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Lost Art: The Road Song

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The American Road is approaching middle age. America has always had roads, of course, and even the occasional highway was built in fits and starts between wars, but The Road didn’t appear until after WWII, when the country suddenly had the time and the money and, most importantly, the cars to make massive freeway projects both feasible and necessary. When Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956, allocating billions of tax dollars to the most large-scale public works project in history, he consummated a love affair that Americans had been pining over for some time. They had the cars and the space, and now they would get the roads.

Together with these roads grew The Road, not a thing but a place, distinctly American in its simultaneous embodiment of desperation and optimism. The Road was not only a place to travel, but a place to be, and sometimes a place to live. This was Jack Kerouac’s Road, the vein that spread out over the land connecting everywhere to somewhere, or, more often, nowhere. It was big and wide and expansive. It went on forever. It was a wonder of the modern world, and a temple of worship. Not incidentally, a lot of songs were written about it.

Now the American Road is pushing 50, which seems odd. It is such a fixture in our collective consciousness, it seems either much older or much younger, but certainly not the ordinary, pedestrian, contemplative age of 50. Fifty is too old to even pretend to be wild, too young to be charmingly codgerly, and far too young to be timeless. Here in the new century, the Road is embattled by a stultifying sameness, the same McDonald-ization that threatens many of America’s greatest cities. It is no longer a place to escape to, to explore, to run to or from or on. It is a place to travel in hermetically sealed comfort, between stops at identical Denny’s. It is a place to avoid flying, or at least paying for a plane ticket. If you live in a city, modern life dictates that most of the roads you will see in your life will be choked with other cars, and will hardly represent freedom. The Road’s wild years are over. For now, it is stuck looking back to its past, realizing that it’s in a sorry state at the moment, and regretting its former addictions and impunities.

Someday all we will have left of the expansive and endlessly fascinating American Road is the legend. It’s fortunate, then, that some of America’s finest artists have taken the trouble to immortalize it. It is with that spirit that I present this, the first installment of Lost Art, a soon-to-be-regular feature on Analog Roam. From thousands of choices, I have selected ten songs that I feel best embody the spirit of something that is slipping away from us. All the leaving and running and wide-eyed exploring that we wish we could do on modern American roads has been done for us in these songs. And while vicarious living may not be the finest sort, at least it’s something.

1. Little Feat – Willin’

Two fixtures of the Road meet in this song: the trucker and the outlaw. The narrator of “Willin'” is proudly both, smuggling cigarettes and Mexicans, drinking and drugging, and getting his job done, all at the same time. It’s a strange work ethic, to be sure: “If you give me weed, whites, and wine… I’ll be willin’ to be movin’.” When he says “whites,” he’s not talking about sheets and underwear. That’s good ol’ fashioned trucker-grade speed.

Few songs so perfectly and plainly combine weariness with optimism. “I’ve been warped by the rain / Driven by the snow / I’m drunk and dirty, don’tcha know / And I’m still… willin’.” In a way, everything you need to know about the oddly determined self-declared underdogs that occupy the better part of North America is right there in that line. There’s a bit of bragging thrown in, too, for good measure: “I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari / Tehachapi to Tonopah / Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made.” That’s both an impressive list of places to have been, and a strange one – what are these places? They are more names than places. He’s been from nowhere to nowhere, again and again. Spend enough time on the Road, and that’s where you’ll end up, too. The difference between the trucker and the rest of us is that he’s happy there, and celebrates the place, as if his driving record alone is proof of a life well spent. What could easily have been a sad song about the Road becomes a joyous one when told from the point of view of a man who loves it dearly.

2. Bruce Springsteen – State Trooper

The guitar chugs along dutifully at a medium pace, the lyrics echo and fade, and the Road comes into stark, nighttime relief. He’s running from something, though he won’t say what. “I’ve got a clear conscience / About the things that I’ve done.” Already you know that whatever he’s done can’t be good. Judging fom the sound of the song, it’s probably pretty grisly. The fact that he doesn’t have a license or registration is the least of his problems. This is the ultimate example of the dark side of the Road, a place of temporary and uneasy refuge for people with something big to hide.

3. Neil Young and Crazy Horse – White Line

Ok, so we’ve covered the trucker and the outlaw, and now the spurned lover. Neil starts out talking about how “You took my love / And put it to the test,” and then jumps without unnecessary explanation to the statement, “That ol’ white line is a friend of mine / And it’s good time we been makin’.” He doesn’t seem to be going anywhere special. He’s not making good time to Chicago, or California. Making good time is a goal in itself, especially when you need to get away from the wrong woman. Meanwhile, the impossible volume of the band churns your ears to butter. A harsh, bitter, overlooked classic.

