Friday, March 28, 2008

Songs About Infrastructure: The Liner Notes

The great escape: Thelma and Louise take to the open road.

A few days ago I wrote a post titled Songs About Infrastructure. I discovered Richard Weingroff, an employee at the Federal Highway Administration who has maintained a catalogue of songs about roads for more than a decade. I was curious about how this list originated and how it earned its own website under the auspice of the FHWA. I was able to "interview" Weingroff via email through the Department of Transportation's public affairs officer (thanks, Doug!). And I learned that Weingroff has collected more than just songs about highways. Here is the response to my questions:

While planning for the 40th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate System in 1996, some articles were discussed that might show how the Interstate System has become part of the world we live in (beyond the obvious transportation function). “Road movies” were discussed, as were road poetry, art and, as you know, road music. For the special 40th anniversary edition of Public Roads magazine, we included articles about movies, poetry, and art.

Here are links to some of those articles:
Road Movies
Poetry of the Open Road
Artists Look at Roads

Who knew there was a magazine dedicated to public roads?! The March 2008 cover features Lady Bird Johnson, who was a champion of landscaping along America's highways. She is credited for all those wildflowers...

Apparently, Lady Bird's campaign to beautify highways met with some disdain, as evidenced by this cartoon featured inside the magazine.

A few FHWA employees then began compiling a list of road songs, and an article was discussed but never written. I should point out that these activities were done in the employees’ spare time and did not interfere in any way with their daily responsibilities.

As the list grew over the years, we created the “Highway History Web site” to feature articles by Richard Weingroff, FHWA’s resident historian, and others about the history of the U.S. interstate highway system. It can be found online here.

At some point, compiling “Some Roads Songs” seemed like a fun feature for the Web site, which grew from a simple list of songs and artists to include their lyrics as well. Over the years, we have added songs identified in several ways. Mr. Weingroff is always on the alert for new road songs, either on the radio or on CDs he buys. The public also contributes, by emailing certain songs to be considered for addition to the list. First, we check the song out to be sure it is a road song and then to be sure it isn’t something that would be objectionable on a government Web site. For example, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” is not really a road song—it’s a song, near as we can tell, about heroin addiction.

"AC/DC’s 'Highway to Hell' is not really a road song—it’s a song, near as we can tell, about heroin addiction."

Some performers seem to have an affinity for road songs. As a reader can see from the list, performers such as Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, the Kinks, Jimmy LaFave, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and others record song after song about the road. I think it reflects the fact that performers spend so much time on the road, especially early in their careers, that roads assume a larger role in their life than they do for the rest of us. The common themes for these and other performers reflect their reality of the road:

Separation from loved ones
Going home to loved ones
Glad to get away from former loved ones
She done me wrong, so I’m hitting the road
Loved ones leaving us
The boredom of the road—every city like the last one
The thrill, joy, and drudgery of the open road
Stuck in traffic, red taillights all I see

Trucker songs are an obvious subcategory, with hundreds of songs about the life of a trucker on the road. Composers “write what they know.” For many years, musicians traveled by train, so railroads were a common theme. As they switched to buses and cars, they wrote more about the roads. Initially, they wrote about the old two-lane highways they traveled, while today they are more likely to write about the Interstates.

Although we hope readers have fun with this feature, “Some Road Songs” illustrates how our popular culture—in this case music—reflects the pervasive role of roads in the daily lives of every American. Roads serve larger, societal purposes, such as sustaining our economy and supporting our national defense, but they also are an integral part of the daily lives of every American. It is this role that is reflected in our music. Whether in the form of the blues, Broadway, country, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, or any other musical genre, the songs on this list reflect the people who use them—their lives, their emotions, and their experiences.

Some roads pop up more than others, such as the obvious example of historic U.S. Route 66. (I have two CD’s consisting of songs about Route 66.) The major Interstates appear multiple times. For example, I-95 pops up quite a bit. I’ll add a presumably partial list of I-95 songs at the end of this message. I-5, I-35, and I-80 show up every so often. Many are part of the titles, while others show up in the lyric samples.

Mr. Weingroff’s official job title is “Information Liaison Specialist” (translation: writer). He has a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland, and joined the FHWA in 1973 as a “Technical Correspondence Writer.” In the 1980s, his job was changed a little to include work that capitalizes on his interest in American history to become the FHWA’s “unofficial historian.” His mentor in this work was the former “unofficial historian,” Lee Mertz, whose work we feature on the Web site. Writing is a full-time job for Mr. Weingroff, but he squeezes in research and writing of history articles as time permits and, mostly, on my own time. “Some Road Songs” doesn’t take a lot of time – a few minutes each week, he says – but it is unquestionably the most popular feature on the Highway History page.