I always get restless in the spring, after being cooped up all winter. What better way to celebrate my return to this column than a mix of traveling songs?
I’ve included folk, country, rockabilly, blues, and punk; there are songs about aimless late-night drives, songs about going on tour with your band, and songs about riding the rails.
There are songs about how good it is to travel, and songs about how sad it is to be a rover.
As always, tune into Mix Tapes from the Midwest: The Podcast to hear these songs, plus many tracks that didn’t make it into the column. Happy trails.
1. Tom Waits – Get Lost
Let’s blast right into our open road odyssey with this rockabilly rager. Even better, it’s weird, Waits-style rockabilly, growly and dirty. This one’s for the fun sort type road trip, where you’ve got your baby by your side and you’re splittin’ town for wherever the wind may take ya. You’ll be banging your hands on the steering wheel along to this tune – the wild slaps of the bass guitar, the rhythmic handclaps and drums, and the scorched soul sound of the horns.
Roll down all the windows / Turn up Wolfman Jack / Please, please love me tender / Ain’t nothin wrong with that / Let’s go get lost.
2. Carl Perkins – Restless
There’s a scene in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train, where the young Japanese woman says “Elvis Presley,” and her (rockabilly) boyfriend glares and mutters: “Carl Perkins was better.” I always feel like the boyfriend character, talking about Carl while everyone around me fawns over Elvis. I dig Elvis, sure, but Carl was a great guitar player and an amazing songwriter (he wrote “Blue Suede Shoes,” man) who never got famous cos he wasn’t young and sexy like Elvis. Which just goes to show, celebrity is more about having the right look than it is about having the right talent.
All diatribes out of the way, this is a great tune, a perfect follow up to the Waits opener. Waits brought us his off-kilter brand of modern rockabilly, now Perkins brings us the classic sound. It’s got that big, early rock’n’roll guitar style (even though it wasn’t released until 1968), that style that’s as much a part of Americana as burning up miles of blacktop with your car tires. Or, in the case of this song – the tires of the Greyhound bus you’re ridin’ on. Listen to the jingle of the tambourine, and the back-up singers sweetly singing “I’m just restless / restless restless / ooooh.” (The live version in the YouTube video lacks the tambourine and the back-up singers, and the guitar sounds much more like late-‘60s rock.)
I’m just restless / I need to get on out of town / I need to go right now / Take me where the living’s easy / Baby, that’s where I’ll be found.
3. Hank Williams, Sr. – Ramblin’ Man
It would be blasphemous to make a mix of traveling songs and not include Hank. Many of his most iconic songs were about being a lonesome traveler; hell, in the early part of his career, he was known as ‘Luke the Drifter.’ He didn’t play that ‘high, lonesome sound,’ per se – that description is reserved for more traditional bluegrass music, played and sung by people such as Bill Monroe – but Lord, for me, almost nothing touches the dark and sorrowful corners of my soul like certain Hank Williams tunes. He was so young – he only lived to be 29 – but he seemed to have the world-weariness of a much older person. Then again, I’ve been relating to some of his songs since I was in my early 20s, so…
“Ramblin’ Man,” featuring a fiddle and a spooky slide guitar, and Hank’s sad undulating voice – it gets all low and then hits the high notes like a yipping coyote – is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written. It’s about the despair that comes whenever you hear a freight train, because that lonesome whistle is a reminder that no matter how much you love the person you’re with, eventually, you’re gonna have to move on down the road. That bone-deep urge to get gone is a hard one to live with – when you give in to it, you feel like a failure, and when you fight it, you feel trapped.
Some folks might say that I’m no good / That I wouldn’t settle down if I could / But when that open road starts to callin’ me / There’s somethin’ o’er the hill that I gotta see / Sometimes it’s hard but you gotta understand / When the Lord made me, He made a Ramblin’ Man.
4. Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lightning
Here’s another train song, though this one is more upbeat and less heartbreaking than the last one. Havin’ the blues doesn’t always mean feelin’ bad. This electric blues (also known as Chicago blues, of which Howlin’ Wolf was a leading performer) number will put a positive spin on your restlessness, because you’ll want to use that nervous energy to dance. Howlin’ Wolf has a powerful roar of a voice, but then he also hits those ‘woooo-ooohs’ and manages to sound like a train blowin’ it’s horn. And dig that bass line that chugs along like a freight train, and the jumpy harmonica.
Stop your train / Let a poor boy ride / Why don’t you hear me cryin’?
