Henningsen: Road Music

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(HOST)  As the summer road trip season gets under way, historian and commentator Vic Henningsen considers some of the technology meant to make long drives more enjoyable. He wonders if it really does.

(HENNINGSEN) Recently I learned how to connect an iPod to my car’s speakers and travel cocooned in music entirely of my own choosing.   What bliss!

On the other hand, what a shame.  Even when you put it on "shuffle" it’s predictable – you know what’s coming sooner or later.  Cruising America’s roadways used to involve dealing with other people’s music and only occasionally – serendipitously – encountering something you really cared about.   I suspect I’m not the only one who, hearing the opening bars of certain songs, instantly finds himself in an earlier time and place. Just a bit of "Stairway to Heaven" and I’m back driving into a glorious January sunset, nearing the Grand Canyon.  Some quirk of brain chemistry fused the music to the moment and they’ve stayed together ever since.  Elton John and Kiki Dee launching into "Don’t Go Breaking My Heart", brings back a torrid August afternoon when, stuck in traffic in Omaha, I heard that darn song at least seven times an hour.  I’ve hated it ever since, and Omaha too.

Those of us who, in our youth, crisscrossed the continent "in search of America", as Simon and Garfunkel put it, will remember the listening challenges of the wide-open spaces.  

Let’s begin with an old car with lots of rattles and no air-conditioning, which meant if you’re traveling in the summer through, say, Utah, you had the windows and vents wide open.  So the radio had to be cranked to top volume – but for what?   Twirling the dial, you got an unpredictable mélange of crop reports, local news, weather, evangelists, sports call-in shows, and conservative zealots like Paul Harvey. Local AM stations – forget FM – played to local tastes, mostly country and western, sometimes classic pop.  That usually meant hits from the ’50’s. Remember them?  I didn’t either.
Still, we listened, hoping against hope that sooner or later we’d get something we actually wanted to hear.  The alternative was the sound of the wind and the car, breathing alkali dust, and contemplating how hot it was and how many more hours it would take to get to Nevada.

But every so often the magic would happen and something totally unexpected, but totally good, would come on: something with a beat; something that lifted your heart and revived your spirit – Kim Carnes with "Bette Davis Eyes" or Huey Lewis and "Power of Love" – we each have our favorites.   For a moment, the Great Salt Desert didn’t look so fearsome, and maybe your trip and your life had a purpose after all.   How many of us remember – all these years later – the rush that came with those moments of serendipity?

I’m getting used to gadgets that take the musical unpredictability out of long road trips, but I’m still a little wistful about how it used to be.   You should get Van Halen the old-fashioned way – you should earn it.

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