Musical Milestone 004: Car-Tunes
If it's true that we sing about the things we love, we sure must love cars. Songs about the automobile go back just about as far as the horseless carriage itself. The 1950's are known as the "Golden Age of the Automobile," but songs about cars go all the way back to the turn of the 20th century. It didn't take long for us to identify with the car we drove. Sure, expensive touring cars were a status symbol, but even the humble Model T became a "member of the family."
Car-tunes go back to the earliest days of recording technology. General Motors purchased Oldsmobile in 1908. In 1909, Billy Murray recorded a song that we still know today. Give a listen to "In My Merry Oldsmobile."
The Ford was a popular make to sing about because it was so affordable and accessible. "You Can't Afford to Marry If You Can't Afford a Ford" by Jack Frost from 1915, tells the tale of Percy and Mary. She says she won't marry a man without a machine. Keep in mind that by 1915, Model T's sold for about $350 which is just under $8,000 in today's dollars.
We'll linger in Ford country for one more car-tune recorded in 1915. It's another by Billy Murray--who wasn't necessarily married to that Oldsmobile. Listen to "The Little Ford Rambled Right Along," and you'll get a feel for how folks felt about their "everyman's car."
We had other things to think and sing about in the 1930's--and that goes for the 40's as well--but after WWII, we stretched out a bit and took to the road in a big way. We developed the subdivision, which meant that to get to the city, you drove. Roadside attractions, diners, the motel, and the sheer joy of simply taking a Sunday drive made the highway part of our extended back yards.
In the 50's rock and roll was being developed out of the melding of country western, rockabilly, and rhythm and blues. That left room for what we call novelty songs. It didn't matter too much what style the song was in if it was funny with some type of message that teens in love with cars could relate to. "Hot Rod Race" by Ramblin' Jimmie Dolan from 1951 is a good example. It hit all the buttons and had wide appeal in all camps.
There's that Ford again! But what about Chevy? Chevy ranks with Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Jeep, Dodge and Ford as one of the most sung about cars of all time. One of the most popular songs about the Chevy was actually a commercial done by Dinah Shore in the 50's, "See The U.S.A. In Your Chevrolet."
So, we fell in love with the automobile right from the start, and the 50's decade was the Golden Age of the Automobile. But the golden age for songs about cars has to be the 60's.
Sure, most songs were about girls, but lots of them were in cars, sometimes with tragic results. Think of Mark Denning's "Teen Angel" from 1960. And tragedy struck hard in J. Frank Wilson's poignant 1964 classic "Last Kiss."
But let's burn some rubber, leave the tragic behind, and get behind the wheel of Charlie Ryan's "Hot Rod Lincoln." Charlie Ryan was a country/rockabilly artist who toured with top country acts like Johnny Horton and Jim Reeves. His "Hot Rod Lincoln" was a hit on both country and rock charts--a good example of songs that bridge the style gap mentioned earlier. (Notice the horn played by the steel guitar.) It also bridged the generation gap with remakes by Johnny Bond, aimed strictly at the country music audience, and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen's remake done in 1971, the most successful version. (No steel guitar on this one.)
Well, we've run out of change for the meter--and the jukebox--so we'll leave you with a car-tune that bridges every gap imaginable. Johnny Cash's song about his psycho-billy Cadillac, "One Piece At A Time." Written by Wayne Kemp, it's a song about a car that didn't really exist; that is, until, the record company found Bruce Fitzpatrick, who owned a salvage yard in Nashville. Bruce built the car based on the lyrics and it was put in a place of prominence at the House Of Cash Museum.
I said we'd leave the tragic behind but when the museum closed, Bruce Fitzpatrick towed that psycho-billy Cadillac back to his salvage yard and crushed it. And we were crushed.