4. The Flying Burrito Brothers – Wheels

I remember a recent commercial for some car company (I can’t remember which), and the tag line was, “It’s not just a car, it’s your freedom.” There’s something sad about that. The Flying Burrito Brothers say, “We’ve all got wheels to take ourselves away,” and they don’t even try to mask the sadness and duality behind that freedom. Together with telephones, which help us “say what we can’t say,” the modern devices we use to connect ourselves can also remove us from others. It’s a double edged sword. Is this freedom or alienation? When you “feel your time is almost up” and “destiny is in [your] right hand,” one of the greatest freedoms you can enjoy/regret is jumping in your car and driving away. It’s all there in the song, from one of the first and best bands to consciously combine rock and country.

5. The Allman Brothers Band – Midnight Rider

Ah, but running can be a rebellious joy, as well. The narrator of this song is giddily defiant: “I’m not gon’ let ’em catch me, no.” And why should he? “The road goes on forever.” The dark tone of “State Trooper” is reversed here, and running from the law is elevated to a thing of beauty, thanks to the always shimmering guitar work of Dickie Betts and Duane Allman, and the deeply soulful intonations of Gregg Allman. The narrator is broke and at the end of his rope, but not scared, and the song is one of the finest examples of highway-as-cathedral. He puts his faith in the Road as another man would put his faith in Jesus. This isn’t Southern rock, it’s gospel music.

6. Simon and Garfunkel – America

A song as necessary to this list as it is obvious. If you want America, there’s only one place to look: the New Jersey Turnpike. Or if you live on the opposite coast, perhaps Highway 1 would suit you better. Or down south, I-10. America is always there, on any highway you want to take. The sense of being lost expressed so well in the song is an integral part of the experience, but so is wonder and grandiosity. And being out of cigarettes, a problem that “America” shares with Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

7. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Lodi

Sometimes the worst punishment is not being on the road. Lodi, California is situated uneasily east of San Francisco and south of Sacramento, in a place that is really no place at all, but a brief stop that, for the narrator this song, turns into a curse. The road is full of these places. If he thinks Lodi is bad, he should try El Campo, Texas sometime. It’s a song about being poor as much as anything else – he’s “stuck in Lodi” because he’s flat fucking broke — but the Road has always been full of the poor and dispossessed. For every success story or gloriously romanticized account of the joys of traveling or running, there’s one poor sucker who just can’t seem to hack it in the big, mean world. This song is his story.

8. Little Walter – Key to the Highway

Covered at length on Derek and the Domino’s Layla album, this Big Bill Broonzy song about leaving gets right to the black heart of the matter. “I’m gon’ leave here runnin’ / Cos walking’s just too slow.” Thank God for good Roads. They almost make up for bad women.

9. The Grateful Dead – Friend of the Devil

The more obvious Grateful Dead song for this list is “Truckin,” but “Friend of the Devil” captures the spirit of unholy alliance with the Road much better. Again we see the theme of running from criminal activity, a motif that pops up so much, one wonders if all American have criminal tendencies. They very well may. But the distinctive thing about this song is its easy-going feel, which buries the tension of what is probably a terrible situation. That’s a very hippie thing to do, I have found.

10. Ry Cooder – Paris, Texas

The title song from the Wim Wenders film of the same name, this is a Road song only because I think it is. There are no lyrics, and nothing to explicitly link it to the idea of the Road, but it shares many of the same qualities. It is spare and wide and dusty. It echoes. It is musically laconic, as if it’s so knowing, it doesn’t have to say much to get its point across. It is not a traveler on the Road, it is the Road itself, the place that is not a thing, the cause and the consequence. God bless it.

Downloads of these songs are available from Analog Roam.

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About Kenan Hebert

  • Uncle H

    Great list of road songs! But I must add the best of the whole bad bunch: the Triffids “Wide Open Road” (from their 1986 album “Born Sandy Devotional”). Triffids were not an American band, but they do have roads in Australia too you know.
    (Posted by someone who doesn’t even have a drivers licence…)

  • BJ

    Great topic. God, I hope it’s not a lost art just yet.

    Don’t forget:

    I’m a Lonesome Fugitive (Merle Haggard)

    Diamonds on my Windshield (Tom Waits)

    Six Days on the Road (any version except Sawyer Brown’s – personally, I’d take Gram & Emmylou)

    Anything by Friends of Dean Martinez (more road songs without lyrics … specifically, road songs for mojave desert)


  • Elsa Grassy

    Wow! I thought I was the only one on this earth to be obsessed with road songs! I’m actually writing a pre-doctorate thesis on them (any kind – truck songs, hobo songs, train songs…).
    So if you happen to have anything to say about this subject, if you’re willing to share information about the art of singing the road, or even if you just have a comment to make, please SEND ME A MESSAGE!!!

  • Mike

    link for downloads doesn’t work. seems to have been hijacked by meds dealer.