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Has anyone else noticed that cross-country travel is a favorite topic of American writers and musicians? Artists in the U.S. especially love to make reference to the U.S. Highway system. We know, that sounds like sort of an obscure thing, but it’s true. Bob Dylan was all about Highway 61, now known as the Blues Highway because it spans a whole trail of hometowns of famous blues musicians. Dylan has also shouted out Highway 51, a parallel highway that runs from New Orleans north.
Dylan is not the only one. Other artists have done songs for Highway 1, Highway 101, Highway 20 (which happens to be the longest highway in the U.S.), Highway 40, Highway 49, Highway 80, and countless lost highways and highways without names. We’ll spare you the comprehensive list, but you get the picture.
When Nat King Cole (real name Nathaniel Adams Coles) was born in Alabama in 1919, no network of U.S. Routes existed. Travel by car could only be attempted on badly maintained roads, with few exceptions (the most famous exception being the Lincoln Highway, which was privately maintained (DOUBLE PARENTHETICAL(!): the Lincoln Highway Association actually saw the U.S. Highways as competition and initially opposed them)). Cole’s father, a Baptist pastor, moved his family North to Chicago as a part of the Great Migration, a massive move of Southern African-Americans into Northern cities during and after World War I. Chicago, a rapidly growing industrial center, promised better employment and marginally less risk of racist violence and discrimination than in the South.
A great thing happened to Chicago during the Great Migration: Jazz music arrived en force, and in the 1920s, a lively and creative jazz scene emerged. Nathaniel Coles developed into a great jazz pianist at a young age, and at 15 he dropped out of school to pursue a music career. He began recording on Decca records in 1936 while still a teenager, and he spent nearly ten years playing piano in bands and as a solo club act.
Somewhere along the way, record executives at Decca noticed that Cole (who had dropped the “s” from his last name and added his nickname, “King”) was an engaging and talented singer. Various people urged him to sing, and in the 1940s he made a gradual transition from jazz hero to pop hit-maker.
“His rich, husky voice and careful enunciation, and the warmth, intimacy, and good humor of his approach to singing, allowed him to succeed with both ballads and novelties such that he scored over 100 pop chart singles and more than two dozen chart albums over a period of 20 years, enough to rank him behind only Sinatra as the most successful pop singer of his generation.” That’s how Nat King Cole’s bio on iTunes sums up his career. In other words, the transition to pop served him well.
Nat King Cole’s numbers might have gone up, but his die-hard fans were just about as ticked off as Bob Dylan’s folk fans were when he went electric. Becoming a pop singer was a deep betrayal, made worse by the fact that Cole was so dearly beloved by the jazz community. But Cole pressed forth, recording universal classics like ”The Christmas Song” (that’s the one that starts “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) and, of course, “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.”
Cole is far from the only big-name artist to record Bobby Troup’s “Route 66,” but his 1946 record was the first studio recording and became the definitive version. Later, everyone from Chuck Berry to Depeche Mode would try their hand—er, voice—at the song.
Among the dozens of new interstate routes constructed in the 1920s, what made U.S. Highway 66 special enough to earn its own song? Well, maybe nothing; the popularity of the song is probably a huge reason why the highway became famous, rather than the other way around. On the other hand, at the time it was built, it was not only one of the longest roads in the world, but the only existing path from the Midwest to the Southwest. It went from one major center of industry and progress to another—Chicago, St. Louis, Albuquerque, and L.A. were among the hottest places to be in the mid-century U.S. The U.S. Highways were a big deal for economic development and industrial growth, and the idea of a whole nation of this size connected by a web of federally run roadways was an exciting novelty. The romance that the highway system took on in the popular imagination is distinctly American.
These days, the Interstate Highway system built in the 1950s and 1960s trumps the U.S. routes, and Route 66 would be considered a slow way to go from place to place. But that legendary path is still a place you can get your kicks, and Nat King Cole is still the classic soundtrack. If you haven’t jumped on that old highway at one point or another, we’d highly recommend you get hip to it. Isn’t that how the kids say it?