Monday, June 16, 2008

If you ever plan to journey west...

Over on his Normblog, Norman Geras has been doing a fine job on Songs of the States (he’s getting through his first draft at a rate of knots, but Malcolm confidently expects updates).

One of the great themes, perhaps the main thread of American popular music is movement.

So what about American highways as a theme to match Norm’s effort?

Since the Eisenhower Interstate system uses even numbers from South to North, and odds from West to East, it’s really only a case of counting. This is complicated, of course, by the numbering of the earlier US Highways from 1926, and by the identifications of State highways. That means it’s all the way from the Waifs on Highway One:
I'm not that hard to find:
I live on Highway One,
12 hour drive.
to Emmylou on 95:
I have come to listen for the sound
Of the trucks as they move down
Out on ninety five
And pretend that it's the ocean
Coming down to wash me clean.
For those who don't get the implications, that's an elegy for Gram Parsons.

Michael Nesmith goes even further on Highway 99, with help from lyrics by Michael B. Cohen:
Anyway, it takes a certain amount of blind faith
To make ninety-nine in an old car ...
Emerson Drive (a Canadian country band out of Alberta) exceed even that with:
There's three in the front and four in the back:
Slid'er into gear boys were headed for fun,
Cruisin' down Redneck Highway 101.
In fact, as far as Malcolm can establish, the enumeration of US highways goes all the way up to US 830 (which 209 miles used to run through Washington State, until it was replaced by I-5, WA-4 and WA-14).

The trouble with using roads as as a long-term project for identifying with songs is that the US Federal Highway Administration have already been there, done that and probably trademarked the tee-shirt.

Beyond that, there are numerous sites on the Net which have made their own road-song lists. Even Rolling Stone was reduced to this expedient, with a Top 25 last year (the reader contributions are better than the original list). Better still is The Great American Roadtrip listing (for all sorts of reasons, that's a Malcolm favourite site). Then there's the CMT 40 Greatest Road Songs (the Numero Uno of which, inevitably, is Willie Nelson On the Road Again though not the version with Sheryl Crow in the inserted YouTube vid).

We're nearly there, except for the Big Daddy of all road-song listings. That's an on-going labour of love by Frank X. Brusca and his merry band of contributors. And it's great gas.

So, Malcolm, what's your best road song?

Well, any biker knows the Byrds did good with Ballad of Easy Rider. That's the coincidence of Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn.

Then there's the closely-related Born to be Wild, which invented heavy metal (though the metal came out of Milwaukee on two wheels).

But the best bike song (and probably the best bike) of all-time is 1952 Vincent Black Lightning:

As for a road, that's nearly easy. It's either Ventura Highway

or Bobby Troup's Route 66:

Enjoy that one: it's not the most dramatic rendering, or even the most memorable, but it is the original. And it brings us, full circle to Norm's blog.

Except, of course, that left out the very best of the best, that road through Freehold Borough, New Jersey:
In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream:
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.
Sprung from cages out on Highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin' out over the line --
Baby this town rips the bones from your back,
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap.
We gotta get out while were young,
'Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.
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