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Roger Miller's Big River: A Delight
By Bill Ede
It was with great anticipation that I entered Clarksville, Indiana's Derby Dinner Playhouse recently for a performance of Roger Miller's "Big River." I've always had a place in my heart for Roger Miller, as he is one of the first musical figures whom I could rightfully claim as an influence. Two of the first five songs I learned to chord on the guitar were Miller's "King of the Road" and "One Dyin' and A Buryin"' (minus the modulation). So he deserves at least a small measure of the credit (or blame) for my current and not-so-current preoccupation with things musical.
Miller was arguably the most innovative "voice" in Nashville in the early-to-mid '60s. Chris Gantry, Nashville poet, prophet, picker and pilgrim, credits Miller with opening up Nashville to the changes that would occur later in the decade, a nod that is more often given to Bob Dylan. Dylan's Blonde On Blonde and later Nashville Skyline were certainly pivotal albums in Nashville's history and adaptation to the "a changin'" times," but Miller was there long before either, leaving his personal mark on the city's music both as a musician and a songwriter. Early in his career Miller played fiddle for Minnie Pearl and for George Jones and drums for Faron Young and had his songs recorded by the likes of Jimmy Dean, Ray Price, Ernest Tubb and Jim Reeves. But things really began to happen when Roger started recording his own songs – humorous jazz-country commentaries on life with titles like "Dang Me," "Chug-A-Lug," "Do-Wacka-Do," and "You Can't Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd." These were in stark contrast to the British Invasion music that had by then taken over the pop charts. But Miller's songs were pop hits as well, four of his first five Smash singles having made Billboard's "top ten." (I distinctly remember confusing the intro to his "Do-Wacka-Do" with that of the Beatles' version of "Honey Don't" around December 1964, as the two were quite similar and were getting a lot of airplay around the same time.) These chart recordings resulted in an unprecedented number of Grammys from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1965. His influence can be heard in such performer/writers as John Hartford and Dick Feller and he has figured in the career of writers such as Kris Kristofferson and Bobby Russell, being the first to record their songs "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Little Green Apples," respectively.
After a short medley of Irving Berlin songs by the Barnstormers, the play, an adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry finn," was ready to begin. The house band strikes up the "Big River Overture" and Huck Finn ascends the stage. He immediately finds himself surrounded by a town full of people who want to "sivilize" him. "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?" is the perfect vehicle for the crowd's sentiments as the people of St. Petersburg, Missouri, including "so-called friend Tom Sawyer" (my quotes), try their best to "reason" with the boy. The logic goes "if you don't learn to read, then you can't read your Bible and you'll never get to heaven 'cause you won't know how." This, no doubt, would bring smiles to any seminary students in attendance, as they watch questions they grapple with so thoroughly on a daily basis being dealt with so simply and "logically." We are soon introduced to Tom Sawyer's. gang, "The Boys," who fantasize about being killers and robbers "like the boys out West." Their plan is to stick together "forever and always," but when a member says that he can't meet on certain nights of the week, it's easy to see that their commitment to the gang is less than absolute.
It isn't long before Huck's "pap" drags his estranged son off to his cabin in the woods to "unsivilize" him. Pap Finn, a likeable rogue at times, complains in song about the "(Dad gum) Guv'ment," which is responsible for having taken his son away from him. It's a great song, reminiscent in spots of Randy Newman's President," but with a bitter edge to it, as a drunken Pap tries to murder Huck. "You dad gum guv'ment, you sorry sons-of-b–––, you got your d–hands in every pocket of my britches," sings Pap shortly before passing out with a little help from Huck.
Huck decides to trick Pap and the town into thinking he's dead by killing an animal and spilling the blood around the cabin before disposing of the body. "Hand for the Hog," written in the vein of some early Miller hits, attempts to explain Huck's reasons for choosing a hog for his deception, but actually supports the view that a hog is quite useful alive. "If you took a notion I'll bet, a hog would make a h--- of a pet. You could teach him to ride and hunt. You could clean him up and let him sit up front." (What year/decade/century did you say this is supposed to be depicting?)
