Once a road was built to accommodate the American automobile, it was only a matter of time before an appropriate sort of music came along for the ride. It was inevitable that a new, fast moving way of life and the excitement of the open road would have an infectious musical accompaniment.
No song better complements the great American highway and the sense of possibilities and promise it holds than the Bobby Troup classic, Route 66. In no other country or culture on earth could lyrics comprising little more that a litany of place names make the spirit soar and swing: “Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona…” Troup and his wife Cynthia literally wrote the song on a 1946 American Automobile Association road map as they drove west from Lancaster, PA bound for Los Angeles and a songwriting career.
The highway that the Troups connected with several days into their trip got its start in downtown Chicago, Illinois: Jackson Boulevard at the Michigan Avenue intersection. Between Jackson Boulevard and the highway’s end at Santa Monica’s, Ocean Avenue (at its intersection with the Pacific Ocean.) were old wagon roads, animal trails, and Indian paths. Stitched into a unified highway, Route 66 became the 20th century equivalent of the transcontinental railroad with the difference that it was not some company’s property; it was everyman’s road. You didn’t need a ticket. Just your automobile or your thumb and away you went.
“Get your kicks on Route 60” would be unlikely to spark a hit song. But in 1925, when the demand for some sort of orderliness resulted in a uniform designation for a highway from Illinois to southern California, the original name assigned was U.S. Highway Number 60. It was comprised of sections of the Ozark Trails and the National Old Trails and in 1926, maps duly labeled the combination of dedicated roads as Route 60.
But a fuss ensued. The Midland Trail, from Kentucky to Virginia, was also Route 60. Governors got into the fray and the proponents of the western highway eventually accepted the alternative “66” for their road. After all, it was a bigger number. Then too, it sounded faster, and its pronunciation provided a pleasing and memorable sibilance. Route 66 it was.
Soon distinctively patterned wooden signs appeared beside the road in Peoria, in Albuquerque, in Joplin. A combination of a shield and a sheriff’s badge and emblazoned with a sturdy “66” graphic, they were patterned after the sort of markers oil companies had been providing for the convenience of their motoring customers. These companies provided free maps and thoughtfully installed their own private route signs to aid the motorist traveling unfamiliar, unmarked roads. Soon the Bureau of Public Roads adopted the idea and the handy devices sprang up all along America’s highways.
Route 66 was a symbol in its heyday. It was the route west, to California, for those trying to leave their ruined dustbowl farms and towns. They went in the direction nomads have always taken hoping to follow the sun to a place where its light was eternal. John Steinbeck drove the road, gathering details for his novel The Grapes of Wrath as he went. He then sends the Joad family along Route 66. In the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath, scenes of the real pre-war Route 66 grace the screen. A little later and a slightly more hip author Jack Kerouac, traveled extensively on Route 66. Kerouac took a lot different trip than the Joad family in his classic novel, On the Road.
Progress, prosperity and the resulting interstate highway system gradually made Route 66 seem old fashioned and cumbersome. Eventually, inevitably the cobbled together interstate was superseded. By the late 1960’s, parts of the original highway had grass growing through the pavement. Almost as an afterthought, in 1985, “66” was deactivated as a U.S. Route number. Though Route 66 lived just fifty-nine years as a highway, it survives as a perfect part of an American lore that probably never really was but ever shall be.
As a matter of interest–and further enshrining Route 66 in the rock and roll ethos–Paul McCartney and his then fiancé (and now wife) Nancy Shevell, planned a trip. They rented an SUV and toured the country, their itinerary: driving on or paralleling old Route 66. And a final, additional rock and roll Route 66 tidbit: the Eagles were “standing on a corner,” namely the northwest corner of Kinsley Avenue and Second Street in Winslow, Arizona.