This is the 2nd installment of our ever-so-often series on Songs About Travel and Far-off Places.
Healthy, free, the world before me
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
– Walt Whitman
The thrill of exploration, the promise of something new. When everyday is filled with this sort of perspective, it gives us reasons to wake up in the morning and make every day count. Perhaps that’s why there are so many songs about the promise of the open road and the shining potential of what lies just beyond the horizon. There’s so much out there to be discovered. You just have to get moving and be open to whatever comes. Even the most distant milestones and goals can be made all the more attainable by the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and taking your first steps in their direction.
All that potential, all that promise– all that traveling– can also take its toll on even the most hardy of explorers. We may get too comfortable with a routine, lose track of the spark that set us out on the path to begin with, or maybe we’re blown off course by forces out of our control. But the potential for adventure and discovery is always there. It just might require a different approach– a different route– to find it.
These songs speak to the promise of new discovery that open roads– and open minds– inspire us to believe in.
1. Bruce Springsteen – Thunder Road
No song rivals this one in terms of brilliance and gusto– the sound of joy uninhibited. Such promise… such potential… It’s a “do you remember when we were wild and free” moment that’s running on a super-charged, turbo engine of love and burning, yearning desire. “These two lanes will take us anywhere.” All that power– all that potential– encapsulated in the long, emphatic delivery of that final word: “Anywhere.” Springsteen’s signature vibrato practically shivers with nervous excitement and anticipation of a man ready to take on whatever comes his way.
It’s the soundtrack starter to any James-Dean-esque drag racing scene. A start your engines moment, and feel those lions purr underfoot. Look out at the road as far as the eye can see and start dreaming.
2. Elton John – Tiny Dancer
Dial back the pulse pounding, sweat inducing pace and a massage in a little more dreamy, misty remembrance of those bygone days and you get this Elton John classic. A tender ode to a love that once was and frenzied, frantic setting that made that made it all possible– out there on the wide open road. It’s a mad world out there, filled with some crazy, zany characters, John sings. People trying to sell you everything including those things that can’t be measured like businessmen selling love or “Jesus freaks” selling God and salvation. They promise quick fixes and cure-alls but are then gone as quickly as they’ve arrived and the problems still remain.
The only sure refuge, John sings, is to put your trust in the ones who really love you– the ones who will always be there. “Count the headlights on the highway / You’ve had a busy day today…” Let me take the lead for now, and lay back in the comfort of this trusty, rusty, and warm old jalopy. It’s heading on to somewhere fresh and new, on a course for somewhere, moving south by south-wherever. The chance for a new start is there just over the horizon so long as we’re together.
3. James Taylor – Riding on a Railroad
For all the positivity and promise that time on the open road affords, some days are just tough no matter where you are. Those days where time seems to fly by even as you feel it’s slogging along and that you’ve just been sitting in place for hours on end; those days you think about how much time you spend promoting other people’s visions and wish you had more time to spend on the things you care about; those days you aspire to your pinnacle best but simply end up chipping at the weeds below. This is the song for those days.
It’s the soliloquy of a man reflecting on his lot and wondering how it got this way. What happens when you’ve worked hard all your life only to realize that you’ve just been playing a supporting role to someone else’s succes “singing someone else’s song” (and that the higher power you always believed in might just be another with “chains upon his hands”– a mere mortal passenger in this life just like you)?
That’s what this song’s all about, and it says it all in just over two and a half minutes.
Some days are like that. But even as your beliefs may feel shaken or rattled to the core– that life’s no simple dichotomy of black and white, fair and unfair, or right or wrong– the best thing you can do is hold on tight, “sing along,” and believe in yourself to get through. You’ll get there. One trip at a time.
4. U2 – Angel of Harlem
Other times there’s a certain comfort derived from those tried and true melodies. Songs like the one remembered that’s exulted and celebrated here. These weary travelers could just as easily have been on another routine trip to New York, but it wasn’t. Because of this song. It’s a jubilant exhalation of finding security and contentment that can shine its way through any gloom and withstand all earthly elements and the test of time weather it’s a “cold and wet December day” or an ability to “see the truth behind the lies.” And as the song builds towards its zenith, it’s clear that like finding “salvation in the blues,” hope and joy can be found anywhere. Anywhere.
5. Paul Simon – Under African Skies
When the situations aren’t so rosy and bright, when we are compelled to get up and go by those aforementioned outside factors, this song reminds us that we never need feel alone in our situations. Our story– our song– is inextricably linked to the ones who have come before, connecting us all as part of that great wide, wandering world. “This is the story of how we begin to remember” and this is an appreciation to the power of music as both constant companion to us as we are now as well as the link to our history and place in time.