white system. He emerges as a superior character who not only teaches Huck morality but who himself rises above the brutalizing effects of slavery.

Is Huck Finn a valuable piece of literature, and is Jim an appropriate role model for teenagers in the 1990s? If the novel is taught in the context of history and if the students are provided adequate guidance in their reading and interpretation, I would give an enthusiastic “yes” to both questions. Considerations of time and place are crucial to understanding behavior; students must be made aware of what the struggle for justice entailed in the nineteenth century. However, without guidance, students may not get beyond the language to understand the substance of Twain’s message. Worse yet, they might totally misread him, as so many people continue to do.

From “Huck Finn: Born to Trouble” (Katherine Schulten, NCTE):

In 1995, a group of African American students…eleventh graders who had previously been A students – suddenly began failing tests and quizzes in their English class. As long as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being taught…they would no longer do the work. Before assigning it, the teacher had not mentioned that the book was controversial, nor had she mentioned the 200-plus instances of the word…in the novel. As a result…no one was prepared for the power of the word in class. White students would nervously “snicker” or “turn around and stare” at the few African American students when the word was read aloud. [Those] students…felt too self-conscious to speak up or ask their teacher for help. Instead, they went home and told their parents. Long frustrated with the lack of multicultural content in the district’s curricula in general, their parents decided it was time to act….It took nearly a year, but in the end [everybody] found a way to teach Huck Finn that addressed each group’s concerns.

[Curriculum co-developer Sandy Forchion’s] position was unique: “I was a black English teacher who was against censorship but who had despised the way Huck Finn was taught to me when I was in school.” [Matthew] Carr says that his desire to get involved hinged on learning early on that this challenge to Huck Finn was “not just some current ‘PC’ thing but an issue that had been raised continuously over the last forty years. “I realized this was long-term and had caused deep-rooted anger and pain,” he says.

“We looked for demeaning areas, places where students might find the portrayal of blacks laughable,” [Forchion noted]. Then they countered these passages with documents from the period that give additional background. They believe students will be less likely to dismiss Jim’s superstition as simple-minded…if they understand them in the context of slave life and religion. Ending the unit with a slave narrative, such as…Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, helps students look at forms of resistance and opens a discussion about whether “wearing a mask,” as Jim does, is as valid a form of resistance as any other.

What do you and your students think?

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment