The King of Rome Comes Back

Sometimes music makes me cry. When I find a song like that, I play it incessantly until its deeply embedded, and I can summon the feeling whenever I need it.

The King of Rome

The King of Rome came back–and lived a long life.

Such a song is “The King of Rome,” as sung by June Tabor. Here it is on video:


The song is a true story about a working-class gas-lamp lighter named Charlie Hudson, who lived a hardscrabble existence in the city of Derby. His one indulgence was homing pigeon racing, a new sport then. The basic idea is that competitors release pigeons in some distant location, and their homing instinct sends them home—first one back, wins (with distance taken into account).

In 1913, as the song tells us, Charlie got wind of a big pigeon race starting from Rome. Everyone told him he was crazy, he’d just lose his best bird if he sent it all the way there. But Hudson was undaunted, he dispatched the pigeon—and then he waited.

As it happens a big storm kicked up over the Alps on race day, and thousands of pigeons were lost—Hudson’s presumably among them. And then, and then! The gang was down at the pub in Derby, and one of them sees a flash of wings. It’s the long-lost bird come home and perched on Charlie’s roof! “Come on down, your majesty, I knew you’d make it back to me,” Charlie said, because by then the pigeon was named “The King of Rome.” It won the race.

Charlie treasured his pigeon, who lived out his years in splendor, dying sometime before 1946. Charlie himself made it to 1958. The bird, stuffed, now appears ready to take wing in a Derby museum.

Derby resident Dave Sudbury wrote the song, but his version is too folkie for me. It takes an unmatched interpreter like June Tabor to totally bring it home. Also great is a version, with full brass band, by the Unthanks. Garnett Rogers does it, too. Here’s the Unthanks:

  “The King of Rome” reminds me strongly of Archie Fisher’s “Bill Hosie,” another song about a long shot. Hosie was inspired by the pre-war Schneider Trophy seaplane races. The S5 Supermarine was the fastest seaplane ever built, powered by a Napier Lion engine and capable of 300 mph. It was the father of Britain’s Spitfire, a hero of World War II.

“Bill Hosie” is about an ordinary guy who built a replica of the S5 Supermarine, took it up over Cornwall skies and…well, listen to the song:

And don’t forget “Bud’s Sea-Mint Boat” by Kate Campbell. Yet another song about a dreamer whose dreams actually come true. And all three are about real people. Let’s hear it for dreamers.

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