september 2009

Singing The Travels
By Christopher Hill

thumbnailLost Highways: American Road Songs 1920's to 1950's
Various Artists

In Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the Kid, played by Kris Kristofferson, is preparing to leave the Lincoln County Jail, having just disposed of two of Pat Garret's deputies assigned to guard him. In his leg irons he's shuffling around the second story room where he's been held, gathering up guns, ammo and blankets. He starts to hum, then sing, a little tuneless song, a list of places he's been. The list grows, the song lengthens, getting louder as the Kid piles on towns, landmarks, rivers. People in the street outside stop to listen; and when Billy realizes it, he starts to shout his silly tuneless song out at them, until he's gathered a silent, watchful audience and we've temporarily left the land of narrative realism for the country of folklore and ritual. Billy the Kid's Song of the Open Road is an American incantation. Call it singing the travels-it is a stock device that American storytellers can use to touch base with the roots of their subject, highway being to American story what the sea is to Homer's.

Lost Highways: American Road Songs 1920's to 1950's documents some instances of the theme from around the beginning of commercially recorded music to the first shudderings of rock 'n' roll.

The choice of dates seems eccentric at first—the collection's era ends just as rock 'n' roll and the interstate highway system.are about to create the golden age of car radio. But Lost Highways wants to take us back to a particular interval in our past, a few decades when the automobile and the old American road network co-existed. A time when roads followed the landscape rather than leveled it. When different places along the road might actually look and feel different, and it made sense to attribute a character to a certain road, or a certain stretch of road, because it was still possible for a road to have a character.

Mostly it's a view from the juke joint, an institution that grew, lived and died by the roads of this era when Detroit's sleek metal prowled the old byways looking for a good time.

Which is what Amos Milburn's 1946 "Down the Road a Piece" provides, an intensely rollicking piece of "fat boogie" and proto-rap which turns into rock 'n' roll as you listen, the keys seeming take on a life of their own, like they're arcing up from the keyboard in a Disney cartoon.

Speaking of ecstatic keyboards, Jerry Lee Lewis is here with one of his magisterial early cuts, "At the End of the Road," with some rockabilly-noir poetry:

The way is dark,
the night is long,
I don't care if I never get home,
I'm waiting
at the end of the road.

That might be the same dark road where Robert Johnson found himself at the crossroads a generation earlier, where he finds he can't go one way or another on these wide open trails the others are singing about. Johnson's panicked guitar and defiant shout slice across the generally good humored groove of this collection.

Of course there's a version of "Route 66," the Mother Road and the mother of road songs both, this one featuring Nat "King" Cole hitting a velvet-y lounge groove that cruises rather than roars down that road.

A standout is Jimmy Reed's "State Street Boogie." Yeah, I know it's a street, not a highway or even a road, but I'll let the compilers have their way here because no one would have used a stringed instrument so originally and evocatively until John Cale and Lou Reed started making records. All that plus a tight little drum solo.

Buddy Holly turns up with his pre-Crickets partner, Bob Montgomery, on "Down the Line," a little charger whose mechanics Holly would later transfer to big hits like "Peggy Sue"; only this one churns along even faster than the later song, has a space age guitar break that pre-figures surf music, and was covered by the Flamin' Groovies.

Some giants are dubiously deployed here in service of the concept without deepening the sense of discovery. Most of what Sam Cooke did with the Soul Stirrers is sublime, but they seem to be here mainly because the song title fits the theme. Ditto for Hank Williams' spoken word misfire, "I've Been Down That Road Before" (you enlist Hank Williams for a concept collection called "Lost Highways" and you don't use "Lost Highway???"). Johnny Cash gets the same abuse.

While it's easy to see how the concept might have been fleshed out with a little more flair, Lost Highways works as a trun-full of intriguing curios, some treasures, some junk, all speaking something about that other country where they were created.

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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024