Songs have long acted as aids to travel. Tramping feet and the stroke of oars follow a steady rhythm. Songs once served a practical purpose in smoothing this rhythm, a process reminiscent of tuning an engine.
There is, however, more to a song than providing a beat, just as there is more to a journey than getting to a destination. Does the destination really match up to expectations? Does focusing too much on a goal take away from appreciating what we see on the way to it? The wisdom that comes from experiencing the conflicting emotions of a journey seems to have leaked into songwriting, making it much more than a utilitarian device to help coordinate a team on the move, or in modern terms, to help motivate an exercise class.
So, as part of my series of articles on album titles as effective writing, let’s have a look at some travelling album titles. First, there is Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited. The real Highway 61 paved the way for Bob Dylan to follow his song writing dreams, running from the Canada United States border, through Duluth – where Bob Dylan was born – and on down through America to New Orleans, one of the early homes of modern popular music. On the way, the road passes close to Memphis – where Elvis Presley lived at Graceland – and Clarksdale, birthplace of Muddy Waters. The Blues singer Bessie Smith died in a car accident on Route 61 near Clarksdale. Clarksdale is also the place where Highway 61 meets Highway 49. This crossroads is a musical tourist attraction, commemorating a young Blues singer named Robert Johnson, who is supposed to have offered his soul to the devil at this spot, in return for musical ability.
Bob Dylan gets his camera and sets off to explore this long series of musical milestones. The crucial word in the title of Bob Dylan’s strange travelogue is “revisited”. Apart from the sense of going back on yourself, there is something odd about the word revisited when applied to a road stretching for 1,400 miles. We usually use a road to visit a particular place. Highway 61 is a place in itself, one long series of arrivals and departures in a world associated with music.
Highway 61 is the opposite of the Yellow Brick Road, as immortalised by L. Frank Baum in The Wizard of Oz. The Yellow Brick Road is like one of those coloured lines at Victoria Station, existing for one purpose only – to guide a traveller unerringly to a destination, whether that’s the taxi rank or, in the case of Baum’s story, the Emerald City. It is interesting that when Elton John came to reference the Yellow Brick Road in the title of his massively successful album of 1973, it was to say goodbye to such a road. Highway 61 is notable for itself as much as for where it goes. The Beatles who named an album after a road, are known for crossing that road rather than travelling along it. Harking back to Robert Johnson, the story of selling his soul to the devil might be a lot of nonsense, but it shows that in people’s imagination, music is more associated with crossroads than highways reaching the Emerald City. Abba called their most successful album Arrival. Think of the difference if they had called it Arrived. Arrival is a process which continues. It involves marching bands and excitement. Arrived is something finished. Arrived is what happens when Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City and find it’s something of a sham.
It only takes a small detail to transform the mundane description of a journey into something musical. Consider the band Supertramp – a band with a great name when it comes to endless journeys. In 1979 they took a trip across the Atlantic on an airliner in the title of their album Breakfast in America. Breakfast in America suggests a long, trans-Atlantic night flight, while the detail of breakfast at the end of it suggests a brief pause before the journey continues on somewhere else. Breakfast in America is a much better musical title than, for example, Lunch in America.
After breakfast we could head off into America, which puts me in mind of the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ from the American Beauty album. The Grateful Dead could have called their song Trucking, but dropping the final g in favour of an inverted comma suggests a word repeated frequently enough for abbreviation to creep in. In this way, Truckin’ suggests the routine slog of driving. This is not trucking from one place to another, this is truckin’ without end.
We might not be able to reach the end, but perhaps we can take a break from the trip with the Eagles at the Hotel California. This musical hotel has a name which suggests it encompasses the entire state through which you drive, like a visit to Highway 61, where the journey and destination are the same.
This is the contradictory nature of musical travel – offering a Ticket to Ride, which refers both to the journey taken, and the destination, which, according to Paul McCartney was the town of Rhyde on the Isle of Wight. Music is a transport of emotion, the sort of transport that can move people even if they stay in the same place.