He’s a nut. But he’s the most talented nut I’ve ever known. – Minnie Pearl
Roger Miller had no off switch. In a career that took him from the dive bars of Lower Broad to the Broadway stage – amassing 11 Grammy Awards, a Tony, and his rightful place in the Country Music Hall of Fame (1995) and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1973) – he was one of those live wires directly tapped in to the pulsating energy that holds the universe together, burning white hot bright and all too brief. When asked, those who knew him universally remember his relentless spontaneity, genius and humor.
There is nothing spontaneous about Erick, Oklahoma. The topography surrounding Erick is broad and green and endless. It stretches out for miles in every direction without relief or intermission. This was the environment where the boisterous, explosive genius spent his formative years picking cotton on his family’s farm and escaping into his overly active imagination.
What I’d do is sit around and get warm by crawling inside myself and make up stuff… I was one of those kids that never had much to say and when I did it was wrong. I always wanted attention, always was reaching and grabbing for attention.
Miller first began composing songs on the three-mile walks to his one-room country schoolhouse. His older cousin married a local boy named Shelby who gave Miller his first guitar and, with it, his first taste of a life outside of Oklahoma. Shelby became better known as Sheb Wooley, most notably for his 1958 novelty record “The Purple People Eater” as well as dozens of film and television roles as a western character actor, including Rawhide and a memorable performance playing notorious murderer Frank Miller’s brother Ben in High Noon.
After a stint in the Army, Miller made his way to Nashville where he worked as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel and toured as a harmony singer with Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys to make ends meet. He was signed to a publishing deal and in 1958 several of his songs became hits with other artists. Ray Price took “Invitation to the Blues” to #3, Ernest Tubb hit with “Half A Mind,” Faron Young cut “That’s the Way I Feel” and Jim Reeves gave Miller his first #1 record with “Billy Bayou” all in that same year.
Miller was well on his way. But he longed to be a recording artist himself, and he blew through his songwriting draw most nights at Toostie’s Orchid Lounge.
The famed honky tonk in downtown Nashville is today a soulless shell of its former self. Tootsie’s was once ground zero for Continue reading →
The post below was published in February 2011 by Michael Kiskis on his blog, Kiskis Log. Dr. Kiskis passed away suddenly in May, a shock of great sadness to the community of Mark Twain and Humor Studies scholars who knew well both the insight of his scholarship and his passion for his work.
What I didn’t know about was his blog, which I discovered when John Bird posted a link on the Mark Twain Forum. After reading the posts, I was struck not only by their insight, honesty, and humor, but also by a feeling that such writing—informal, yet academic—should be shared with other scholars. Dr. Kiskis’s blog rekindled an idea I had been considering for several years, an online publication for humor scholars to post occasional pieces and to share their own blogs.
This essay, “The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is published in honor of Dr. Kiskis’s life and work, and for the part his work played in the genesis of the Humor in America blog. I am reposting it with the kind permission of Michael’s wife, Ann. I encourage you to read further in Michael’s blog and to see his website for more information on his career. See also Michael’s other blog, Canonical Babbling.
The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Michael Kiskis
Mark Twain helped open American literature to the multi-cultural polyphony that is its birthright and special strength.He appreciated the creative vitality of African-Americanvoices and exploited their potential in his art. In the processhe helped teach his countrymen new lessons about the lyricaland exuberant energy of vernacular speech, as well as about thepotential of satire and irony in the service of truth….…But there is something about Huckleberry Finnthat sets it off from Twain’s earlier work and makes it seemless a continuation of the art he had been developing and moreof a quantum leap forward; its unrivalled place in both theTwain canon and in the American literary canon relfects thisspecial status. (5)
Twain’s book is a wake-up call, an entreaty to rethink,reevaluate, and reformulate the terms by which one definesboth personal and national identity, the terms by which oneunderstands a person or a culture as “good” or “evil,” a pleato reexamine the hypocrisies we tolerate and the heinousbetrayals of hope we perpetuate — in his time and our own —in the name of “business as usual.” (203)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn panoramically chroniclesthe plight of the runaway male slave, the slave community,the slave family, and the vision and indefatigable hope of thisAmerican. Against him is a South that is both proslavery,the progenitor of Jim Crow, and hypocritical in its values.More complexly, however, this chronicle is one whoseconclusion questions the readers and their notions of whatfreedom means. What does it cost? Through Twain’s portrayalof Jim and the other slaves, the African American slave emergeswithout what Langston Hughes disparaged as the romantization ofthe South and southern slavery. (xv)