We are then treated to Huck Finn's personal declaration of independence, "I, Huckleberry, Me," wherein he maintains "I, Huckleberry, me hereby declare myself to be nothing ever other than exactly what I am." Huck's travels lead him to Jackson's Island where he runs into Jim, the slave of Miss Watson, one of Huck's caretakers. A humorous visit by Huck to town, masked as a girl, lets Huck in on the fact that the townspeople indeed think him dead and suspect Jim, among others, as possibly the one responsible. Knowing that a posse will soon be in pursuit of Jim, Huck heads back to the island, resolving to help Jim find freedom. This sets the stage for the play's main theme, "Muddy Water." "Look out for me, oh muddy water. Your mysteries are deep and wide. And I got a need for going someplace. And I got a need to climb upon your back and ride." The song takes place as Huck and Jim board a raft for Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi meets the Ohio. The plan is for Jim to flee north up the Ohio, but a fog leads to the passing up of their junction, as they continue south only to realize later what has happened. As they journey on south, we are treated to the voices of captured runaway slaves performing the gospel-flavored "Crossing Over," while being returned to their masters. Shirese Mursey and Pearl Jones do a superb job of conveying the sense of futility in their fleeing, which serves to play on Jim's mind ever so subtly. Beyond this, it is a declaration of faith in a "Farther Along"-kind of sense. "I will worry 'bout tomorrow when tomorrow comes in sight. Until then, Lord, I'm just a pilgrim crossing to the other side."
While Huck and Jim stop to rest, Jim reads Huck's palm, which foresees "considerable trouble and considerable joy." It suddenly dawns on Jim that he is, indeed, a rich man since he "owns myself." It is in this spirit that he begins his and Huck's paean to the river, "River In the. Rain," perhaps the most dramatic song of the play. "River In the Rain, sometimes at night you look like a long white train, winding your way away somewhere.
River I love you, don't you care?"
Act One ends with the introduction of the "duke" and the "king," two sly characters who survive by beating people out of their money and possessions. They begin to plan schemes to try out on nearby towns, including a bizarre rendition of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, with Juliet being played by the king.
It isn't long before they realize that they're going to have to appeal to people's baser instincts and it is with this in mind that they start to advertise future shows with the disclaimer "ladies and children not admitted," figuring that if that doesn't bring the crowds, nothing will.
Their planned exploits are hinted at in the act's closing song, the Dixieland-like "When the Sun Goes Down In the South." "When the darkness falls on the town and the North Star's startin' to rise, well you can't imagine the menagerie aire created by a couple of guys." Indeed.
The second act opens with several men lounging around Brickwater, Arkansas, "Hee Haw" style, trying to decide how to liven up their collective day. It is into this context that the duke introduces his and the king's first foray into carnival carnality, "The Royal Nonesuch." "She's got one big breast in the middle of her chest and an eye in the middle of her nose. So says I, you look her in the eye, you're better off looking up her nose." This rousing number is one of the funniest scenes of the play, with the king prancing around in a gaudy outfit with a single fake breast handing out in front. The duke exhorts: "Because the nonesuch will be exhibited in a state of nature, no ladies will be permitted, but the education of no man or boy is complete until he has witnessed this shocking spectacle." This is enough to cause the locals to part with several hundred dollars, though realizing they'd been burned almost right away. Rather than seek immediate revenge, however, they decide they could save a little bit of face if everyone else in town were fooled just as royally and equally as they were. So they decide to talk the show up to help bring this about. "The Royal Nonesuch" is one of the funniest scenes of the play, with the king prancing around in a gaudy outfit with a single fake breast hanging out in front.
