Guest post by Dave Arey
I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of reincarnation, even though I seriously doubt it’s possible. My curiosity stems from the birth of the idea itself and what it means about humans. If religion is seen as an expression of our hopes and fears, then reincarnation expresses our fear of death. If there was some way to avoid death, we’d take it — even if we didn’t know what was on the other side.
Most people think of reincarnation as a positive idea. However, the Roger Miller song “Reincarnation” presents a completely different picture of it. It starts out as a funny little idea for a love song; what if we weren’t human? Would we still love each other?
If I was a bird and you was a fish
What would we do, I guess we’d wish for
In this verse reincarnation is a positive thing. In the second verse, Miller calls it a “power” — in this case, a supernatural way to right wrongs. It’s also a somewhat cheesy way of saying you love someone so much that you’re willing to wait a lifetime for them.
Then the third verse completely changes the meaning:
I love you, and don’t you know I always will
You’re a girl, I’m a boy,
But suppose you were a rose
And I was a whip-poor-will
This is a great verse, not just for the use of the word “whip-poor-will” (which surprisingly shows up in a lot of country music; check out “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams or “Deeper Than the Holler” by Randy Travis). The examples Miller chooses are effective because they actually make you think. Could you muster some sort of emotion toward a flower or small bird? It’s a tough question — far tougher than if he had used a dog or cat (or, conversely, a cockroach).
This verse shows that reincarnation is not necessarily a good thing. Sure, we all want to live forever, but is turning into a small animal or inanimate object what we mean? Is living enough, or would we have to hold onto the things that make us human?
Here’s Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy covering the song during a solo show.