It’s evident from these Top 10 Travel Songs that musicians spend plenty of time in transit. They write about the time they spend on planes, trains and automobiles, as well as buses, boats and motorcycles. We’re celebrating the mobile nature of rock 'n' roll with this list -- though it should be made clear that we avoided “life as a band on the road” songs, which might as well be its own genre. Before the train leaves the station, let’s ramble down the river, up the road, across the country and even into Middle Earth with these tunes.
From: ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (1969)
There are plenty of “got to find my woman” songs, but how many singers have to go rescue their girl from Gollum and Sauron? The unexpected journey depicted in the thunderous ‘Ramble On’ takes its inspiration from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien – just like a few other Zeppelin gems. Robert Plant sings that “time has come to be gone” as he sets off to search for his “love so fair.” Watch out for Ring-wraiths, my friend.
‘City of New Orleans’Arlo Guthrie
From: ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ (1972)
The folk-rocking progeny of Woody Guthrie scored a radio hit in1972 with this steady-rolling ditty, one of the all-time great train songs. It was written by Chicago singer-songwriter Steve Goodman about riding the rails from the Windy City down to the Big Easy, rolling past “houses, farms and fields.” As Guthrie hits the sweet refrain – “Good morning, America, how are ya?” – his honeyed voice is laced with exuberance, greeting a country that is both mythic and mundane.
From: ‘Idlewild South’ (1970)
This isn’t merely one of the Top 10 Travel Songs, but also one of the best outlaw tunes ever conceived. Co-written and sung by Gregg Allman, ‘Midnight Rider’ depicts a man on the run, because he’s got few other choices. “The road goes on forever,” he sings and he’s down to his last coin, but this bandit is determined to get away.
From: ‘Lust for Life’ (1977)
Iggy Pop makes us the passenger on Berlin’s S-Bahn rapid transit system, riding through the city at night, gazing upon it while “under glass.” Winding through Berlin, he captures the magical atmosphere of a city late at night, when the people have disappeared and you feel like you’ve got the whole place to yourself. David Bowie produced the track (and all of Pop's ‘Lust for Life’ album) in Germany and helps drone the “la la la” chorus.
From: ‘Book of Dreams’ (1977)
Blues-rocker Paul Pena wrote this tune, appropriated in 1977 by Steve Miller and his band, who had a Top 10 hit with their version. Miller plays the funky guitar riff and sings about his journey on the 707, while being torn between staying at home and leaving the nest. As such, the lyrics are often at cross purposes – contrast “You know I’ve got to be movin’ on” with “Cause it’s here that I’ve got to stay.”
From: ‘Bayou Country’ (1969)
This entry into the Top 10 Travel Songs is so simple, so elemental and so brilliant that it’s difficult to imagine anyone writing it. At this point, ‘Proud Mary’ might as well be ‘She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain’ or ‘Goodnight, Irene’ – a uniquely American song that seemed to manifest itself. Of course, John Fogerty wrote this classic about the workingman’s life on a riverboat coming from New Orleans, taking inspiration from all sorts of places: his discharge from the Army, a Will Rogers line and even Beethoven. Ol’ Ludwig was known to go rollin’ on the Rhine River, wasn’t he?
From: ‘Nebraska’ (1982)
Springsteen’s stark ‘Nebraska’ album is loaded with songs about traveling (over the border, away from the cops, across the plains), but the most dynamic imagery comes in the form of ‘Open All Night.’ On this rockabilly tune, we ride shotgun on one man’s predawn drive along the Jersey turnpike to get back to his girl. It’s all neon lights, gospel stations and refinery tours, and the indelible line, “This New Jersey in the mornin’ like a lunar landscape.” Still waiting to see that quote on a Garden State travel brochure.
From: ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (1975)
In Dylan’s wide-ranging classic, the songwriter’s characters don’t just travel around the country (East Coast, out West, New Orleans), they also travel through time as periods and perspectives shift without warning. Dylan, who altered the song from the first person to third in concert, later commented on the freedom he discovered when writing this way: “You’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little you can’t imagine happening.” Indeed, there’s a restless excitement to this incomprehensible travelogue.
From: ‘Steppenwolf’ (1968)
‘Born to Be Wild’ was a riff-rocking hit in 1968, then featured prominently in ‘Easy Rider’ a year later. Ever since, it’s been impossible to extricate the song from visions of free-roaming bikers, tearing up the highway and eventually landing in New Orleans (which is apparently where all travel songs lead). Although the song – written for Steppenwolf by band associate Mars Bonfire – could just as easily have been about cars, it’s the sense of movement that matters. On the open road, the possibilities are endless.
From: ‘Bookends’ (1968)
This gentle, haunting song lets us tag along on a journey from Saginaw, Mich., through Pittsburgh to New York City, during which two young lovers go looking for America and, perhaps, have an adventure in the process. The lyrics, written by Paul Simon in unrhymed blank verse, follow the travelers from idealism to frustration, from goofy games on a Greyhound bus to “empty and aching” isolation. The journey continues, the relationship unspools and while looking for America, these characters begin to discover themselves.