“If You Ever Plan to Motor West:” A Story of U.S. Route 66

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.


The Ten Best Rock & Roll Albums of All Time (1-4)

The Ten Best Rock & Roll Albums of All Time – A Completely Subjective List in No Particular Order

  1. The Beatles. Please Please Me. If this had been the only album The Beatles ever made, they would still be in contention for being one of the best r&r bands of all time. It starts out with Paul’s jubilant count in –unique at that time I believe- to “I Saw Her Standing There.” In his last live appearance ever, John Lennon, at that moment bitterly at odds with Paul, couldn’t resist covering this galloping rock and roll number. Anybody could have written “Yesterday.” There are very few composers capable of penning a genuinely rocking song. This first Beatle album ends with “Twist and Shout.” I’ve actually heard it said that The Beatles, as compared to the Rolling Stones, never really rocked. Anything the Rolling Stones ever recorded is just pitter patter compared to The Beatles’ rendition of “Twist and Shout.”
  2.  The Bo Deans. Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams.  The most authentic and atmospheric and enigmatic album I know of. Somehow it conveys the impact of a thousand nights playing to the same anonymous, faceless, enraptured audience at a hundred different blurry bars on freezing nights in a wintery mid-west. The spare arrangements don’t need another note or another instrument. The lyrics are so grounded and revealing–they’re obviously the true stories of the band–their real girls, their dream girls, their families, their days, their nights, their loves and their losses. And the stellar drawl of their voices make it all valid. When this album ends, you have to look around to remember where you are. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, with its gritty vocals, brusque arrangements and cow girl atmosphere, this just might be the sturdiest, most utterly romantic album ever recorded.
  3. The Rolling Stones. “Some Girls.” This album salvaged the1970’s musically, coming out just as that dreadful, rotted and decayed decade was at last  grinding to a stop. Keith and Mick picked through the wreckage, salvaged bits and pieces of music, dabbed at styles, collated images, pieced together a trenchant commentary, wired it all up, got juiced, then spilled the entire mess into a microphone. In the early Sixties, when you had to take sides, I unhesitatingly chose The Beatles. No looking back there. But in the 70’s, as the former Beatles ricocheted off each other and squabbled through the decade, the Rolling Stones coalesced and came up with this shudderingly coherent record.
  4. Buddy Holly & The Crickets Legend. A Double album in a strangely desirable package. My first acquaintance with Buddy Holly came in 1966 when my favorite song on the USA Capitol release of The Beatles’ “The Beatles Sixth” album (and ever since then my favorite single recording of all time ) was “Words of Love.” I was slightly taken aback when the credit was one “Buddy Holly” and not Lennon, McCartney. Jump ahead eleven years to a record store on First Ave. in the E. 80’s (?) and this “Legend” album appeared as I flipped through the racks. I recalled “Words of Love.” Good enough for The Beatles, good enough for me. I asked the clerk, “Buddy Holly? He’s all right or what?” “He’s great.”  “Really? He’s great?” “He’s great.” I bought the album, got it to my apartment, and played it through. Through and through. Again and again. Lots of liner notes, photos. I’ve been a knocked out Holly fan from that moment to this. When I hear any Buddy Holly song, as it comes to an end, I can hear the next song as they’re sequenced on the “Legend” album. I still think The Beatles’ cover of “Words of Love” surpasses Buddy’s version.  The lead is less twangy and the singing–John Paul and George on a single mike at midnight on the outskirts of London–is breathier and more ardent, but “Legend” introduces Buddy Holly’s music in a staggering tour de force. The best of Buddy Holly is very good indeed and the album as a package of music and information, with its cover design, creates a wonderful ambiance, part of my criteria for greatness. The songs meld together perfectly. Norman Petty, who produced most of these tracks, was apparently a bit of a stinker but in the late 50’s in the middle of nowhere he was masterfully releasing timeless recordings.

Coming up:  Elvis Presley Sun Sessions, Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline, and Blood on the Tracks.

Recording Peggy Sue

A favorite of the fictional Sparrows, Buddy Holly was a favorite of a pretty wide spectrum of people. John Lennon had a Buddy Holly poster in his bedroom at Mendips in Liverpool. British Prime Minister (and successor to Margaret Thatcher) John Major wore heavy black rim glasses in honor of the Lubbock flash. Cream covered Well…All Right. The Beatles mirrored the line up of Buddy Holly’s band The Crickets and became pretty much the second members of a band in rock and roll history to have individual identities.

Although Words of Love was #1 in the hearts of the Sparrows, #2 would be Peggy Sue. The story of the song is fairly well-known. Buddy wrote it as “Cindy Lou” and visualized the appropriate drum beat as being what is known as paradiddles. It’s a drumming pattern that a drummer taking lessons would learn early on. Jerry Allison, the Crickets’ stellar drummer, was embarrassed to play such an elementary beat and only agreed to when Buddy changed the name of the song to Peggy Sue, Allison’s steady girlfriend. Norman Petty, the band’s producer, suggested the song needed a chorus and came up with the absurdly simple yet incomparable “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue” based around an F chord smack in the middle of a A,D,E song.(The Rolling Stones went two “prettys” farther in 1979’s Beast of Burden.)   And Petty didn’t stop there. He close-miked Buddy’s steady, down, down, down strum on the Fender Stratocaster guitar so it shows up on the recording as an intimate purring, so the recording becomes in and of itself an indelible part of the performance. (Another amazing coincidence…the fictional Sparrows’s fictional producers do the same darn thing!)  Petty set it up so Allison was playing in a separate room, away from the vocals and guitars. Then he modulated the drumming, bringing it in and out of the mix, so the drums roll through the song like waves washing up on a beach. But the effect in the song was mysterious and theatrical.   It was like waves on a beach at night or rain spattering on a windshield. Buddy’s normal west Texas panhandle singing voice gets tinny and effeminate on two of the verses, namely the two verses that end with his elongated enunciation of “Peggy Sue.” He draws out Peggy Sue, stretching out the three syllables in the name to twelve hicuppy syllables. Maybe thirteen. It only happens twice. Nobody else does it quite like Buddy.

In any hit parade, this song is marching just behind the flags.