5. The Yard Dogs Road Show – King of the Hobos
Eddy Joe Cotton, frontman and ringmaster of the Yard Dogs Road Show (they’re not just a band, they’re a circus troupe!), is also the author of Hobo: A Young Man’s Thoughts On Trains and Tramping in America. It is a book about hopping freight trains throughout the American west, and it is not only one of my favorite books about the hobo life, it is one of my favorite books, period. If you’re at all interested in trains, hobos, travel stories, or Americana – once you’ve finished reading this column, go get yourself a copy.
“King of the Hobos” is a big brag of a tune. It’s the singer making himself into a myth in the vein of all our larger-than-life American legends. What does it sound like? It sounds like a Beat poet ran away with the circus, dropped acid, and listened to some Morphine albums…and then wrote this song.
Now, when I come strollin’ through your town / motels lock their doors / little children, they run and hide / and dance halls wax their floors.
6. The Pine Hill Haints – The Parting Glass
“The Parting Glass” is a really old song. I mean, a really, really old song – it was first published as a broadside in 1770. There are hundreds of versions of it, and I like them all, but I think this is my favorite. Something about the rawness of the Pine Hill Haints’ sound, their hybrid of spooky mountain music (or, as they call their sound, Alabama Ghost Music), lends itself very well to this tune. The accordion wheezes, the bass plunks low, and the banjo twangs, while the singer rasps out the words.
This is a goodbye song. This is what you sing to your friends and lovers before you hit the road, again.
Out of all the friends that e’er I’ve had / they’re sorry for my going away / and all the girls that e’er I’ve loved / would wish me one more night to say / but since it falls unto my lot / that I should rise and you should not / so I’ll gently rise, and I’ll softly say / goodnight, and joy be with you all.
7. Murder City Devils – 18 Wheels
This song used to be the story of my life. Nowadays, I don’t tour or ramble nearly as much as I used to. I still feel it, though. It’s one of those songs that got etched into my soul, way back when. It’s about those times when you have to hit the road, and you have to leave your lover back at home. It hurts you, and you don’t want to hurt them, but you have to go – and you’re not even sure if they’ll be there when you return, and you wouldn’t blame them if they weren’t. (And I wonder if you’ll be there when I get back / Or will you leave me like I left you / Over and over and over.)
It sounds like the topic of a country song, and indeed, I could hear Hank Williams singing something similar, if it were a different type of tune. The Murder City Devils express their pain not through lonesome country sounds, no, they do it with charred, dirty rock’n’roll. It’s like a punk rock blues. It pounds and throbs, the organ notes haunt, and Spencer Moody sings:
Like a smuggler, like a trucker / Drinking when I should be sleeping / Sleeping when I should be waking up / Never hung over / Either wide awake or way too drunk / The only thing / The only thing that I ever wanted / Is going to fuck you over / Is going to fuck us up.
8. The Replacements – Anywhere’s Better Than Here
Don’t Tell A Soul (the album this song appears on) is a totally underrated ‘Mats album. Many fans of their earlier, more straight-up punk sounding stuff think that they got too watered down in their later years. Hey, I love their earlier stuff, too, but I also love this album. I won’t deny that it’s more pop-influenced than, say, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, but they maintained a kind of desperate, nihilistic poetry that prevented them from becoming a middle-of-the-road rock band. At least, in my opinion – and that’s what this column is all about, my opinion.
This song is one of the many Replacements songs that, when I first heard it, made me go: “Dammit, Paul Westerberg, get outta my head.” It’s about a girl who feels trapped, so she hooks up with guys that aren’t so great, just so she can escape.
You press your luck / Up against his body / Now you’re stuck / But you like it down and dirty / You don’t care / Where the hell you’re goin’ / Anywhere / Is better than goin’ / Anywhere is better than / Anywhere is better than / Anywhere is better than / Anywhere is better than here.
And the way Paul screams at the beginning? Dear lord.
9. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – Roadrunner
Are The Modern Lovers punk? I’ve been debating this with myself for a while. Certainly, they were around too early in the game to be a ‘punk rock’ band*. So, then, are they proto-punk? There is something akin to punk in some of their stuff, an unrefined, angry and grimy quality to, say, their self-titled album, which this song originally appears on. Even in that era of their work, though, there’s something so earnest about Jonathan Richman’s songs that makes it less punk and more dork-rock. It’s the music of being a weird kid in the suburbs, it’s the music of feeling lonely but also feeling really right-on about it all, at times.
Okay, so maybe that’s what punk is, too.
Proto-punk or not, I love The Modern Lovers, and this is one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s like if the Velvet Underground were less self-consciously arty; less Bowery and more suburban gas station parking lot. The organ sound is so much fun, and something about Jonathan Richman’s voice always makes me feel glad to be alive. For real. This song isn’t so much about a road trip to anywhere specific as it is about driving around nowhere and everywhere, just to feel that motion, just to feel the damp springtime wind blowing in through the open windows of your car.
I got the, I got the world, I’ve got the turnpike, got the (Radio on) / I got the, I got the power of the AM, got the (Radio on) / Late at night, lit up white, rock ‘n’ roll late at night (Radio on) / I’ve got the factories and neon signs, I got the (Radio on).
(*Author’s Note: There is a terrible, sloppy, excellent cover of “Roadrunner,” as done by the Sex Pistols, that appears on the soundtrack to The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. Johnny Rotten once stated that he hated all music, but “Roadrunner” was his favorite song. Now that’s an endorsement if I ever heard one.)
1. Best Friends Forever – Eisenhower is the Father
Best Friends Forever make cute music, danceable indie pop about crushes and road trips. This song is about both. I’ve put this tune on so many travel mixes in the past five years, but it especially reminds me of a journey I took with my then-boyfriend, in December of 2008, from Wisconsin to Pittsburgh and then back to Chicago, in the span of a few days. We made a two-volume mix CD set to accompany us, he picked half the songs and I picked the other half and together we decided what order they’d go in. This song was on it. Soon after that trip, things between us turned sour, but hearing this song reminds me of the all-too-brief time when they were sweet and easy.
Eisenhower is the father of the interstate highway system / And my song is just a way to pay a little tribute to him / On that road my true love and I rode from Ohio to Pittsburgh / And our separate cars gave me the time to think of ways to try and kiss him / Our separate hearts beat out of time without someone to find the rhythm / When we held last night I thought I felt them simultaneously clickin’.
2. Bruce Springsteen – Thunder Road
If I didn’t include Springsteen on this mix, I’d be a poor excuse for an American. I’m not a patriot, at least not in the sense most people mean when they use that term, but when I listen to The Boss… Let me put it this way: nothing makes me feel joy in living where I do like listening to Springsteen, except for maybe going on a road trip and watching the glorious landscape of this wide country open up before me. Like any good n’ restless US citizen, I was born with my heart full of wanderlust and my veins full of motor oil.
Like most of the songs on Born to Run, “Thunder Road” is about making a getaway, fleeing everything in life that keeps you down. You know, I think that’s the real American Dream. Not pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, or starting your own business, or anything like that. No, the real American Dream is taking off, finding somewhere better, starting over – and knowing that if you need to, you can do that again and again. Or maybe that’s just the Jessie Lynn Dream, who knows.
This tune starts off with that soulful little harmonica riff, and then it’s just Bruce’s wonderful mumble and that piano until around 1:15, when the full band joins in. Listen to this one with your eyes closed (unless you’re driving, of course) and feel that urgency.
Well now I’m no hero, that’s understood / All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood / With a chance to make it good somehow / Hey what else can we do now? / Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair / Well the night’s busting open / These two lanes will take us anywhere / We got one last chance to make it real / To trade in these wings on some wheels / Climb in back – Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks.
3. The Tossers – The Rover
I wanted a reason to include The Tossers on this mix, so I could talk about their new album, The Emerald City. Well, my South Side Chi-rish boys provided me with a reason – this song. It’s got the perfect blend of Irish folk elements and punk attitude. There’s a fiddle and a banjo and a tin whistle, to be sure, but the rhythm section is fast and pounding. It’s the kind of song where Tony Duggins is at his best – a raucous anthem about being a drunken wanderer.
Cos I’m a rover / drunk or sober / I go trampling this world over / and when I die / let me go / for I’m a rover, drunk or sober!
4. Mischief Brew – Rambler’s Ghost
This folk/country/punk ditty is about the mythical wandering woman, who hops freights and hitches rides across the continent, across the world. This was how I lived my life for five years or so, always going going going, in cars and on trains and on buses, on bicycles and on foot and sometimes on airplanes and boats, too. It didn’t matter how I was goin’, so long as I could get gone. Sometimes I miss those days.
I first heard this song when I was in the midst of those years, and I fell in love with Erik Petersen’s chugging guitar, and his ragged voice singing:
Railroad boxcar blasts and burns on down the line / and her feet are a swingin’ / and the song she’s a singin’ / tells of greener fields and freer times.
5. Kimya Dawson – Tire Swing
This is the flip side of being a ramblin’ gal. This isn’t the romanticized life of “Rambler’s Ghost,” this is the life of a lady who is always on the road, to the point of never being able to stay in a relationship. Well, Kimya got married and so did I, but I still feel this way sometimes. I still listen to this song, late at night when I’m restless and want to hit the road, and I know my honey just doesn’t get it. At those times, I turn to this sad and sweet and strange anti-folk song, with the whistling and the off-rhythm piano, and Kimya crooning:
I took the Polaroid down in my room / I’m pretty sure you have a new girlfriend / It’s not as if I don’t like you / It just makes me sad whenever I see it / ’cause I like to be gone most of the time / And you like to be home most of the time / If I stay in one place I lose my mind / I’m a pretty impossible lady to be with.
6. Woody Guthrie – Hobo’s Lullaby
This song was written by Goebel Reeves, and many singers have done their take on it. I chose this version because, much like I couldn’t make a traveling mix without Williams or Springsteen, I couldn’t leave out the Guthrie, either. He was the hard-travelin’ folkster singing songs of the people. This is another sad tune, in a different way than “Tire Swing” is sad. This is about the real hardships of homelessness and a life on the rails.
It’s simply a guitar, strummed and plucked, and Woody’s perfectly imperfect Oklahoma twang.
I know the police cause you trouble / They cause trouble everywhere / But when you die and go to Heaven / You’ll find no policemen there.
7. Paul Simon – Graceland
This song, and the album its from, remind me of road trips I took with my dad, when I was just a wee little thing. Graceland was one of a handful of cassettes he had in constant rotation, and the words and sounds burned themselves into me, as did the small towns of Michigan flashing past the windows as we went 80 milers per hour down the beautiful highway.
I got older, and I never gave up the highway, but I did stop listening to this album for a while, cos it’s not punk to listen to Paul Simon. Eventually, I decided I didn’t care about losing ‘punk points,’ and I rediscovered the album. This song has since accompanied me on two life-changing journeys: a trip to Memphis in 2006, and a trip to New York City in 2007.
And my traveling companions / Are ghosts and empty sockets / I’m looking at ghosts and empties / But I’ve reason to believe / We all will be received / In Graceland.
8. Son Volt – Highways and Cigarettes
The Search, the album this song appears on, was released in 2007. I did not hear it until 2009. I was preparing for an epic journey to California, and a dear friend of mine, a fellow traveler, made me some mixes to travel with. “Highways and Cigarettes” was buried somewhere deep on one of the discs, and from the moment I heard the steel guitar at the opening, and then the gorgeous interplay of the vocals, and those lyrics…
This song brings all of my journeys back to me. When I listen to it, I can smell cigarette ash, burnt gas station coffee, diesel fumes from semi trucks, and creosote-coated wood from railroad tracks. I can see the sun rise over Lake Michigan and the factory smoke of Gary, Indiana; I can see the Blue Ridge Mountains hazy in the distance and the skyline of New York City; I can see the Spanish moss-laden trees of Louisiana and the high lonesome Mojave desert. I can see the neon signs of roadside diners reflected in the wet blacktop. It is soaring and expansive, sad and beautiful.
Got caught up in a breakaway dream / Destination City of New Orleans / Cheap motels and big rig swells / Crossing bridges for eternity.
9. Magnolia Electric Co. – Leave the City
No matter what, there would have been a Songs: Ohia or Magnolia Electric Co. song on this mix. Many of Jason Molina’s songs are about the loneliness and beauty of the road, about perpetual wandering. When I was in the process of figuring out what songs would go on this mix, Jason passed away. It hit me harder than I expected; I didn’t know him personally, but whenever someone whose work touched my life passes, I grieve. Too many of the good ones keep getting taken away from us, it seems.
I chose this song above all the others from Mr. Molina’s vast body of work, because this song appeared and helped carry me through a very rough time in my life. I had just moved away from Chicago, the city of my interior, and was already wondering why I had done so. The first verse spoke to that:
It broke my heart to leave the city / I mean, it broke what wasn’t broken in there, already / thought of all my great reasons for leaving / now I can’t think of any.
This was also during the thick of my ramblin’ days, and when I wasn’t traveling, I got depressed. In the second verse, Jason Molina, with his frayed, wounded voice, sang:
Half my life’s spent on a highway / half my life, I didn’t choose.
And the final verse, oh. It was another case of me having a lover who was desperately afraid I would leave them behind, and me being afraid they’d get sick of my wandering ways and leave me for good:
It broke my heart to know you waited / I had so many things to do.
Oh god, and the way it all sounds – the country-fried guitar and the honky-tonk piano, the wail of the horn and the bassy throb of it that’s like the rumble of a semi truck or a freight train.
Hey, Jason – it’s true, it was a hard time that I come through. It’s made me thankful for your music.