Sunday, September 14, 2008

Show 37 - Highway Blues



In 1924, about the same time record companies began to record blues regularly, American Association of State Highway Officials held a meeting to plan a system of marked and numbered interstate highways. Roads like the Lincoln Highway, Dixie Overland Highway, or the Mohawk Trail were replaced with numbered routes like 61 and 80. At the time the change was criticized. People thought the romance of the named roads could not be replace by boring numbers. However, as blues songs show us, the numbered highways developed an excitement of their own.

Big Joe Williams sang Highway 49, the road that goes from Piggott, Arkansas thought the Mississippi Delta to Gulfport, Mississippi:
Well I'm gonna get up in the morning, catch that Highway 49
Yes I'm getting up in the morning, catch that highway 49
Well Im finding my sweet woman, well well she dont pay poor Joe no mind

Well have you ever had the blues? Catch the highway 49
Well have you ever had the blues? Catch the highway 49
I'm finding my sweet woman, well boy, she trying to throw poor Joe Williams down

I'm gonna wake up in the morning, I believe I'll dust my bed
I'm getting up in the morning, well, I believe I'll dust my bed
Going down to highway 49, well boys, I'll be rocking to me head

Blues this morning, I may roll in Jackson town (I mean Jackson, Tennessee)
Blues this morning, well I'll be rolling in Jackson town
Lord I'm tired of laying around on Highway 49
U.S. Highway 80 ran across the entire Southern United States from Georgia to California. Son Bonds was a Tennessee musician, from north of where Highway 80 runs. But he sings about taking the longest road he know to get away from a woman. 80 Highway Blues from 1941.
Sitting down here thinking, yes babe I believe I better go
Sitting down here thinking, yes babe I believe I better go
You know I believe I'll go down that long long old dusty road

Now that 80 Highway is the longest highway that I know
Now that 80 Highway is the longest highway that I know
Running all the way from Frisco, Texas way cross the Atlantic on that other water coast

The church bell beginning to toll, yes some other good gambler's gone
The church bell beginning to toll, yes some other good gambler's gone
You know I wouldn't hate it so bad, but that 80 Highway's so long

You women fuss and argue with your good man, when you know you don't do right yourself
You women fuss and argue with your good man, baby when you know you don't do right yourself
You know when I look for you at night, way down on 80 Highway with someone else

Yes if you get in trouble, call on a car about forty‑five
Yes if you get in trouble, call on a car about forty‑five
Baby now I just open up my chifferobe and you'll see where my dollar lies
Son Bonds sings 80 runs from Frisco, Texas to the Atlantic which is about right these days. When the song was recorded the road ran all the way to the west coast.

Highway 51 runs from Wisconsin to Louisiana. Curtis Jones recorded Highway 51 Blues in 1937:
Forgive me, honey, for all the wrong I've done
Please forgive me, honey, for all the wrong I've done
I don't want nobody to have to come for me parked out on Highway 51

If I should die, baby, before my time
If I should die, baby, before my time
Bury my body on 51 highway right down below the Frisco line

Now Mr. bus driver, let me ride down in your blind
Mr. bus driver, let me ride down in your blind
Now if you don't let me ride main, I'm gonna swing right on behind

Baby if your good man get buggish, don't want you to have no fun
If your good man get buggish, don't want you to have no fun
Come and follow me to my nation back down on highway 51

Me and my little baby, we walked 51 Highway side by side
Me and my little baby, walk the Highway side by side
If we should happen to have a bad accident nobody knows unless we die
Mississippi-born bluesman Tommy McLennan recorded New Highway No. 51 in Chicago in 1940.
Highway 51 runs right by my baby's door
Highway 51 runs right by my baby's door
Now if I don't get the girl I'm loving ain't going down Highway 51 no more

Now if I should die before my time shall come
I said if I should die just before my time shall come
I want you to please bury my body out on Highway 51

Now yonder come that Greyhound with his tongue sticking out on the side
Yonder come that Greyhound with his tongue sticking out on the side
If you buy your ticket swear 'fore God that man'll let you ride

