Thumbs up: catch songs about hitchhiking

Thumbs up: catch songs about hitchhiking


“Dear Mom, I’ve hitchhiked to San Francisco. Don’t be mad.”
 – Janis Joplin

Where to?

“When I hitchhiked from Buffalo to New York when I was 16 years old, I didn’t bring any food or clothes, I didn’t bring my football trophies or a pair of my girlfriend’s underpants. Instead, I dragged 700 record albums in wooden milk crates. You try hitchhiking with 700 record albums, and then you tell me what bands you love.” – Vincent Gallo, actor and musician

“Hitchhiking, intrinsically, is sexual and dangerous. At the same time I never really felt scared. I was scared that nobody would pick me up and that I’d be waiting by the side of the road for a week.” – John Waters, Carsick

“Kids … When their imagination bids, 
Hitch-hike a thousand miles to find 
The Hesperides that’s on their mind. 
Some Texas where real cowboys seem 
Lost in a movie-cowboy’s dream.”
– W. H. Auden, New Year Letter

“I will hail them, my brothers of the wheel, and pitch them a yarn, of the sort that has been so successful hitherto; and they will give me a lift, of course …” – Mr. Toad, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

“This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

This week, it’s time to give everyone a lift. And while that’s an emotional metaphor, I also mean that literally, because the Song Bar bus is taking us down the dusty road of musical adventure. We’re are setting off on a journey across, well, wherever that road takes us, looking out for outstretched thumbs to see who we might pick up. We have no prejudice or expectation over who they might be, just as long as they need to go somewhere, and ideally they have a good story to tell. We’ve already picked up Janis Joplin, and she’s rolling a massive joint in the back seat. She’s chatting to Vincent Gallo, and he’s very relieved we’ve loaded up all his record crates. Meanwhile John Waters, who hitchhiked around America to write his very amusing memoir, Carsick, is chatting amiably to another great wit, Douglas Adams, who is responsible for one of the funniest and most ironically profound books ever written. And W.H. Auden is dazzling them with more of his poems. It’s already shaping up to be quite a journey.

I hitchhiked quite a bit when I was younger – mainly across the UK, Europe, and Ireland. I had a few mishaps, the odd dodgy driver, an attempted assault and robbery, but mostly very positive experiences of human warmth and generosity. The best place was the island of Mull in Scotland, where all you had to do was stick out your arm and the next car that went by picked me up like a instant chauffeur. Ah! Bonnie Scotland!

But hitchhiking is seen as an undesirable activity these days, due to the obvious dangers, although paradoxically, with smartphones and satnavs, and a far more connected world. you’d imagine it would be much safer. Hitchhiking is a strange meeting of two or more strangers, an encounter that requires trust, but also has a sense of adventure and danger, the driver initially having power over the hitcher who is too impoverished, and therefore vulnerable, to pay for their own travel costs, and yet in the intimate space of a vehicle, the dynamic is finely balanced. It is no wonder that hitchhiking, in real life or fiction, is a fantastic vehicle for any narrative, in books, film and of course, song.

John Waters is a great talker of course, and his celebrity and campness, you’d imagine might have put him in danger on his oddball odyssey. Fear is fuel that can both propel and repel drivers and potential hitchers. “The “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” hitchhiker really made people never want to hitchhike again – the hitcher, the show. Hitchhiking is always vaguely sexual,” he says, “But I really didn’t have any bad hitchhiking experiences. The only bad experiences were standing by the road for 10 hours. I never thought I’d get a ride with a minister’s wife or a coalminer or a Republican elected official. It was all pleasant surprises. The only drag was the waiting.”

Unusual place name …

Unusual place name …

It’s not always easy getting a lift. Racial or other prejudices can indeed cut your chances. John Steinbeck is now on the bus, reading an early passage from The Grapes of Wrath:

The hitch-hiker stood up and looked across through the windows. “Could ya give me a lift, mister?”

The driver looked quickly back at the restaurant for a second. “Didn’t you see the No Riders sticker on the win’shield?”

“Sure—I seen it. But sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.”

Hitchhiking has been going on a long time before the Depression-era America. Here’s Charles Dickens, pulling out a copy of Martin Chuzzlewit, a reading: “My proposal is: To set off walking this afternoon. To stop when we are tired. To get a lift when we can. To walk when we can’t. To do it at once, and do it cheap.

Many authors have hitched for ideas and inspiration, or simply in a spirit of youthful adventure. Did Stephen King get his horror ideas from being on the road? Not exactly. “Hitchhiking around Canada with a buddy after my senior year of college was the closest thing to an adventure I’d ever had, and given the cheerful, helpful nature of most Canadians, it wasn’t much of an adventure.” 

New angle? Actor Jim Carrey, aged 19, tries a new thumbing method before he was famous

New angle? Actor Jim Carrey, aged 19, tries a new thumbing method before he was famous

Getting a lift can’t be easy when you’ve got a large object in tow, but comedian Tony Hawks went around Ireland with a fridge, writing a book about it, appropriately titled Round Ireland with a Fridge. For him though, the tricky part of hitchhiking is less about bringing a fridge, more about the social niceties, judging how friendly or talkative you should be with strangers behind the wheel:

“One of the more tiring aspects of hitchhiking is a need to be sociable and make conversation with whoever is driving you. It would be considered poor form to accept a ride, hop into the passenger seat and then simply to crash out until you reached your destination. How I longed to do just that, but instead I chatted merrily away, energy ebbing from me with each sentence …”

Hitching with a fridge is one thing, but what about a piano, as was done by Serge Oldenburg in 1969, at Cros de Cagnes:

Serge Oldenburg in 1969, at Cros de Cagnes

Serge Oldenburg in 1969, at Cros de Cagnes

Did that strike a chord? Hitchhiking is as much about finding out about other people’s lives. It is a fabulous source of inspiration for creative people of all types. It has been a great education for many famous figures who experienced something that perhaps now, in a modern, nanny-state world of health and safety, is denied to younger people. So to tell us more, some old-timers are gradually thumbing their way onto our bus in repetition of the experiences that shaped them. So next, we stop at a junction to pick up a guy with a banjo. Who is it? Pete Seeger of course.

“When I got out of school, I spent two years just hitchhiking around. Every time I met some old farmer who could play banjo, I got him to teach me a lick or two. Little by little, I put it together,” he says. “I was a teenager in the Depression, and nobody had jobs. So I went out hitchhiking, when I met a man named Woody Guthrie. He was the single biggest part of my education.” And who’s at the next junction but Woody himself. He climbs on board with his dusty guitar case, thanks us for the lift with a tip of that hat, and then tells us stories about how it’s made illegal for many people to hitch these days. “You built that highway, and they can put you in jail for thumbing a ride on it,” he explains, bitterly.

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