On the road again and again and again

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 12:02pm

Bob Dylan is an Americana classic

Bob Dylan is an Americana classic Buy this photo
Columbia Records

When I’m going on a road trip with friends, one of the first things we sort out after piling into the car is who’s going to get the first turn on the aux cord. I know this isn’t uncommon; the concept of being handed the aux cord has become so universal that it’s given way to a song called “Aux Cord,” several playlists with aux-related titles and, predictably, a score of relevant memes. This especially makes sense in the context of car trips, because music for a while now has been tied to notions of travel, adventure and freedom.

Could this be why there are so many well-known songs called “On the Road Again”?

It’s true. The adventure-anxious “On the Road Again” track is a mysterious torch that has been handed down throughout history by such high-profile artists as Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and the Memphis Jug Band. Upon first glance, these songs don’t seem entirely related, apart from the shared title. But it’s a telling title, and it reveals an important commonality that these artists share even across different genres — an appreciation for music as the spirit of the traveler.

In order to make sense of this, let’s go back to the beginning. The seminal “On the Road Again” was the version by the Memphis Jug Band, which was recorded in 1928. Characteristic of the Memphis Jug Band, the sound resembles acoustic blues mixed with early folk. Nas recorded a cover of the song last year as a part of the roots-focused “American Epic” TV series, as well as an interview in which he discussed the impact that songs like “On the Road Again” had on the influence of hip hop.

In both versions, the song relates the plight of a man whose lover keeps cheating on him with other men. There’s nothing fun about being cheated on in real life, but the song itself is non-negotiable fun, largely due to its keeping focus on the carefree adventures of the cheating woman herself. The original recording comes across at times like a shouted exchange between the lead singer and the rest of the band, with the help of a characteristically wide variety of instruments and an unshakable melody. By the time the chorus hits with the lyrics, “She’s on the road again, just as sure as you’re born / Lord, a natural-born Eastman on the road again,” it’s practically impossible not to sing along.

The next notable “On the Road Again” came in 1965 from a different folk figurehead, Bob Dylan. The narrator sings about a home that he finds distasteful, with “fistfights in the kitchen” and “a hole where my stomach disappeared,” and expresses his disbelief that anybody would ever expect him to stay there: “You ask why I don’t live here / Honey, how come you don’t move?” It’s descriptive, accusatory and deliciously spiteful. The song itself doesn’t actually even use the phrase “on the road again,” but it’s clear from the disdainful lyrics what the title phrase is referring to: The narrator is abandoning a lifestyle and a group of people he dislikes, back on the road to try to find something better.

Five years later, Canned Heat released their take on the phrase with a track of softcore, paranoid rock. The 1970 “On the Road Again,” which Slackwax covered in 2012, is full of bluesy repetitions: “But I ain’t going down that long, old lonesome road all by myself / But I ain’t going down that long, old lonesome road all by myself / I can’t carry you, baby, gonna carry somebody else.” Like Dylan’s version, it’s a song about getting away from one’s problems, mournful in the style of many blues songs but also tingling with a kind of dark optimism.

Ten years after that, Willie Nelson released perhaps the best-known “On the Road Again,” a carousing country rock song full of all-too-classic road trip images, like “makin’ music with my friends” and “goin’ places that I’ve never been.” It’s free-spirited, both in its lyrics and in its merry personality, and it’s one of those songs you can imagine a parent choosing as the first track on a mixtape just before setting out on some early childhood road trip. One of the intriguing things about it is the group aspect. When Nelson sings, “Our way is on the road again,” you feel like you’re included in the “our” — like you’re one of a group of people whose way is to keep going, always exploring, always seeking out someplace new and better.

The most recent major “On the Road Again” is from 2015: a weird, electronic psytrance instrumental from Israeli duo Infected Mushroom. However, I’m going to close out this article with a slightly older iteration: 2005’s “On the Road Again” from hip-hop artist Sheek Louch. It’s a track full of blistering confidence, from boasts about the artist himself to comparisons between himself and other rappers (“I got a thousand songs like ’Pac and them”). Superficially, the sound itself is distinct from some of the other songs I’ve listed, in the way that they’re distinct from each other — for instance, you might not find Infected Mushroom and Bob Dylan on the same playlist, or the Memphis Jug Band and Canned Heat, unless it was a playlist (like the one I made the other day) entitled “Songs Called ‘On The Road Again.’”

But when you get right down to it, Sheek’s version, just like Nelson’s and Dylan’s, is a song about personal progress, a song that says “full steam ahead.” He sings, “Anyway, back to the drawin’ board / I’m independent now, whoever with me, all aboard.” He visits and revisits a chorus that proclaims, “I’ve got my money, my passport, my gun is loaded,” and promises us, “A lot of shit about to change.” I’m willing to bet that if you’re handed the aux cord, whether you start blasting Sheek Louch or Willie Nelson, you’re doing it for similar reasons: You’re hitting the road, and you’re ready to feel good about it, and about yourself.

Music has always been one of the primary languages of transition, whether it’s between physical or geographical places (i.e. road tripping) or between one state of mind and another. And sure, maybe this is taking the whole “On the Road Again” thing a little too deep. After all, I don’t really think most of these artists were echoing one another on purpose. But in a way, that makes the common thread between them even stronger, because maybe we keep returning to roads and cars and trains for a reason. Maybe this is what music means to us, or at least a part of it. It’s about lamenting what you’ve lost — an unreliable lover, an unhealthy household, a company stolen away or gone sour — and then saying, “Well, back to it,” after everything. It’s about getting away from your problems while also heading toward something new, something for now only sensed — like following the length of a thread in a darkened room, or driving down a highway in no direction at all.