“Papa was a rolling stone”

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this week’s assignments involved listening to segments of a college radio show.  Part 1 of the audio segment of unknownhypertext.com was delightful to listen to as I finished up the other reading assignments. At the 20:30 mark, the Temptations came on with their hit “Papa was a Rolling Stone”. Here is link to the lyrics.

The first thing that stuck out to me in this song is the use of the phrase rolling stone. This is obviously a popular one in the music scene. The first things that popped into my head were of course the band and the magazine that share the same name. Also, Dylan’s song was a close 3rd. I then recalled that this all comes from the old addage “A rolling stone gathes no moss”. The popularlization of this phrase dates back to 1928 when Robert Wilkins Song “Rolling Stone”. It was a simple blues song, performed by his jug band. Here are the lyrics

Oh, the last time I seen her standing on the station cryin’
Oh, the last time I seen her, she’s standing on the station cryin’

Believe she told her friend, “Yon’ go that mind of mine”
Believe she told her friend, “Yon’ go that mind of mine”

“I don’t mind him goin’, he’s gone and leave me here
I don’t mind him goin’, he’s gone and leave me here”

“Got to go back home, sleep all night by myself
Got to go back home, sleepin’ all night by myself”

Man, don’t your house feel lonesome when your biscuit roller gone?
Man, don’t your house feel lonesome when your biscuit roller’s gone?

You stand in your back door and cry by yourself, alone
You stand in your back door, cryin’ by yourself, alone

So why is this phrase so prevalent in American pop culture? To discuss this question, I’m going to have to stand on Ian’s shoulders for a moment (tip of the hat to you, sir).

The phrase “Go west, young man” was popularized by Horace Greeley in 1851. American literature at this time reflected the country’s position as a pubescent nation that was still trying to finds itself. The typical American protaganist is a young, relatively innocent man who goes off into the wilderness in search of answers. Here, he battles temptations of all varieties and must rely on his faith in order to make it out alive. This narrative echoes the basic anxieties that many Americans were facing as they went west into the virginal frontier. 70 years later, when the next generation is dealing with the fact that their fathers were “rolling stones” we get reflections on this kind of life style with the aforementioned lyrics. Man, don’t you feel lonesome when your biscuit roller’s gone? This idea of the myth of the American west is still prevalent in our culture. Western movies, literature, and video games (Oregon trail, anyone?) still glorify the “get up and go” kind of lifestyle. As modern Americans, we are given basically two choices as to how we decide to live our lives: We can go west and be mavericks, or we can settle down and clip coupons with our 2.5 kids and a golden retriever to clean up after. The Temptations song tells us why the former is not desirable. The characters in Generation X give us a bit more of complex analysis of the situation.

Generation X is very much a story about going west to resolve our problems and find a better life. The characters are all relatively young and seemingly wanted to go west to have some adventure before they decide to settle down like their parents want them to. It’s a difficult decision. The characters who have chosen to go west have problems. They are lonely, they hate their jobs, money is a huge problem, they have identity issues, they don’t really get along with their families. Clearly, a way out of all of these predicaments is to choose the middle class life style that is romanticized by so many. On the other hand, nobody ever wrote an interesting novel on what color to paint the picket fence that surrounds your suburban yard.

Evan Leet


~ by scootielou on February 28, 2010.

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