There are many, many songs of travel to specific locales; maybe I’ll get to some of those places—New York, Paris, Minot, North Dakota—eventually, but right now we’re just concerned with travel in general.
“I’ve Been Everywhere” This song of travel got me thinking about an extroverted uncle who married into our family of relatively reserved folks. For many years, my mothers’ family—her seven sisters and brothers and their kids—gathered every year at a lake for a family reunion. Lots of boating, horseshoes, dominos, and, of course, eating. When Uncle Jerry came along, he introduced several new things to the reunion mix: beer; jokes, which he had a library of that he delivered with verve; and karaoke.
Uncle Jerry had found his calling in karaoke. He’d been a successful salesman, of retractable walls, of all things. He got interested in karaoke at the VFW post (he was a Viet Nam vet), and then got himself a machine. He wasn’t a singer, but he could sell the right types of songs with his flair for performance. And what he truly was exceptional at was hosting. Through his emceeing skills, he built a little empire and was able to drop the whole retractable wall thing. He was The King of Karaoke! He went from the VFW to other clubs to bigger and bigger private parties (and bigger and fancier karaoke machines), able to be buddy and raconteur with any type of audience. And he brought his karaoke machine to our reunions at the lake.
When Uncle Jerry was killed in a car accident a few years ago, it was truly shocking to us all. But he left behind a cadre of protégé karaoke hosts, all hoping to live up to the King.
My favorite of the songs Uncle Jerry sang in his booming bass was the tongue-twisting “I’ve Been Everywhere,” with its string of American towns that made up the verses. It was a pop and country hit for Hank Snow, after he talked the Aussie songwriter into replacing Australian cities with North American ones. I recall hearing it on café jukeboxes when I was a kid, when I desperately tried to keep up with the torrent of towns named. Johnny Cash had the voice of experience that perfectly suited this song, but then his version was used in a TV commercial.
“Wandering” I think a lot of James Taylor’s version of this traditional folk song from his 1975 album Gorilla. I’m not always too crazy about the Sweet Baby James treatment, particularly of soul and R&B hits, which he makes a bit too bland and polite and, yes, white. On Gorilla, for example, is his hit cover of “How Sweet It Is.” Probably my least favorite song on the album. But there’s a plain-spoken poignancy about James Taylor’s delivery on “Wandering” that adds a lot of heart to the resigned, first-person tale of the drifter who has wandered “from New York City to the Golden Gate.” It has a Woody Guthrie sense about it. He can’t find a place for himself in the world, geographically, socially, philosophically. And Sweet Baby James really sounds like he’s feeling it, in his dry-as-a-bone North Carolina voice and in his equally crisp acoustic-guitar picking.
“Trav’lin’ Light” This is a song many singers love, so much so that a couple have named albums after it. Anita O’Day’s specialty was her daring and dazzling phrasing through lightning-fast passages. But she also had a unique softer side, and she recorded a nice, restrained “Trav’lin’ Light” in 1961. Her Trav’lin’ Light album was a tribute to Billie Holiday, who had had her wonderful way with the song a couple of decades earlier. About 65 years after Billie’s hit, Queen Latifah called her 2007 collection of ballads and jazz and blues standards Trav’lin’ Light, and her version of the song is quite sultry.
Jimmy Rushing, Mr. 5-by-5, did a fine version of the song as well. (No jokes, please, about the rotund Mr. Rushing traveling light.) The song’s lyrics, by Johnny Mercer, are actually not about travel at all but about lost, missed love.
“Traveling Miles” The album Traveling Miles is a tribute to Miles Davis recorded by Cassandra Wilson in 1999. It’s got songs by Miles, about Miles, and associated with Miles. His “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” a winding, eerie number from his Bitches Brew album, is given lyrics by Wilson and retitled “Run the Voodoo Down.” She sings that “when it comes to traveling” she’ll “run the voodoo down.” The song “Traveling Miles,” with lyrics as well as music by Cassandra Wilson, is meditative. “Traveling miles / Crossing time / Shifting style / Traveling miles…and miles.” The players complement and highlight Wilson’s sultry, dark voice throughout the album, especially Stefon Harris, on vibraphone for Miles Davis and Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps” and Wayne Shorter’s “Never Broken.”
“Caravan” Juan Tizol, while a trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, wrote two classics that became staples of Ellington’s band and many others. “Perdido” is a catchy tune, but “Caravan,” from 1936, evokes the mystery and allure of travel about as well as any popular song.
Hejira “Hejira” is defined as a journey from something undesirable. Restless travel is the theme of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album, from the title song to “Refuge of the Road” and “Blue Hotel Room” and others. She wrote the songs while on the road.
Honorable Mentions: Back when all my friends were converting from Elvis fans to Ricky Nelson fans (before becoming Beatlemaniacs), I stayed true to The King. I never got into Ricky. “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” However, my friend Rick does a nice version of “Travelin’ Man” that gives me an appreciation for the lanky heartthrob.
Other travel songs worthy of note: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band”; Billy Wayne Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On,” one of the first songs I ever learned on guitar (right after “Tom Dooley”); “Ease on Down the Road,” from The Wiz; “Where Can I Go without You?” by Peggy Lee