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Tuned into Driving Along in Our Automobiles

Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret in a scene from 'Viva Los Vegas'
Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret in a scene from 'Viva Los Vegas'

Mobility -- the need to move on down the road -- is often cited as a critical strand in America's DNA. So it's not surprising that in the automotive age, America's urge to amble is romanticized again and again in popular music and culture.

When the interstate highway bill was signed in 1956, the nation's radios were hopping with the new sound of rock 'n' roll. In the early 1960s, as interstate highways began appear across the nation, the nation's motorized culture really took root and muscle cars and motorbikes became central characters in hit songs.

Jan and Dean wrote an ode to their GTO. When they weren't singing about surfing or girls, the Beach Boys sang about cars, with plenty of gearhead detail. And don't forget classic tunes like "Truckin'" and "Born to be Wild."

In the late 1960s, Joan Didion published Play It As It Lays, her influential novel about California and life among the freeways. In just a decade, the lure of the open road, she wrote, was an essential part of American life.

"To understand what was going on, it is perhaps necessary to have participated in the freeway experience, which is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythms take over."

And it's not just rock 'n' roll -- that open-road rapture is prevalent in country music, too. Country music could scarcely exist without semis, pickups and white line fever.

But while there are many songs celebrating the open road, there are few if any songs about the actual joys of the interstate highway system. Most of the tunes about moving down the road call to mind a nostalgic, Route 66-style two-lane blacktop -- not a highly engineered roadway with controlled access, steel-reinforced overpasses and a highway number divisible by five and preceded by an " I ."

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Steve Proffitt
Steve Proffitt is Senior Producer for Day to Day. In addition to on-air reporting, he’s responsible for a stable of contributing writers, including humorists Brian Unger and Annabelle Gurwitch, and musician and critic David Was.