I know every engineer on every train
All of their children
And all of their names
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Places: Bangor, Maine; Boise, Idaho; the Day's Inn in Nashville, Tennessee.
Please bear with us, as our research staff has a case of the cultural bends. It's a hazard of the job. Any time you research a song, start out with Pennywise the Clown and end up with dancing hamsters, you're bound to have some strange visions. So hang onto your engineer hat and board the train - we're in for a heck of a whistle stop!
First off, the only specific destination mentioned in the song lyrics themselves is "Destination... Bangor, Maine." Now, if you don't know that that's also the home and setting for many of the novels of Stephen King, well, in the words of Harlen Ellison (for whom King wrote the introduction to Ellison's Stalking the Nightmare
), "have yourselves placed under house arrest for terminal illiteracy." King (author Stephen; not to be confused with "King of the Road") has sometimes cloaked references to Bangor under the fictitious name of "Derry," but the residents are too savvy to fall for that dodge, and recognize many of the settings from Bangor. This includes the setting for Stephen King's It
, which stars our villain Pennywise, a monster clown that hangs out in sewers, and, in the movie, vamps and mugs just like Tim Curry. And yes, the band Pennywise gets its name from the character. Don't fall behind; we're only in the second paragraph.
The historic Idan Ha Hotel
The second stop on our tour is Boise, Idaho, at the Idan Ha Hotel, where Roger Miller (now deceased) is said to have first written the song. But Miller told more than one tale of the song's writing. His own Web site states that he saw a sign saying "Trailers for Sale or Rent" - which inspired the first line of the song - outside of Chicago, Illinois, and he finished the song in Idaho. Then he got on The Mike Douglas Show
, and - wait a minute - he saw the sign in Indiana and wrote the song when he got to Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Oh, and he was inspired by a statue of a hobo he saw there. Not to be confused with the hobo who is one of Pennywise's apparitions in It
. That clown's still on our tail. Quick, move on to the next place!
Nashville, Tennessee, (the Web site RoadsideAmerica.com proudly proclaims, is home to a Day's Inn hotel, which started out as a "King of the Road Hotel and was built by Roger Miller"... Wait, what
?) And then there's rogermiller.com, the domain itself, and it's all about an honest-to-beans hotel Miller somehow had a hand in starting, perhaps just licensing his song for the marketing; he had won 11 Grammys and a Tony, after all, so he had the money to spin this off as a side project. If Flavor Flav can start a chicken restaurant, Roger Miller could start a hotel chain, okay?
That being said, "Roger Miller wrote his song here" just might be in the race with "Washington slept here" for most ubiquitous claim made by hotels in North America. And who could blame them? Really, when you come down to it, doesn't this whole song belong to 1950s America, from Venice Beach, California to Tampa Bay, Florida? Isn't it about being on the road, after all? If you've traveled at all, you've at least whistled this tune as you headed out onto the interstate. The song is paved into the asphalt of America.
Okay, let's see if we've covered all the ground... Bangor, Maine, Stephen King, It
, Pennywise, trailers, Idaho, Chicago, Indiana, Ontario, hobo, Nashville, hotel... are we missing something? Did we forget to tip somebody back there?
Oh, yes, dancing hamsters! Well, see, we mentioned that Miller had an illustrious career. Watch the 1973 Disney animated film Robin Hood
and you'll hear Miller's gravelly voice lent to the minstrel chicken, who performs the song "Whistle Stop." This same song - this very same song, ladies and gentlemen! - became the basis for a sped-up version played in the background of none other than the very first Internet-meme, Hamster Dance (webhamster.com). Set your co-worker's browser to that page as its default home page, just one time, for old time's sake, will you?
Stephen King's Mansion in Bangor, Maine, c 1996
A side bit of cultural history: "two bits" used to mean a quarter, twenty-five American cents, as in "shave and a haircut." Four bits, then, would be fifty cents. So when the lyrics talk about a "room to let, fifty cents," and later an "eight by twelve four-bit room," that's the same price. These days you can't park your car for an hour that cheap.
Did you see what we did there? "Whistle Stop"... as in something you do on a train. Originally the expression comes from politicians making train tours across the US to campaign, accompanied by the train whistle for arrivals and departures. Yes, or like the third boxcar, midnight train... Destination Bangor, Maine.
We're back to Maine again, and since that fine Yankee state doesn't get much press unless you're talking about lobster, we'll throw up our hands and let Bangor, Maine, be the official place of this song, with everywhere else on the Northern / Western hemisphere tied for second place. Our whistle stop takes us around and around the railways, living the endless hand-to-mouth trip of a hobo's existence, but always back to Bangor, where Pennywise will pop up leaving greasy, smeared clown-paint kisses on the train window. Because we'd bet four bits that Roger Miller slept there, too. It says so right on this sign in the lobby.
~ ”Penguin” Pete Trbovich
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