How "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss" Became Rock's Top Proverb

by Carl Wiser

It's fitting that the most influential proverb in rock is about a stone, although we have a blues giant and a country titan to thank for it.

The phrase "a rolling stone gathers no moss" dates to at least the 1500s, and likely to biblical times when it was used by Greeks and Romans. It indicates a person in motion, never settling down long enough to let the proverbial moss grow. Used by Muddy Waters, it's somewhat glamorous; in the voice of Hank Williams, it's tragic.

"Lost Highway"

Williams' 1949 country weeper "Lost Highway" opens with the line, "I'm a rolling stone, all alone and lost." He goes on to explain that a woman led him down a life of sin, and now he's a lonely drifter rolling down a lost highway. It's one of his biggest songs, but he didn't write it: a blind singer from Texas named Leon Payne did. Payne released the original in 1948, but his version sounds happy-go-lucky, with a jaunty delivery that takes the edge off lines like "a woman's lies built this road of sin." Williams made it sound so lonesome he could die.

The next link in this chain is Bob Dylan, who released "Like a Rolling Stone" on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. The title came from Williams' song and was used in a similar manner. Dylan sings about a lady of wealth and privilege who has taken a fall. Now she is without a home, a complete unknown - like a rolling stone.

In 1967, Rolling Stone magazine published their first issue. Jann Wenner was the face of the magazine, but he had a partner named Ralph Gleason who co-founded it with him. Gleason, who started writing about Dylan in 1964 when he was a little-known folkie, published an essay called "Like a Rolling Stone" in the Phi Beta Kappa Society magazine The American Scholar, where he explained how rock music (especially Dylan's) was influencing young people. In the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Wenner was non-commital regarding the origin of the name. He wrote:

Muddy Waters used the name for a song he wrote. The Rolling Stones took their name from Muddy's song. "Like a Rolling Stone" was the title of Bob Dylan's first rock and roll record. We have begun a new publication reflecting what we see are the changes in rock and roll and the changes related to rock and roll.

The magazine remained fascinated with Dylan throughout his career, putting him on the cover 19 times. On the rare occasions when Dylan granted one of his famously elliptical interviews, it was often with Rolling Stone.

Mick Jagger was not pleased when Rolling Stone magazine emerged, and was furious when their first review of a Rolling Stones album (Their Satanic Majesties Request) trashed it. Jagger threatened a lawsuit, so Jann Wenner made him a business partner, teaming with him on a British edition of Rolling Stone in 1969. It was not up to standard: One issue put Ray Davies on the cover as "Ray Davis." It was shuttered a short time later.
By 1972, the magazine was a cultural touchstone worthy of parody. Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show took aim at their increasing debauched cover subjects in their hit, "The Cover of 'Rolling Stone.'" The lyric is by Shel Silverstein, author of both The Giving Tree and "A Boy Named Sue."

"Rollin' Stone"

On the other side of this bracket is the 1950 Muddy Waters song "Rollin' Stone," the story of a guy who won't settle down - you can find him calling on the ladies when their husbands aren't home.

Waters was a huge influence on The Rolling Stones, who took their name from this song. It was a good fit, expressing their blues influence and also their vagabond ways: constantly on tour and spreading the love (Mick Jagger has eight children with five different women).

The group came to embody rock and roll. Don McLean was likely singing about them in "American Pie," his 1971 lament for the death of Buddy Holly:

For 10 years we've been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But that's not how it used to be

The Temptations put their own spin on the "Rollin' Stone" archetype in their 1972 hit "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone," explaining what it's like to have a father who splits time between families. That same year, Suzi Quatro issued her first single: "Rolling Stone." A year later, Bruce Springsteen used it in his first single, "Blinded By The Light," later a #1 for Manfred Mann's Earth Band:

Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the East

Two huge '70s hits featured the phrase: Elton John "Philadelphia Freedom" (I used to be a rolling stone) and Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" (You know he's never gonna stop moving, 'cause he's rolling, he's the rolling stone).

The roll slowed in the '80s and '90s, but there were still a few hits that used it:

"The Smile Has Left Your Eyes" by Asia (1983)
And I've become a rolling stone
I don't know where to go or what to call my own

"One Of Us" by Joan Osborne (1996)
Just tryin' to make his way home
Like a holy rolling stone

Recent years have seen the phase get rolling again across a range of genres:

"Who Says You Can't Go Home" by Bon Jovi 2005
Just a hometown boy born a rolling stone

"Therapy" by All Time Low 2009
I'm flesh and bone, I'm a rolling stone

The only instance we've found of the entire saying in a lyric is in Jimi Hendrix' 1967 track "Highway Chile"

And everybody knows boss
A rolling stone gathers no moss
Runaway Baby by Bruno Mars 2010
You poor little heart will end up alone
'Cause lord knows I'm a rolling stone

"Who I Am With You" by Chris Young (2013)
I've been a rolling stone all my life
Flying all alone, flying blind

"Little Red Wagon" by Miranda Lambert (2014)
You're just trying to slow this rolling stone
But I'm on to you baby

"Ghost" by Halsey (2014)
You're a Rolling Stone boy
Never sleep alone boy

"One Man Band" Old Dominion (2019)
I don't wanna be a one man band
I don't wanna be a rolling stone alone

Sure, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and we're once bitten, twice shy, but they can't hold a candle to "a rolling stone gathers no moss." Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

March 8, 2019
More Song Writing

Comments: 2

  • Phil The Philosopher from Late Night FloridaYou left out the most lyrically literal song of all with the lyric - " a rolling stone don't gather no moss ". A song written by Bobby Darin and Woody Harris and recorded April 24, 1958 - "Early in the Morning". It was soon covered by Buddy Holly. Even if you had overlooked Darin's version, how could you have not heard Buddy Holly's version? Now you know. : )
  • John A Shavel from Bronx NycStuff was great. Hell now I have "stones in my passageway".Kinda like Gout for the brain/blues
see more comments

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