Route 66, Oklahoma

Route 66 by Nat King Cole

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If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way
The highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66! Read full Lyrics
Route 66, the historic route that stretched from Los Angeles to Chicago, was called "The Mother road, the road of light" in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's portrait of a family's fight through the devastating Great Depression, published in 1939. For families such as the one described in the novel, this road was initially a major escape route for those caught in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, where immense dust storms ravaged farm land, displacing hundreds of thousands of "Okies." Steinbeck spoke of a road packed from horizon to horizon with the cars and wagons of those trying to escape west towards Chicago. Unfortunately, for those that made it all the way there, the Great Depression had taken hold in the "promised land," and life was little better. This Pulitzer Prize winning depiction has been considered by scholars to be the birth of Route 66 as a cultural icon.

Route 66 in New MexicoRoute 66 in New Mexico
With this side of the road's history in view, it's difficult to relate to the cheerful hit "Route 66," composed not long after - in 1946 - by songwriter Bobby Troup. This hit, which soon became a popular standard, was initially made famous by the Nat King Cole Trio. In later years the song has enjoyed many interpretations, from Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones' covers, to Depeche Mode's horrifying industrial overhaul of 1984, which also featured on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, which was filmed along this route. This process of mutation came back to its roots in 2006 with John Mayer's fairly conventional version, appearing on the soundtrack to the Pixar film Cars, and which won Mayer a Grammy for best solo rock performance.

It seems that songwriter Troup was happy to leave social commentary to folks like Steinbeck, and simply recreate the joy of an Easy Rider-type cross-country jaunt. In fact, about a third of that cult flick about the freedom of the open road was filmed on the famous road, as well. Although, when Troup wrote "Get your kicks on Route 66," we doubt he meant the sort of kicks the boys from Easy Rider were getting…

End of the trail: Route 66 in Santa MonicaEnd of the trail: Route 66 in Santa Monica
In a similar vein, writer Jack Kerouak's seminal novel On the Road, another restless drug and alcohol-fueled escapade in search of jazz-poetry and freedom, is purported to have Route 66 as its main passage throughout the novel. Although this road is not directly mentioned in the book, the association in popular culture between this Beat Generation textbook and the highway was so strong that by the mid 1960s Kerouak was considering suing the 1960s CBS series Route 66 for plagiarism of the novel's central characters and storyline.

In present culture, the route has not officially existed since 1985, when it was removed from the United States Highway System register. Steinbeck's original association with Route 66 has mutated into an even darker one; the historic road is presently thought of less as a pathway to redemption, and more as a "highway to hell." Blame Natural Born Killers if you will, in which Mickey and Mallory Knox go on a murderous rampage along this famous highway; or blame the episode of the series Supernatural, entitled "Highway to Hell: Route 66," for spreading false song associations (the AC/DC song by that title actually refers to Canning Highway in Australia). All I know is that Route 66 is one digit away from the "mark of the beast," and that's enough to send most people's thinking in the wrong direction.

Douglas MacCutcheon
August 9, 2015
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