My baby didn't have one five dollars she spent it all on a V‑Eight Ford
My baby didn't have one five dollars, spent it all on a V‑Eight Ford
So I could meet that Greyhound bus on that Highway 51 road

Now any time you get lonesome and you wants to have some fun
Any time you get lonesome and you wants to have some fun
Come out to little Tommy's cabin, he lives on Highway 51
There have been a lot of songs recorded about Route 61. Many of them incorrectly describe the route. It runs from Minnesota to New Orleans through the heart of the Mississippi Delta
including that intersection with 49 that many consider the crossroads. Charlie Pickett recorded a Highway 61 song in 1937 called Down the Highway where he sings the road goes from Atlanta to the Gulf of Mexico:
Now I'm going to leave here walking going down Highway 61
Now I'm going to leave here walking going down Highway 61
If I find my sweet mama, baby I believe we're going to have some fun

Oh well oh well we're going to make everything all right
Oh well oh well we're going to make everything all right
Now if I don't soon in the morning, you know I will do just tomorrow night

Now the 61 Highway, you know it runs right by my door
Now the 61 Highway, man it runs right by my door
Runs from Atlanta into Georgia down into the Gulf of Mexico

Oh well oh well we're going to make everything all right
Oh well oh well you know wer'e going to make everything all right
Now if I don't soon in the morning, you know I will do just tomorrow night

Now I received a letter, some long‑distance telegram
Now I received a letter, a long‑distance telegram
Now if I don't be home Sunday, I will be home...

All these songs have been about interstate highways, but state roads got some appreciation in blues songs too. Freddie Spruell recorded one about following his baby down Illinois Route 4a called 4A Highway.
My baby woke me up this morning, she told me she's Joliet bound
My baby woke me up this morning, she told me she's Joliet bound
She went to find 4‑A Highway, that's the main Highway out of town

She wouldn't even talk with me, wouldn't even have a word to say
She wouldn't even talk with me, wouldn't even have a word to say
She asking all her friends around now, where she find number 4‑A highway

Number 4‑A Highway, that's the main highway out of town
Number 4‑A Highway, that's the main highway out of town
And if she leave out on that highway, I'm sure going to trail my baby down

I feel like taking my suitcase, setting down on the side of that lonesome highway
I feel like taking my suitcase, setting down on the side of that lonesome highway
If she leave there between now and midnight, I'll overtake her just before day

If I had my machine, I wouldn't worry about leaving town
If I had my machine, I wouldn't worry about leaving town
I'd get on that 4‑A Highway and God knows I'd roll that highway down
Key to the Highway is one of the most recorded songs in the blues. It captures the spirit of the highway as an escape. Jazz Gillum recorded it this way in 1940:
I got the key to the highway, billed out and bound to go
I'm going to leave here running because walking is much too slow

I'm going back to the bottom where I'm better known
Because you haven't done nothing but drove a good man away from home

Give me one more kiss mama just before I go
Because when I'm leaving here, I won't be back no more

When the moon creep over the mountain, honey I'll be on my way
I'm going to walk this highway until the break of day

Well it's so long so long baby, I must say goodbye
I'm going to roam this highway until the day I die
Automobiles and the culture surrounding them were central to American life in the 1930s and early 40s when these songs were recorded. Not having a car makes it a blues situation as Jazz Gillum sings that he's going to walk the highway. But with a car or without, the numbered highways became a part of the mythology of the United States and part of the blues. Highways like 61, 51, and 66 are recalled in countless songs. The men and women recording the blues in the thirties and forties lives intersected with these roads on a daily basis and the music reflects that.

Songs:
Highway 49 - Big Joe Williams
80 Highway Blues - Son Bonds
Highway 51 - Curtis Jones
New Highway No. 51 - Tommy McLennan
Down the Highway - Charlie Pickett
4A Highway - Freddie Spruell
Key to the Highway - Jazz Gillum