Key to the Highway (Hitchhiking)

I’m guessing I first heard this done by Big Bill Broonzy on The Country Blues anthology Sam Charters produced for Folkways in 1959, but the version that stuck in my head was by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, on the first Blues at Newport LP, the same record that turned me on to Dave Van Ronk. McGhee credited it to Broonzy, calling him “one of the finest writers and blues singers that I know,” and I’d concur.

Whenever I listen to McGhee’s playing, I realize how much he influenced my understanding of blues accompaniment, and also how much I loved his singing. I only saw him a couple of times, once with Terry and later with his own small group, and spent a fascinating afternoon with him at his home in Oakland, interviewing him about Josh White and looking through the scrapbook he’d kept since the 1940s, full of clips about his career.

I’ve played this pretty regularly through the years as a set-closer, because it combines a nice upbeat feel with a lyric about moving on. At this remove I don’t remember how many of the verses I picked up from McGhee, Broonzy, or Jazz Gillum’s versions, and how many I grabbed from other sources or added on my own. Obviously the reference to Interstate 80 was mine, since that was my regular route across country — I hitched back and forth along it a half-dozen times, and when I started touring it was my route west, before I looped north and came back on 94 and 90. Which said, I’m not sure why I picked it instead of 90, since every trip out of Cambridge started at the entrance ramp to the Mass Turnpike, whether I was heading west or just down to New York — especially considering that my next verse is about going down south. I guess 80 just sounded better to me.

Either way, I never sang a blues that was closer to my own feelings. From my late teens through my early thirties I spent most of my time on the road, traveling north and south with the weather and east and west as the rides took me, on both sides of the Atlantic and out to Asia and Africa, and  the highway felt like home — which sounds like a pretentious cliche, but it was true. When I hit the road and stuck out my thumb, an automatic smile would spread across my face because, whatever happened, I was where I belonged. There were some long waits and cold nights, but the feeling of freedom was incredible. When I started driving coast to coast in the 1980s, I often felt trapped in my car, no longer open to the infinite possibilities of the next ride or to just getting out and walking over that mountain, unburdened by a big hunk of motorized metal. I enjoyed the driving as well, especially when I was touring through new clubs in strange towns, but it never felt as liberating as hitchhiking, or as interesting.

The last time I hitched across the US was in 2006, doing the book tour for Riding with Strangers, a meditation on the pleasures of hitchhiking, the dangers of cutting ourselves off from our fellow humans, and the happenstances of my previous trip across, in 2004. I did those more recent trips because I’ve found that a lot of people think hitchhiking is a vanished custom from safer times — though the truth is that crime is lower now than it was back in any fabled hippie heyday, and the rides come easier than ever.

A lot of people don’t believe me when I say that, so every ten years or so I have to do another trip to check if I’ve finally lost touch with reality — as opposed to giving in to the naysayers’ widespread but misplaced paranoia. There are plenty of reasons to be paranoid right now, of course, but they aren’t related to hitchhiking, which tends to teach you how decent other people are, including people who are very different from you and have strange politics and social views.

Which strikes me as a particularly relevant insight right now, and means I’m overdue for another trip…