Route 66 — Cultural History

nationalThe blue line in the map stretching Southwest from Chicago to Oklahoma City and then West to Los Angeles is Route 66. (Map Courtesy USGS) Route 66 is a big part of mid 20th Century cultural history.   This song, for example:  (thanks to Incontroll for the You Tube)

That was (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 by Nat King Cole and his Jazz Trio. Nat King Cole was still playing piano that year. The song was written by Bobby Troup after he had made the “California” trip as a kind of musical journey. Nat King Cole was the first to record it in 1946.  It was a very big hit  and many others recorded it afterwards.

Route 66 was established on November 11, 1926. As the song lyric says , it goes from Chicago to Los Angeles. In addition to the song, there was a popular television series in the 1960’s titled Route 66 using the road as the setting for the stories. Although Route 66 has been officially abandoned, it lives on for stretches  cared for voluntary organizations and in dozens of guide books. I have an older addition of this guide book.

In the 1930’s it served as the escape route for people escaping the terrible drought in the dust bowl states—Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. That story was featured in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Despite that novel having won the Nobel Prize for Literature, supposedly for its “realism,” I thought it was a fraud when I read it at 15 years old. None of the “Okies” I knew were—for want of a better word—peasants. Several social scientists (originally here reprinted here) who studied them found that most of the “Okies” were salesmen, shopkeepers, skilled factory workers, and teachers. Several of my elementary school teachers were from Texas. It took Steinbeck’s “Okies” six months to get to California. It took my mother 5 days on her first site seeing trip and 3 days when she had to report for duty at her wartime job. As Chuck Cecil once said, “When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, most of us Okies were already here.”

But, the cultural influences of the Southwest were very pronounced. If you were traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles on Route 66 in the late 1930’s and early 40’s, and you had a car radio, this is what you would most likely hear on the radio:

Thanks to Sony Music for the You Tube

That was Right or Wrong performed by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys with Tommy Duncan on vocal.  Notice how his horn section sounds like a Mariachi band.  I mention Right or Wrong as one of the songs heard on the car radio in my novel The Catrobat.

I first heard Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys on Don Brown’s Cobweb Corner.

About Richard Rollo

I am a retired Community College Instructor. I taught Political Science 1 American Government for 22 years in Southern California. I am originally from Northern Minnesota. My earliest years were spent in the living quarters of a rural Duluth Winnipeg & Pacific Railway Depot. Then my family joined the great 1950's migration to Southern California where I joined up with fellow baby boomers in overcrowded schools.
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