Meanwhile, Huck is back at the raft and tricks Jim into thinking he's a slave hunter. Jim is hurt when he finds out he's been tricked, until Huck finds it in his heart to be able to "humble myself before a nigger" and apologize to Jim. Although Jim accepts Huck's apology, it is not without the bitter realization that even good friends who are of races as different as Huck's and his are, when all is said and done, "World's Apart." l see the same stars through my window that you see through yours, but we're worlds apart, worlds apart." Huck realizes this, too and joins in with Jim on the remainder of the song.
The next day finds Huck, the duke and the king encountering a "young fool" on a riverbank, who tells them all about an inheritance due to the death of a Peter Wilkes. Wilkes is supposed to have left a large sum of money for his two brothers, Harvey and William, who should be on their way from England to try to see their brother before he passes on. Harvey is a minister and 'William is simply "deef and dumb." The duke and king decide to play William and Harvey, respectively and, after learning all they need to know from the young fool, set about to make the inheritance their own.
We next see a group of people standing around the casket singing "How Blest We Are." Mary Jane Wilkes, played by Melissa Combs, then sings a bittersweet song to the casket, "You Ought to Be Here With Me," before a more soulful reprise of "How Blest We Are," with Shirese Mursey again doing the honors. This is followed by a humorous scene where the king as minister keeps calling the eulogy an orgy. A concerned "deaf" duke tries in vain to straighten the king out on this without being too obvious. It is ironic to watch the "deaf"' man's efforts fall on "deaf ears."
After Mary Jane has given the money to the king and Huck has secretly stolen it back, Huck finds himself in the unique position with Mary Jane where "the truth is better and actuly safer than a lie," so he tells Mary Jane about the two "rapscallions'" scheme, which she is asked to take "like a man," but there is more than a hint of evidence that he doesn't fully see her that way as she gives him his first kiss and promises to pray for him, a task he's not sure he has what it takes to tackle. Huck and Mary Jane break into "Leaving's Not the Only Way to Go," with Jim joining in from afar. "People reach new understandings all the time. They take a second look, maybe change their minds. People reach new understandings everyday. Tell me not to reach and I'll go away."
Back at the raft, Huck discovers that Jim has been sold back into slavery "for a lousy forty dollars," and begins to feel somewhat guilty for having helped Jim escape in the first place. He decides to write Miss Watson and tell her where her runaway slave can be found. This has the immediate effect of causing Huck to feel, for the first time in his life, right with the world. But it is a short-lived victory, as he is soon feeling worse than before, as the reality of his decision to betray Jim sinks in. If it is such a wrong thing for him to want to help Jim, he decides "all right, then, I'll go to hell," after which he breaks into what ironically sounds like a Negro spiritual, "Waitin' For the Light to Shine." "l have lived in the darkness for so long.
I'm waitin' for the light to shine."
The rest of the play deals with trying to set Jim free, but is complicated by the appearance of Tom Sawyer, who agrees to help Huck out, which serves to cause a previously respectable Tom to "fall considerable, in my estimation," according to Huck, who can't believe that Tom would do something that "wrong." The irony is that Tom is not helping to set Jim free after all, because Jim has already been set free in Miss Watson's will, which no one finds out from Tom until later. Tom is actually keeping Jim in chains, as he (Tom) discards simple methods of escape for more romantic ones. Once the news of Jim's freedom is made known, Jim truly finds his voice in the powerful "Free At Last." "I wish by golly I could spread my wings and fly and let my grounded soul be free for just a little while. To be like eagles when they ride upon the wind, and taste the sweetest taste of freedom for my soul." This is followed by a reprise of "River in the Rain" by Huck and Jim, and the entire cast joining in on a reprise of Muddy Water," the play's finale.
Big River is certainly a powerful enough musical to deserve the seven Tony awards it won in l985. The score has Miller borrowing from a great many traditions – from gospel to jazz to straight country, which serves to remind us of the crossbreeding Miller's music has always encompassed.