Tuned into Driving Along in Our Automobiles The interstates have had a profound effect on our culture. They affect where we live, what we eat and most definitely the sounds we listen to when we get our motors running and head out on the highway.

Tuned into Driving Along in Our Automobiles

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This is DAY TO DAY. Coming up: are there one million ounces of gold still left in an old mine in California? I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. First, we just can't wait to get on the road again. We're exploring the impact of America's interstate highway system. There's a reason for that. The legislation that created the nation's transportation web was signed 50 years ago this week. The interstates have had a profound affect on our culture, everything from where we live to what we eat. DAY TO DAY's Steve Proffitt has these thoughts on how the high speed highways shaped the music we listen to.


Mobility, the need to move on down the road, is a critical strand in America's DNA. So, it's not surprising that in the automotive age, our urge to amble is romanticized again and again in our popular music.

(Soundbite of song “Maybellene”)

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) As I was motivatin' over the hill I saw Maybellene in a Coupe DeVille…

PROFFITT: When the Interstate Highway Bill was signed in 1956, the nation's radios were hopping with the new sound of rock ‘n' roll. And although that phrase, rock ‘n' roll was a blues reference with a sexual connotation, there were plenty of examples of early rocking and rolling down the highway.

(Soundbite of song “Mustang Sally”)

WILSON PICKETT: (Singing) Mustang Sally…

PROFFITT: In the early ‘60s, as the interstate highways began to appear across the nation and the motorized culture really took root, muscle cars and motor bikes became central characters in hit songs.

(Soundbite of revving engines)

PROFFITT: The rise of the girl groups led to hits like “Leader of the Pack,” a melodrama about the alpha male in a motorcycle gang.

(Soundbite of song “Leader of the Pack”)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) The leader of the pack - now he's gone. The leader of the pack - now he's gone.

PROFFITT: While The Beach Boys, when they weren't singing about surfing or girls, sang about cars with lots of gear head details.

(Soundbite of song “Little Deuce Coupe”)

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) She's got a competition clutch with the four on the floor. And she purrs like a kitten till the lake pipes roar. And if that ain't enough…

PROFFITT: The British Invasion led by the Beatles in 1964 pushed groups like The Beach Boys and car songs in general off the charts.

(Soundbite of song “I want to hold your hand”)

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Oh, yeah, I tell you something…

PROFFITT: But it wasn't long before American bands like the Grateful Dead and Steppenwolf brought back the road music.

(Soundbite of song “Truckin'”)

(Soundbite of song “Born to be Wild”)

Mr. JOHN KAY (lead singer, Steppenwolf): (Singing) Head out on the highway…

PROFFITT: It was during this period, in the late 1960s, that the writer Joan Didion published her influential novel about California and life among the freeways. It was called Play It As It Lays. To understand what was going on, she wrote, it's perhaps necessary to have participated in the freeway experience, which is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Actually participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture of the freeway. The mind goes clean, the rhythms take over.

(Soundbite of song “Big Yellow Taxi”)

Ms. JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

PROFFITT: Of course, not everyone and not every singer/songwriter was happy with the new concrete nation. But as rock music refined itself again and again through the 1970s and ‘80s, road themes continues as a motif for songwriters as disparate as Bruce Springsteen.

(Soundbite of song “Born to Run”)

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.

PROFFITT: And the Buzzcocks.

(Soundbite of song “I hate fast cars”)

THE BUZZCOCKS: (Singing) I hate fast cars.

PROFFITT: Now, at this point in our story, fans of country music may be wondering hey, what about us and our music. Well, it seems to go without saying that country music could scarcely exist without semis, pickups, and white line fever.

(Soundbite of song “White Line Fever”)

MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing): Guess I'll die with this fever in my soul.

PROFFITT: Still, when one looks at the pantheon of rock, pop, and country songs that celebrate the open road, there's precious little to be found about the actual joys of the interstate highway system. There aren't any hit songs about my baby breaking my heart out on exit 39. No, most of the tunes about moving down the road call to mind a nostalgic route 66 style, two-lane blacktop, rather than an impersonal, if efficient, eight-lane super highway.

(Soundbite of song “On the Road Again”)

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) On the road again…

PROFFITT: But the fact is, the road that Willie Nelson actually motors down on the way to his next gig, probably isn't a quaint tree-lined country byway. Like the rest of us, Willie is most likely traveling on a highly engineered roadway, with controlled access, steel reinforced overpasses, and a highway number proceeded by an I. Steve Proffitt, NPR News.

BRAND: Tomorrow, have we simply outgrown the highway system? What does the future hold? Plus, if you want to catch the other parts of our highway series, or view an interactive map showing how the system has grown over the decades, there is that and more at our website. Just got to npr.org.

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