When it comes to song topics, love is number one, but travel may be a close second. In a gazillion tunes, it seems, someone is hopping on or off a train, boat or plane. (There was even a Dionne Warwick hit called “Trains and Boats and Planes.”) And in many other songs, they’re jumping in their cars or thumbing a ride in someone else’s.
I’ve already compiled two lists of tunes about flying (see “A Playlist for Your Flight” and “Another Playlist for Your Flight”), so this time around I decided to expand the focus to include songs about the kinds of traveling you might do when you come back to Earth. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites:
1. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Isaac Hayes. Glen Campbell’s amiable version of this Jimmy Webb classic is the one everyone knows, but it’s the late Isaac Hayes who really made the song’s protagonist come alive in a monologue-spiced, nearly 19-minute rendition. Before he’s anywhere near Arizona, you know exactly how much he’s hurting.
2. “City of New Orleans,” Steve Goodman. Arlo Guthrie has said he usually doesn’t pay much attention when young songwriters approach him with ideas, but he instinctively decided to make an exception when one young man in a bar said he had a song Guthrie might like. Good thing he did. The young man turned out to be Steve Goodman and his song—about a ride on an Illinois Central train called City of New Orleans—wound up giving Guthrie his only top-40 hit. His version is fine, as are covers by the likes of Willie Nelson and John Denver, but I think Goodman’s original recording is the best.
3. “Waitin’ on a Train,” Jimmie Rodgers. “City of New Orleans” isn’t exactly the only train song out there. There are hundreds—probably thousands. But you won’t find anything more compelling than this melancholy 1928 classic from the “Singing Brakeman,” whose other well-earned nicknames included “The Blue Yodeler” and “The Father of Country Music.” Follow it up with “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home,” by the great folksinger Greg Brown.
4. “America,” Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Simon is at his best in this evocative 1968 tale of a lost soul who hitchhikes from Saginaw, Michigan, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then boards a Greyhound with his lover to go “look for America” and is last seen “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.” Runner-up: the duo’s “Homeward Bound.”
5. “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen. Many of the Boss’s songs use cars as metaphors, and if I weren’t limiting this list to one tune per artist, “Born to Run,” “Stolen Car” and several others would be here as well. As is, I’ll opt for “Thunder Road,” where “the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.” As Springsteen tells his girlfriend: “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.” You get the feeling she won’t say no.
6. “Many a Mile,” Patrick Sky. These days, Sky focuses mostly on building, repairing, playing and writing about Irish bagpipes. But back in the mid-1960s, before he became disillusioned with the music business, he was a leading figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene. His most covered composition from the period is this one, which melds a beautiful melody to lyrics about a traveling man who has “damn near walked this world around.”
7. “Four Strong Winds,” Neil Young. Young calls this number by fellow Canadian Ian Tyson the most beautiful song he’s ever heard, and offhand, I can’t think of any that have it beat. Young’s version on his Heart of Gold concert DVD is as classic as the composition—and as sad. He sings of heading out to Alberta and tells a girlfriend, “If I get there before the snow flies and if things are looking good / You could meet me if I send you down the fare.” But he adds that “the good times are all gone and I’m bound for movin’ on.” You just know he’ll never see her again.
8. “Highway Song,” Aztec Two-Step. Rex Fowler and Neil Shulman, who have been performing together as Aztec Two-Step for more than 40 years, have never achieved large-scale fame. They sure deserve it, though, and there’s no better evidence of that than this wistful, harmonic tale from their eponymous 1972 debut. It’s all about the goodbyes and hellos that go with hitting the road and coming back home.
9. “The Wanderer,” Dion. In 1961, Rick Nelson topped the charts with “Travelin’ Man,” in which he sang about making “a lot of stops all over the world” and bragged that “in every port I owned the heart of at least one lovely girl.” Not to be outdone, Dion responded that same year with “The Wanderer,” in which he sang of roaming from town to town and having lots of girlfriends and announced that “when I find myself fallin’ for some girl, I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world.” It’s classic rock, but don’t believe the lyric: last year, Dion celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary.