Well it’s August and here at WBEZ, a number of staff are out as it’s the height of the summer vacation season. And if any of my colleagues are traveling by auto no doubt they have their mixtape with songs they LOVE to hear while on road trips.
Richard Steele and I are hopping in the car (rhetorically speaking) and bringing along tunes that evoke the road, songs about travel, stories of coming back from a trip and having to say goodbye to those whom we’ve spent time.
Nsenga Barton with The Root talked to Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele about the 1949 edition of The Negro Motorists Green-Book, a guide for black travelers in the Jim Crow era, and shared some road trip music.
One album I’ve banned from our road trip is Steely Dan’s Aja. Now I like Steely Dan; I saw them back in the early '90s at the now gone outdoor venue Poplar Creek and it was fun. But like my friend Tom Laird who ate too many of my great aunt Juanita’s tamales at my sister’s wedding years ago and vowed to never again eat another, after one of our family vacations I vowed to never play a tune from Aja.
In the summer of 1978, the Sarabia clan piled into the green Chevy wagon for "the trip": a drive out to the West Coast, down Highway 101, over to San Antonio then back up to Oak Park — all in a month.
That July, Aja had just garnered a Grammy for Best Engineered, Classical Recording and had peaked at #3 on the US Billboard Pop Chart. So my dad got it on 8-track and by the time we reached Winnemucca, Nevada, even my nine year old brother Eddie knew the chorus to the song "Peg"!
Seven songs played over and over and over again. But the strange thing is that at the time we all enjoyed the jazz fusion jumping out at us from the car’s "deluxe" speaker system.
It wasn’t until after we peeled ourselves out of the car once back home that we all voiced our newfound displeasure with that Steely Dan "masterpiece," and whenever we’re together we have a good laugh whenever someone requests "Black Cow" or "Deacon Blues."
Maybe you have a song or album or artist that you now forbid when on the road. Like Richard and I , you most certainly have your favorite road trip musical moments.
It’s funny but for me, no matter how great a trip, near the end I start to get the itch to get back home to familiar surroundings, my comfort zone. Those are the goodbye moments of road trips and the topic of my road trip picks. So here we go, buckle up.
I am a Joni-phile. This Canadian born artist can do no wrong according to my ears; she’s a true artist who’s always followed her muse critics be damned. Mitchell’s 1971 release Blue has been a road trip must for me for a couple of decades. Not only do more than a few songs evoke travel and longing to get back, her combination of voice and guitar is the perfect mix for tooling down a two laner out in the middle of nowhere. Blue was a groundbreaking album was it came out because it was such a personal set of songs; really drawn from Joni’s life.
Take the song "Carey" for instance; a song inspired by her time with a cave-dwelling hippie community in the village of Matala, on the Greek island of Crete. Okay, who wouldn’t have fun with that trip? Well the song’s protagonist sounds like she’s having a blast but she does recognize it’s time to go, not home but other places. So much of Joni Mitchell’s music suggests a world weary traveler and maybe that’s why more than a few cite albums such as Blue and Hejira- written while Joni was on an East Coast to West Coast trip- as important a road trip accessory as the Road Atlas.
Anyone who’s been in a long distance relationship can relate to this classic from Leonard Cohen interpreted by Roberta Flack. "Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye," is a song that marks the end of a visit between two lovers.
So there you are driving in your car, you’re filled with excitement as you near your destination. But as the old saying goes: all good things come to an end -- even if temporarily.
You're on the verge of tears while packing the suitcase, but then your partner lessens the growing pang in your heart with these words of reassurance:
"I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time/Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme/You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me/It's just the way it changes like the shoreline and the sea/But let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie."
Now those are some beautiful lyrics; made all the more lovely by Roberta’s singing and her piano solo. This version is off of Flack’s debut release appropriately titled, First Take. She would not make another album as strong as this.
Someday I’d like to take six months off , hop in a car and roam the country. But I’d probably share the same feelings articulated in "Don’t It Make You Wanna Go Home." We all wanna go home at some point right? The things that make home the place to be; the canopied trees, the sound of the El chugging along rickety tracks, the smell of onions on top of a red hot pull us in that direction. Of course you may be more like the protagonist in Joni Mitchell's song "Carey" and leave one place not for home but another foreign vista. Country music star Bobby Bare’s plaintive voice is one of many in the genre I always like to have on my road trip mix-tape. Take me home country road.
Teri Thornton was a jazz vocalist from Detroit who, despite her enormous talent, had only moderate commercial success. Her professional life in music started in the mid 1950’s while she was a 19 year old divorced mother with two children. She spent time in Chicago in the late 1950’s honing her jazz vocal skills before moving to New York in 1960. She had her first album release a year later. A song titled "Somewhere In The Night" from her second album turned out to be the theme for the hit T.V. series Naked City and was high on the music charts. She signed with a major label the same year and released her third album which contained a vocal version of the theme from the T.V. series Route 66.
Thornton had several years of success which came to an abrupt halt due to substance abuse and other personal problems. She retreated from the music business for a number of years before making a triumphant return by winning the Thelonius Monk Vocal Jazz Competition in 1998 after recovering from a bout with cancer. She had a recurrence of the disease in 2000 that proved fatal. This vocal version of Nelson Riddle’s theme music for Route 66 is a testament to her vocal abilities.`
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are still hot. This L.A. band came together in 1983. Its music is often described as alternative rock, but it’s really a mixture of many styles. Last weekend, they closed out the second day of Lollapalooza here in Chicago. They performed after a rain delay of several hours and the wet, mud-covered fans loved it. They even continued to play during a scheduled lakefront fireworks display.
This song called "Road Trippin" is from an album recorded in 2000 called Californication. It would seem that "Road Trippin" is about a fun journey along the Pacific Coast Highway. There’s a lyric line that talks about “lingering at Big Sur." It’s an entirely acoustic recording that was released as single in Europe, but not here in the U.S. The song makes you feel like you’re along for the ride.
Wes Montgomery was a phenomenal self-taught jazz guitarist from nearby Indianapolis, Indiana. He was nicknamed “the thumb” because he never used a guitar pick. He had a beautiful sound and was a prolific improviser. Jazz critics gave universal praise for his talent when he was playing and recording what was called “straight ahead” jazz, but they expressed resounding disapproval when he recorded the “pop jazz” that appealed to a much broader audience. This recording was one that fit perfectly into that category. It’s his own composition called "Road Song" and it reached number one on the Billboard Jazz Album chart in 1968. This was his last album release before a fatal heart attack at the age of 45.
Orbert Davis is a brilliant jazz trumpet player, composer and founder of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Kurt Elling is a Grammy-winning vocalist from Chicago and Bobbi Wilsyn is an exciting vocalist and jazz educator who lives in Chicago. If you’ve ever wondered what the ultimate Brazilian jazz-flavored romantic song would sound like, this is it. Imagine yourself on a dream vacation as Orbert Davis was when he wrote this song. He told me it came to him while he and his wife were strolling down a beach in Bahia one evening. I think when you listen to "Midnight in Bahia" you’ll definitely get the message.