Saturday, June 5, 2010

Robert Mitchum: Ballad of Thunder Road

SONG Ballad of Thunder Road

WRITTEN BY Robert Mitchum, Don Raye

PERFORMED BY Robert Mitchum

APPEARS ON Calypso Is Like So (1957); That Man, Robert Mitchum, Sings (1967); many hot rod songs anthologies

NOTE 1 A poster of the film inspired Bruce Springsteen to write his great song "Thunder Road," which -- besides the title -- is unrelated to the movie. NOTE 2 Raquelle of the blog Out of the Past explains the movie's back story here.

He saw acting as more a profession than an art, and was invariably prepared for every scene he appeared in. Famously unparticular about his roles, Robert Mitchum once said, "I don't care what I play. I'll play Polish gays, women, midgets, anything.'' Jailed for six weeks in 1948 after an arrest for possession of marijuana, he told curious reporters that prison was "like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff." He modestly ascribed his famed heavy-lidded eyes to chronic insomnia.

The man who romanced Jane Russell three times on screen remained married to his high school sweetheart for 57 years. A repellent villain in Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, Mitchum played a mild schoolmaster in Ryan's Daughter and a hapless small-time hood in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The leading man for David Lean and Fred Zinneman also starred in cult classics like His Kind of Woman, Pursued, and Thunder Road, which he produced and co-wrote, not to mention writing and singing the film's theme song, "Ballad of Thunder Road."

The song recaps the narrative of the film, which is the story of a Korean War veteran who makes daring deliveries of moonshine in a souped up '51 Ford. As pressure from revenooers and a rival bootlegger mounts, Mitchum attempts to steer his younger brother clear of the family business while romancing night club singer Keely Smith (who graces the film with a couple of songs; check out the husky voiced chanteuse here). After deciding to lay low for a time, Mitchum finds himself forced to make one last run. With revenooers in hot pursuit, he blasts through a road block and, well, "he left the road at ninety, that's all there is to say..."

"The Ballad of Thunder Road" tells its story without nuance, establishing the small-time stakes of bootlegging by contrasting the hamlets and roads of a hillbilly locale with the exotic big cities of Memphis and Knoxville. Pursued by the law and the lure of death ("the devil got him first"), the "mountain boy" is pressured by his father to make a final run (although the father covers his bets by telling his son to be careful). Despite taking dangerous back roads and shooting gaps at high speed, though, the desperate mountain boy finally cannot outrun the forces of law, family, and the supernatural -- another rebel destroyed by convention.
Now let me tell the story, I can tell it all
About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol
His daddy made the whiskey, son, he drove the load
When his engine roared,
They called the highway thunder road.
Sometimes into Ashville, sometimes Memphis town
The revenoors chased him but they couldn't run him down
Each time they thought they had him,
His engine would explode
He'd go by like they were standin' still on Thunder Road.

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load
There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him, but the devil got him first.

On the first of April, Nineteen Fifty-Four
A federal man sent word he'd better make his run no more
He said two hundred agents were coverin' the state
Whichever road he tried to take, they'd get him sure as fate.
Son, his daddy told him, make this run your last
Your tank is filled with hundred-proof,
You're all tuned up and gassed
Now, don't take any chances, if you can't get through
I'd rather have you back again than all that mountain dew

Roarin' out of Harlan, revving' up his mill
He shot the gap at Cumberland,
And screamed by Maynordsville
With G-men on his taillights, roadblocks up ahead
The mountain boy took roads that even angels feared to tread.
Blazing' right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike
Then right outside of Beardon, there they made the fatal strike
He left the road at ninety, that's all there is to say
The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day


  1. Huh! I remember the song, but I didn't know it was Mitchum singing it. In fact, I didn't even know the man could sing at all. Interesting.

  2. I still don't know that he could sing! I got on a Mitchum kick a while back and watched just about anything I could get my hands on. Despite the iconic looks, he was a chameleon on screen -- he really was willing to play just about any kind of part

  3. Well, that was fun--say, if you haven't already, you really should check out the good writing on Raquelle's Out of the Past film blog about Mitchum. She ran a series on him in May; here's a link for the Mitchum label there

  4. I'm headed over there now! My son just told me that he watched Out of the Past in a film history class.

  5. Great post and thanks so much for the links. I'm glad you posted the lyrics too. :-)

  6. I meet Mitchum once in 1962 at the Comus INN in Md.

  7. I actually learned this melody as a Danish tune.

    Ballad of Thunder Road melody same as Moar Jeg Ska' Tisse (Mother I Have To Pee), a Danish Children's Schottische.

  8. I'm an old man now. Still get around good on my own. Retired USMC (Force Recon) 'nam vet, all that good stuff. Hauled a fair amount of moonshine to,through those North Alabama hills and throughout Tennessee. '56 Ford standard shift. God know's they tried many times and God know's they never run me down. Please don't ever remove this video from this site. Every single morning, 365, I wake up with my coffee and this video. Thank you....S....

  9. As long as I live and breathe, this video stays up!

  10. I love this song and video. Is there any way I could purchase a copy of the video/song or just a copy of the song.

    Thank you.

  11. idanglenn: Thunder Road is available from iTunes as an individual download.

  12. Who were the studio musicians that recorded Mitchum's "Ballad of Thunder Road"?

    the captain

  13. NIce post ! I love it, I love it so much that the greedy gnome in me wants more .....