I posted recently about a few of the good things that we non-Yanks should be celebrating about the good ol’ US of A, despite the current White House incumbent being several sandwiches shy of a picnic.
Regular readers of this blog would have been less than astounded that I felt one of those Very Good Things was modern American music, and particularly that broad church that calls itself, loosely, Americana. A recent article about Route 66 reminds me just how closely much of that music is associated with the country’s roads infrastructure.
Yup, if they’re not actually getting their kicks on them, those crazy ol’ Americans are always heading out on the highway, hitting it, igniting it, or, indeed, in Dylan’s case, hosting the next world war on it (Highway 61). Listening to all this stuff thousands of miles away, there’s a grubby romance to the whole blacktop section of the American Dream. The highway is the means of escape from your small-town imprisonment, but more than that, it’s the conduit between different styles of music. Most notably, of course, the blues, brought to more northern cities like Chicago by African-Americans escaping poverty in the southern states, where it underwent the process of electrification. Cue Robert Johnson and those crossroads.
I knew and loved Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album many years before I understood the significance of the road itself for the young Bobby Zimmerman, growing up close to its northern end, connecting him in spirit and by late night radio to the southern musical gumbos of Louisiana and New Orleans. But as the article on Route 66 points up, the truth about these roads – at least nowadays – is very much more prosaic.
As soon as Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, Route 66 began to decline as it was replaced by bigger, faster roads. The bypassed towns began to fall into disrepair: Steinbeck’s famous ‘mother road’ was living on borrowed time. The subject of the Route 66 article, Edward Keating, first fetched up on it in 1977, drunk, with no job or prospects, nor any plan to navigate his way out of his situation. He reached rock bottom, apparently, in Flagstaff, Arizona (now there’s a country song waiting to write itself).
He returned, 20 years later, as a photojournalist, to capture ‘the bleak current manifestations’ of the old highway. He’s quoted as saying he wasn’t interested in portraying it as ‘2,400 miles of amusement park.’ Instead, he captured the faces and places left behind by the march of progress.
The photos illustrating this post, by the way, aren’t from Keatings’ book. They’re from the John Margolies collection that the Library of Congress bought up and made free to use that I mentioned in that previous post. But while that collection has its fair share of shiny, positive pictures, it’s the ones showing things in decline I’m drawn to, like the one below.
Why even is that? Am I just a depressing dude? I don’t think so – but I do come from south Fife, which in common with the rest of Scotland’s Central Belt, has had its fair share of post-industrial neglect and decay. And to go back to the musical journey, it’s why so many of Springsteen’s songs resonate across the Atlantic to crazy dreaming 57-year-old kids like me.
I mean, just look at the petrol pumps on the left. It’s where Bruce pulled up his motorbike to get some gas after escaping the town with Wendy in ‘Born to Run,’ isn’t it?
The south Fife town I grew up in, Glenrothes, has many positive qualities – which I’ll continue to extol in other posts. However, the loss of key employers and failure of the service sector in recent years has left its mark on some parts of it – particularly the west of town. A documentary last year touched on some of the hidden poverty in these estates, with the story of a woman beyond retirement age who goes out collecting scrap metal to survive. No one should have to live like that, especially in what’s still a rich country.
That image, of the woman scavenging for copper wire, stayed with me, and I recently completed a song where I used it (the rest of the woman’s life story in the song is entirely out of my imagination, by the way). Inevitably, although I’ve done my best to sing it in a Scottish accent, the music’s cadence is American through and through.
Mind you, if I went fully native and wrote a song about our nearest trunk road, there’s a hell of a lot of rhymes I could get for ‘A92’.
(Incidentally, this is the first of a few songs I plan to demo as acoustic versions on Soundcloud, before I work them up into fuller versions. Any and all feedback appreciated).